Have you recently had friends, co-workers, or strangers suddenly get really annoyed at you for what seemed like no reason at all? Maybe you told yourself that they were overreacting or being too sensitive, or that they had no right to be angry when you clearly didn’t mean to do whatever you did (and in fact aren’t even sure what it was). If you’re a socially inept type like plenty of other people, the chances are you’ve had this happen within the last month.
Psychologist David Wong blieves that there are clear reasons for this kind of behaviour. The answer to “Why is everyone suddenly mad at me?“ is usually one of the following.
5. It’s not what you said, it’s what you didn’t say
For those of us who aren’t great with people, we figure that silence is always the safest bet. If you’re an introvert, you spend so much of your time wishing that other people would just shut up that you figure you’re doing everyone a favor. So, you run into a co-worker at the mall and think it’s better to pass by in silence than do an awkward stop-and-chat that you’d probably screw up anyway.
Then, after you pass by this person, you hear them in the aisle behind you mutter, ”Idiot.”
- So what’s the problem?
This is literally the most frequent social mistake I see in my day to day. You didn’t respond to the party invitation. You didn’t reply to their funny text with a smiley. You didn’t wish them a happy birthday. Now they’re bitter and you’re confused because, well, who would ever assume that silence is an insult?
Lots of people. In fact, to certain personality types, not speaking is the most bitter insult possible.
If you’re confused, think of it this way: If you apply for a job, which is worse — a rejection letter, or no reply at all? The former is bad, but the latter is dismissive, and that’s a thousand times worse. (Note: By far the angriest reaction I get to hate mail is when I don’t reply at all.) That’s how some people take your failure to speak to them — like you didn’t even open their resume before tossing it in the trash.
See, there is an old saying: Hate is not the opposite of love. Apathy is. For many people, you’d be better off telling them to get lost, because at least then you’re acknowledging that they matter.
- So keep in mind…
This is about power. Everything is.
The offended parties are assuming that you think you’re so high and mighty that they don’t even rate a response, and that your silence is a kind of power play intended to let them know that. And if you think it’s weird that anyone would interpret a casual everyday interaction as a power play, well, hang on to your ass, because you’re about to discover something incredibly important about the world.
4. You accidentally asserted power over them
Let’s take a really common situation: at the weekend you went on a date, and when you took her home your car broke down and you had to call out a highway technician. You had to pay for the repairs, around $200, but the good part was that your date didn’t ditch you and even spent the night with you.
So you’re at work the following Monday and you’re telling your story to the guy in the next cubicle, because why not? It’s a funny story. But for some reason, the guy starts avoiding you after that. And no, it’s not because he was disgusted by the story — he tells worse stuff every day.
- So what’s the problem?
ou just asserted your power over him. You didn’t do it on purpose. But you did it anyway, and it’s the sort of thing we accidentally do all the time.
In this particular example, you told a story that involved A) you having sex, B) doing it in a car, and C) an expensive bill. Meanwhile, the guy you told the story to is a single dad who A) hasn’t had sex in three years, B) can’t afford a car, and C) can’t waste $200 on drunken mistakes because he has a kid.
So in his eyes, you’re like that douchebag at your high school reunion who desperately tries to wedge a dozen stealth boasts into the conversation. That guy is a douchebag because he’s clearly trying to remind you that he is in a higher social and economic position than you — he has the kind of “problems“ you would kill to have. He is, in other words, trying to assert his power over you. That’s why we hate people like him.
- So keep in mind…
This unspoken power dynamic is always at play, whether you acknowledge it or not. In any conversation between two people, one person is going to be more successful than the other, or more attractive, or smarter, or physically stronger, etc. — there are all of these invisible ”ranks“ where one of you has risen over the other on society’s ladder. Both of you will be aware of them, but neither of you is allowed to mention them. A good example is this video where everyone at the table is pretending to be equals, but under every word is the unspoken understanding that it would take the physically superior Dan about 45 seconds to incapacitate the other three, if he chose to:
For many of us who are insecure about our “rank,” the subject is basically an open wound. So not only must the subject be avoided, but courtesy demands that the higher person has to pretend to be the lower. So, this leads to the absurd situation where you can be talking to the dude who won the Nobel Prize in astrophysics, but the second he looks at you and says, ”I’m smarter than you,“ you will hate him for life — even though both of you know it’s true. The boss who acts like your buddy and phrases his or her assignments as requests (”Hey, can you get that report over to accounts by the end of the day?“) is cool, while the boss who says, “Do what I say because I’m the boss and you’re just a minimum wage peon” is an asshole … even though nothing changed other than the phrasing.
