If an individual is strong or gifted in the athletic arena, they already know the feeling of superiority, as most of us regard those physical traits superior. For the rest of us, the search is not as simple. It’s often difficult, and fruitless, to stare into a mirror and gain true, objective definition, so we use comparative analysis –through our day-to-day interactions– to try to gain information about ourselves and our true identity. The one unfortunate characteristic to this quest is that we gain definition on the backs of others.
Most people we encounter will dress us down psychologically, soon after we meet them. Why do they do it? Most of them don’t know why, and those that do have something of an idea might not attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them a lift for the day. These searches may occur in the first few moments we begin speaking to them, and it often begins with our physical appearance. Are we well groomed? Do we brush our teeth? Are all of our nose and ear hairs trimmed? Do we have a socially accepted hairdo? How much did we pay for it? How much did we pay for the clothes we wear? Do we wear fashionable clothes? If clothes make the man, what kind of man are we? Some say it’s all about the shoes. Others say that by creating a pleasing dimple in the tie, by denting that tie with the thumb in the tying process, a person can create quite a first impression. Most people don’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company. Yet, most people are worried about the impressions they make. What are impressions, but an attempt to define one’s self among their peers?
Is it all about the clothes, or do we making better first impressions with the way we stand, the way we sit, the manner in which we hold our head when we talk, or whether or not we can look our counterpart in the eye? Do we have a tongue stud? Are we a tattooed individual, or a non-tattooed individual, and who is superior in that dynamic? It’s all relative.
The first impression can be a difficult one to overcome, but some believe what we say after the first impression has greater import. If we have a fatal flaw –noticeable in the first impression– we can garner sympathy or empathy, through an underdog status, with what we say in the follow up impression we provide.
To further this theory, some believe that if we notify our counterpart of our weakness –say in the form of a self-deprecating joke– it will redound to the benefit of a strong follow up impression. The subtext involves the idea that doing so will end their search for our weakness, and the feeling of superiority they gain will allow them to feel more comfortable with us. This, we hope, will result in them enjoying our company more.
Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form. Moments after stepping foot on stage, Louie Anderson informs his audience that he’s overweight in the form of a well-rehearsed joke. The first impression we have of Louie is that he is overweight. When he follows that first impression up with a quality, self-deprecating joke it disarms us. We thought we were superior to him, based on his physical flaw. By acknowledging that flaw, Louie takes that feeling of superiority away from his, and he gives it back to us with his definition of it. That re-definition of our superiority allows him to go ahead and manipulate us in all the ways a comedian needs to manipulate a crowd. The distraction of our physical superiority is gone, and we’re now free to enjoy the comedic stylings of Louie Anderson.
The problem with such a successful, follow up presentation rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it. When our self-deprecating humor works in the second stage of impression, and we attempt to move into the more substantive third and fourth stages of impression we might find that most people are not as entertained by us as they were in the second, self-deprecating stage of impression. As a result, we may begin to fall back on the more successful, second impression. “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” is a qualifier that we insecure types add to jokes when we find that we’re no longer entertaining our audience. When that proves successful, and our counterparts begin laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we become that weakness in their eyes. They can’t help believing this is who we are, it’s the repetitive impression we’ve given them so often that it becomes what they think of us. One way to find out if we have fallen prey to this progression is to remove that successful, qualifier that we have been adding to the tail end of our jokes and stories to gain favor with them. If we have been adding it too often, they might add, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” to the tail end of our story for us.
Some of the times, we commit to these additions to complete the rhythm of a joke, or story, but most of the times it’s done to insert some element of superiority or inferiority. Thanks to certain situation comedies, and the effect they’ve had on the zeitgeist, some jokes, stories, and thoughts feel incomplete without some element of superiority or inferiority attached to it. I used to be a qualifier, until I realized that too many people were exploiting my qualifiers for their own sense of superiority. It was so bad, at one point, that I couldn’t say anything halfway intelligent without someone adding the equivalent of “Ross, you’re zipper is down” at the tail end of it.
It’s my contention that most of us are in a constant search of indicators of superiority or inferiority. If our counterpart is religious, we may feel superior to them because we’re not. If we are religious, we may want to know what religion they are, and we may base our feelings of superiority on that.
“They’re all going to hell,” a friend of mine commented when we passed a group of Muslims. When I asked why she thought this, she said, “They don’t accept the Lord, Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”
I’ve heard that statement many times, but I rarely heard someone use it as a weapon of superiority. I realized some time later that this was all this woman had. She hated her job, her kids hated her, and she was far from attractive, or in good shape. She needed this nugget of superiority to help her get through the day, and to assist her in believing that she was, at least, superior to someone in some manner.
On the flip side of the coin, a Muslim friend of mine seemed forever curious about the American way of life. She would ask me questions about the motivations I had for doing what I did. It dawned on me later that she was searching for points of superiority. She saw the Muslim religion as a clean religion from which she gained a feeling of purity. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, until she used that as a weapon of superiority against me.
Another friend of mine (we’ll call him Steve) informed me that a mutual friend of ours (we’ll call him David) was not intelligent, and because of that the two of them did not have substantial or engaging conversations. I informed Steve that this might be due to the fact that David was much younger than we were. Steve agreed with that to an extent, but he stated that he thought it had more to do with David’s education level. Steve informed me that he considered me intelligent and that I provided well-rounded conversation topics, based on my well-rounded intelligence … even though I didn’t have a college degree. I smiled. I don’t know why I smiled, but that delusional blanket he wrapped me in was quite warm and comfortable. I felt like an absolute fool later when it dawn on me that Steve’s greater goal was not to insult David, or compliment me, but to attempt to define his own feelings of superiority through comparative analysis. I thought of confronting him with this, but I’ve always felt guilty about revealing others in this manner. It’s never gained me anything more than a feeling of superiority. It tends to leave the other person feeling bad about their identity, it has hurt their feelings, and it has cost me friendships. That guilt thing would not permit me to lift that warm and comfortable blanket from us to reveal us for who we are.
