Some of us define our superiority based on sheer physical strength and athletic ability. Others believe that their greatest opportunity for superiority lies in their intelligence. 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 our quest for greater understanding of our identity is that it is, more often than not, gained on the backs of others.
Run into a person on the street, at work, or in any walk of life, and some will begin dressing you down. Why do they do it? Most of them don’t know why, and those that do have something of an idea, may not attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them a lift. 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 hairdo that is accepted in the greater society? Are we wearing clothes that they accept as fashionable, or are we wearing the finest duds known to man? Have you ever heard the phrase, the suit makes the man? Some would tell you it’s all about the shoes. Others would tell you that if you can create a pleasing dimple in your tie, by denting that tie with your thumb in the tying process, you can create a lasting first impression. Most people won’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company, but what is a lasting impression? What is a first impression? What are impressions in general, but attempts to, at the very least, define one’s self equal to their counterparts?
Is it all about the clothes? Is it apparent in 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 that it is often what we say after the first impression that holds more weight, for 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 in a strong follow up impression. The theory behind that is that doing so will end the search for our weakness, and it will allow them to feel superior and thus more comfortable with us, which we hope will result in them liking us more. Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form. Moments after stepping foot on stage, Louie Anderson will inform his audience that he’s fat in the form of a well-rehearsed joke. The first impression we have of Louie is that he’s fat, but when he follows that first impression up with a quality, self-deprecating joke it disarms us –or takes away whatever feelings of superiority we had and gives it back to us with his definition of it– and that re-definition of our superiority allows him to go ahead and dominate us in all the ways a comedian needs to dominate a crowd, because we’re no longer distracted by our physical superiority.
The problem with such a successful, follow up presentation rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it. When it works in the second stage of impression, and we attempt to move into the third and fourth stages of impression with our counterpart, our insecurity suggests to us that our counterparts may not be as entertained by us as they were in the second, self-deprecating stage of impression. As a result, we may begin to commit fall back on the more successful, second impression. “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” we say when they didn’t laugh at what we said. When that proves successful, and our counterparts begin laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we begin to become the weakness in their eyes. They can’t help believing this is who we are, for 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 you have fallen prey to this progression is to remove that successful, second impression qualifier that you have been adding to the tail end of your jokes and stories. If this is the case, they may add, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” to the tail end for you.
Some of the times, these additions are made 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 based on the fact that 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 heard that statement many times, but I hadn’t heard anyone use it as a weapon of superiority before. 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 my (American) way of life. She was always asking 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 may be due to the fact that David was much younger than us. Steve agreed with that to an extent, but he stated that he thought it had more to do with the fact that David did not have a college degree. 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, and I thought of confronting him with this, but I’ve always felt guilty about revealing others aloud. It’s never gained me anything more than the 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. The laughable thing about Steve’s comment was that his greater goal was not to compliment me, or insult David, but to define his feelings of superiority through comparative analysis.
Upon reflection, I realized that my college graduate friend, Steve, had been left out of the 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 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 David and I had.
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, his opinions were often dismissed 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. There may even be some that gain their feelings of superiority based on whether one brushes their teeth top to bottom as opposed to side to side. There may even be others that base their comparative analyses on the manner in which a person shaves their pubic hair. If one person leaves a strip and another person 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. The tenuousness of that profile was made apparent to me through the various reminders he would give me that he was, in all ways, superior to me.
This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for a type of guerilla 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 mind would never risk their troops in the type of toe to toe battles that used to be considered the gentleman’s way to fight. No one, of the modern age, would ever ask their counterpart if they think they’re superior, in other words, for that may 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 guerilla warfare-style pot shots.
I broke down one day and decided to violate all of these modern rules of psychological warfare with Steve. “Do you think that you’re superior to me?” Being a good friend, and a modern psychological warrior well-schooled in the PC/HR tactics of guerilla 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 this shatter your beliefs to such a degree that you asked me what had changed with me? Would you ask me if I received a promotion, won the lottery, or got laid 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 decided to start 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?”