This bizarre charade seems to go double for women — this is why pretty female comedians like Tina Fey pretend to be ugly and why Jennifer Lawrence has to make constant jokes about how gross and ugly she is, just minutes after posing for yet another magazine cover.
The trouble with us less-than-social types is that we assume we’re never the person in power, in any situation. That’s why it’s so easy for us to fall into this — if you were never one of the cool kids, you assume that everyone is confident but you, that they don’t have these open wounds you can accidentally touch. So, you freely tell a story about what a bitch your mom is being, and all the other guy can think is, “Really? Mine died of cancer a year ago.“
But the thing you have to remember — and this really goes for anything on this list — is that the fact that it was accidental really means nothing. Any interaction that results in other people feeling worse about themselves will still count against you in your ”Why I don’t like talking to this person” score. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just explaining why they don’t invite you to parties anymore.
3. They think you owe them
Have you ever broken up with somebody and had them bafflingly claim, “I can’t believe you would just leave me like that! After everything I’ve done for you!”
Or did you once refuse to do a favor for somebody for what seemed like a good reason (say, you couldn’t help them move because you had work that day), only to see them get really, really pissed off? Almost to the point that they’re acting like you were paid for the work in advance and then didn’t follow through? Like they thought you owed it to them?
Or maybe the other person has suddenly stopped speaking to you, making it clear that you’ve wronged them somehow and thus “owe“ them an apology or some other form of restitution. This may even cause you to think they should apologize to you for overreacting, creating a stalemate that lasts until the day one of you refuses to attend the other’s funeral.
- So what’s the problem?
There’s a really good chance that the last person who got annoyed with you for seemingly no reason at all did it because you failed to pay a debt you didn’t even know you owed. There’s this weird thing where in most relationships, and maybe in every relationship at one point or another, both parties think the other side is in debt to them.
Most bad marriages work that way. The wife thinks, ”This guy was a lonely mess before I came along, who knows where he’d be if it wasn’t for me rescuing him! Probably dead!“ Meanwhile, the guy thinks, “I’m the breadwinner, I gave her this nice house, if not for me she could have wound up with some scumbag who beats her! Probably to death!” Both of them think they’re the martyr in the relationship, selflessly sacrificing while the other does nothing but take. Each is shocked and pissed off when they find out that the other person is working from a different balance sheet.
Your workplace is probably like this as well — everybody in your department thinks they heroically keep the place afloat with their tireless labor, while the boss thinks you’re a bunch of slackers for whom the company generously puts food on the table. You’re shocked and insulted when the company heartlessly announces layoffs (”Where’s the loyalty?!?“), and the boss is shocked and insulted when any of you quit without notice (”That ungrateful bastard!“).
- So keep in mind…
The key is that in every case, the other person desperately wants you to be in debt to them. Because, you guessed it, that would give them power over you (who has the power, the bank or the borrower?).
But, again, they can’t be up front about how or why they perceive you to be in their debt — they just get angry when you fail to “pay.” And once again, you’re left with someone who’s pissed off at you for what to you seems like no reason at all.
2. You wasted their time
All you did was email your boss with a simple question or idle thought, and she jumped down your throat! What a bitch!
Then, later that night, you popped into your buddy’s house unannounced, and like one minute later he’s all acting annoyed, opening the door and saying, “Well, good to see you!“ like he’s ushering you out!
Or maybe you’re on the other end of the situation in the first entry — you messaged an acquaintance with a ”happy birthday” and you got cold, dead silence in return. But you know they ain’t no goddamned introvert, they talk to a hundred people a day!
- So what’s the problem?
If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you’re already trying to figure out how this ties in to the power thing. Well, in the first example, the boss was way too busy to put up with your crap. In the second, your friend clearly was too busy to watch you smoke a bong and talk about Breaking Bad for three hours. In the third, the dude got too many birthday wishes to reply to them all. But in each case, due to the complicated power dynamics at play, they weren’t allowed to openly say so.
After all, that would be effectively saying that they’ve prioritized some other interaction over yours. That would mean A) they have the power to dictate your interactions and B) other people have power to get in line ahead of you. “I’m important and busy, you are just one of the lesser peasants begging for my attention.”
Wait, it gets worse. Because at the exact same moment they made you feel powerless, they also feel like the powerless party, because they’re so besieged by people making demands on their time. That’s why they got pissed at you. Sure, you can say, “Well, being busy is no excuse to be a dick!“ just as a billionaire could tell a homeless guy that losing a pair of shoes is nothing to get upset about. An extreme shortage is never something to get emotional about when you’re not the one suffering from it.
