They’re everywhere

Mark-Sherman SQUAREMy wife and I went to a wedding this past weekend at a beautiful resort in western Massachusetts. We had parked our car and were walking toward the main entrance of the place when a guy, driving too fast, came around a curve and parked just ahead of us. We kept walking, and he was soon walking behind us.

I heard the sound of him vigorously clearing his throat, and I knew what was coming. And sure enough, I soon heard him spit onto the ground whatever it was he had coughed up.

I turned to my wife and said, quietly, “That’s it. That’s two behaviors in two minutes, and as far as I’m concerned this guy has proven himself to be a you-know-what.”


And we all do know what, though it’s a word I’m not going to write out in full. The guy was an a-hole.

Of course, I couldn’t be absolutely sure. There is something called the fundamental attribution error, which says that when we evaluate someone’s behavior we tend to attribute it primarily to their personalities rather than to the situation. So in the case of this guy, maybe he almost never speeds around curves where pedestrians are walking; he was simply excessively worried that he’d be late for something very important (thank God, he wasn’t the groom). And maybe he ordinarily never spits, but whatever was going on in his upper respiratory system was just a bit overwhelming.

But fundamental attribution error or not, there are plenty of a-holes in this world. In fact, I just saw that a book has recently been reprinted in paperback, titled A-holes: A Theory. (Incidentally, the word is totally spelled out in the title.) The author is Aaron James, who is a philosophy professor at the University of California at Irvine.

Not to be resentful, but 30 years ago a colleague and I wrote a proposal for a humorous book to be titled The One-Minute A-hole: A Field Guide and Survival Manual. We were not successful in finding an agent, though I don’t think we sent our proposal to very many. Perhaps we were discouraged by one who wrote, “We just don’t think we’re the right agency to handle THE ONE MINUTE A-HOLE. It’s just a little too north of outrageous for us.”

Why didn’t we keep going?! North of outrageous? That could have been an ad blurb for the book.

What is it that characterizes an a-hole? I think that more than anything else it is an insensitivity to the feelings of other people; it’s a kind of forgetting that we live in a world where we coexist with others and that what we do and say affects them. I haven’t read any of the growing academic literature on the phenomenon, but we all know one when we meet one.

Sometimes, all it takes is one sentence to establish a high likelihood of a-holery. For example, I once heard a conversation at an elevator where a man asked a woman if she had any children.

“We have one,” was the reply.

“One?” said the guy. “You can’t have just one!”

In another book on the topic, The Ascent of the A-Word, UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues that it has become the go-to word when describing people we’d just as soon stay far away from. Sure, over history we’ve always had words for people who are annoying, insensitive or inconsiderate, but somehow when it comes to put-downs nothing seems to beat the gastrointestinal tract. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I can’t stand the guy. He’s a real lung!”?

I guess it’s time for me to talk with my co-author about trying again with our book. After all, not only did we write about the concept using analyses that only a couple of psychologists could use, we also discussed how you could differentiate a-holes from other unsavory types, such as jerks and Nazis. In today’s world, with its more than seven billion people, even if only a tenth of one percent of them are a-holes (and that’s a conservative estimate), that’s still more than seven million. More than seven million people any of whom might say to you, in whatever language he speaks (and yes, it appears that a-holery is far more common in men than in women), “You look so much older and fatter than since the last time I last saw you. You really should be taking better care of yourself. Look at me. I’m eating right and working out every day.”

At that point, you could certainly say, “Yeah, I can see that. But, man, you’re still such an a-hole!”