Upon reflection, I realized that my college graduate friend, Steve, had been on the outside looking in of many discussions that David and I had regarding the politics, pop culture, and the general news of the day. Steve was also not the type to learn of a story and form an instant opinion on it, and as a result, he often found it difficult to enter into our discussions. He had also been ignoring such issues for so long that he didn’t have a base of knowledge that could extend itself beyond a particular news article he had read that day. Steve was also a type to learn of an expert opinion of a subject and go with that. He didn’t practice the art of dissent from majority opinion as often as we did.
As a result, Steve did start reading the news more often, and he did try to start formulating opinions on the news of the day to gain entrance into our discussions. The opinions he did offer tended to be of a more clichéd variety that sounded as if they came straight off a late night talk show Tele-prompter, or a Saturday Night Live episode. They were not of an individualistic, provocative variety. As a result, we dismissed his opinions on that basis. Nothing that David and I ever discussed was noteworthy or over-the-top intellectual, but we formed a mutual appreciation for the other’s knowledge, even though most of our discussions were antagonistic. It was that appreciation, and I assume, Steve’s inability to find a place in it, that led him to feel the need to remind us that he had an intellectual superiority that we were neglecting.
The search for where we stand in this chasm of superiority and inferiority can be a difficult one to traverse, so we often attempt to answer them on the backs of others. It’s a shortcut to examination and self-reflection. Some feel superior to another, based on that other’s religion, their politics, their race, or in the case of Steve, their education level. Some even gain feelings of superiority based on the manner they brush their teeth. Those that brush their teeth top to bottom are not doing it in the manner advised by the American Dental Association. Others base their comparative analyses on the manner in which a person shaves their pubic hair. If one person leaves a strip and another shaves Brazilian who is superior, and who is inferior, and where does the person that lets it all grow wild stand in that dynamic? We all have some positions of superiority and inferiority, and most of them are relative.
As for Steve, I was sure he had a psychological profile built on me. I was sure he had all of his feelings of superiority stacked in a row, based on the characteristics he had witnessed over the years. If I ever doubted his superiority, he offered me constant reminders.
This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for a type of guerrilla warfare tactic. The modern battle calls for subtlety and nuance. The age of standing toe to toe may have occurred in the days of duels, and The Civil War, but most field generals of the modern age mind would never risk their troops in the type of toe-to-toe battles that former battalion leaders considered the gentleman’s way to fight. On that note, no one, of the modern age, would ever ask their counterpart if they think they’re superior, in other words, for that might involve some sort of equivocation that detailed the strengths and weaknesses of both parties in which no one was a winner and no one a loser. No, the battle between two modern day, psychological combatants, more often than not, involves a long-standing battle of guerrilla warfare-style pot shots.
For those, like me, that feel guilty about cashing in on those opportunities to nuke another person’s argument for the purpose of gaining superiority, my advice is to refrain judiciously. Some of us will take any opportunity afforded us to make another person look bad. They enjoy it, especially when they consider that other person to be superior in some way. Others don’t enjoy this, as we have intimate knowledge of the embarrassment that can accompany looking bad in front of others. We also feel some empathy for those that say easily corrected things. We hold our fire. In a perfect world, others would value such judiciousness, and they would return it. For various reasons, including the idea that most people do not know when we’re refraining, it is not valued. Some may even consider it a display of weakness on our part.
In a perfect world, our interactions would call for facets of the modern definition of warfare. Most people would wait for enemy fire before firing, to win the battle off the field as well as winning the one on it. The problem with refraining too often, or only firing in self-defense, with those we do battle with in the psychological wars, is that most enemy combatants do not view refraining as an order to ceasefire. One would think that in the absence of pot shots, the other party would recognize the cease and desist order. In my experience, they don’t. They sense weakness, and they open fire. Something about the human condition suggests that even the most empathetic and sympathetic to stay vigilant, and fire off a few rounds occasionally just to keep our enemy combatants down. Even if it is just to keep them level with us, the individual with their mind’s eye open to the psychological games we all play must keep firing, if for no other reason than to remind all of our opponents of the arsenal we have at our disposal.
After tiring of all the games that Steve and I played over the years, I finally broke down one day and said, “Do you think that you’re superior to me?” I realized that this was a violation of the modern rules of psychological warfare, but I couldn’t take the ever-present chess match anymore. Being a good friend, and a modern psychological warrior, schooled in the PC/HR tactics of guerrilla warfare, he gave me an equivocation steeped in relative constructs. Being the obnoxious man I was, I asked him to break it down. “Would your competitive feelings change if you saw me start walking down a hall with more confidence? Would that shatter your beliefs to such a degree that you asked me what had changed? Would you ask me if I received a promotion, won the lottery, or if I had sex the night before? Would you become so obsessed in your search for an answer regarding my new walk that you wouldn’t be able to sleep at night? What if I began walking down hallways without moving my arms at all? Would you consider that walk kind of freakish, a little funny, and an inferiority on my part? Or,” I asked, “Would you then consider me an equal?”