I’ll use myself as an example. The last article I wrote got about 6 million hits, and I swear that every one of those people messaged me four or five times each, many demanding that I personally debate them on the subject point by point. At the exact same time, the movie they made about my ridiculous book became available for download, which as you can imagine generated a whole second stream of messages that spilled across my personal email, my work email, my personal Facebook account, my two work Facebook accounts, Yahoo Instant Messenger, the Cracked forums, the Cracked forums private messaging system, Twitter, and my cellphone. Checking all of those channels is a frantic blur of sorting and prioritizing and deleting, knowing that at any given moment I’m causing disappointment and frustration to dozens of people who are waiting to hear from me, many of whom can’t do their jobs until they do.
Now, quick show of hands: How many of you actually feel sorry for me? OK, now how many of you were annoyed by the above paragraph and interpreted it as one of those stealth boasts we mentioned before (”Boohoo! I’m too famous! Waaah!“)? Yeah, that’s what I thought. And that’s the point — there’s no good way for a busy person to tell you they don’t have time for you. It always comes with the implication that they’re a bigger deal than you are. And as we established earlier, the only thing worse is to say nothing.
- So keep in mind…
The person who is being terse with you, or who is clearly screening your calls, is often in an impossible situation. They’re coming off as flaunting their power to screen you, while from their point of view, they have no power at all — they spend all of their time seeing to the needs of the crowd. So, the most good-hearted of busy people just try to deal with your thing, quickly answering your question while silently gritting their teeth and thinking, “It would have taken him five seconds to Google this.”
If that sounds like they’re making you pay for someone else’s behavior, well, they are. That’s the way it works — prior offenses count, even when it was someone else who committed them. The cashier at Arby’s got annoyed when you pointed out that their logo looks like a dick because she hears that joke six times a day. Remember: You are nothing more than one link in somebody else’s chain of human interactions. A chain that occasionally rubs them raw.
1. You assumed that because you were OK with a situation, everybody was
This is the one that is by far the most likely to sneak up on you. Also, it exists at all levels — between roommates, friends, spouses, ethnic groups, nations.
In the office, this usually turns up as some pointless new rule that seems to come out of the blue — a memo says from now on nobody can adjust the thermostat without asking a supervisor. Another announces that the Christmas party is now the ”winter holiday“ party. In a relationship, it’s the partner suddenly deciding after several years that they no longer want Friday to be meatloaf night.
You get the idea — everything was going along absolutely perfectly fine, the system was running as intended, and suddenly they’re making these arbitrary demands. You then hear yourself saying things like:
”Why do they have to rock the boat just when things were going good?“
“Why complain now, when we’ve always done it this way?”
“I don’t have a problem, you’re the one who’s screaming!“
- So what’s the problem?
Let’s start small: In a previous article, we talked about the classic male/female conflict over not putting the toilet seat down. The reason it’s such a sore subject in some couples is that, as we explained, it demonstrates that the man simply isn’t factoring in the woman’s needs at all. It’s not that he intentionally wants to make her life worse, or that he hates her or feels any negative emotion whatsoever. Why would he? The seat is where he likes it, he has the power, everything is fine. It’s not even that he disagrees on the issue; it’s that he refuses to acknowledge it as an issue at all.
This will happen to you. You will be on one side of a conflict that does not feel like a conflict to you, because that is the conflict. Trust me, there’s a great chance you’ll be oblivious to it until it’s too late. Entire governments have fallen this way.
- So keep in mind…
It’s easier than you think to find yourself on the wrong side of this in your everyday life. You like to stay in on weekends, your girlfriend/boyfriend likes to go out. After a year or so, they give up and stop trying to get you off the sofa every Saturday. You interpret this as the relationship settling in just how you like it; meanwhile, they’re so miserable that they’re rehearsing their breakup speech. ”But, but … everything was going great!”
Sure it was. For you. You didn’t perceive yourself as being in a position of power becausethat is the main advantage of power — that you don’t have to think about it. You don’t think about money when you’re eating at a restaurant. But you sure think about it when you’re too poor to eat.
And out of all of the pitfalls on this list, this is by far the worst, because it means that you can absolutely make other people hate you without lifting a finger. Hell, you can do it without even knowing it. Which means that, unfortunately, avoiding it requires constant vigilance.
It’s exhausting, I know. But hey, at least you’ll have fewer people screaming at you.