I met a guy who didn’t mind dressing me down psychologically. Yet, he probably wouldn’t admit it, even if I called him out on it. Dressing people down in such an obvious manner is uncouth, and it suggests that the purveyor is superior while doing it. I could feel him doing it as walking down the aisle toward him. I was smiling, and I felt him analyze that smile. I could tell that he perceived smiling as a weakness. When he looked at the shirt I wore, the manner in which I walked toward him, and the way I greeted him in a nice manner, I could tell he was scoring me on an analytical chart, and I could tell I wasn’t do well. As much as I hate to admit it, his superficial analysis of me affected our initial interaction. My natural insecurities took over, and I felt inferior to him in a way that I spent weeks trying to redefine.
This loathsome character is anecdotal evidence of a strange psychological phenomenon in our every day conversations. He’s anecdotal, because most of us don’t examine others in such an obvious manner, but do they psychologically dress us down in a more subtle, less obtuse manner? Do they score us on their personal analytical charts without intending to do so during our casual conversations? They probably don’t know why they do it. If they did, they likely wouldn’t attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them some intangible, hard to describe feelings of superiority.
If an individual is muscular in a noteworthy manner, or gifted in the athletic arena, they already know the feeling of superiority, as most of us grant physical traits superiority. For the rest of us, this search is not as simple. How do we compare to others? How do we stack up? It’s often difficult, and fruitless, to stare into a mirror and gain true, objective definition, so we do it on the backs of others through our day-to-day interactions to try to gain some information about our identity.
The searches may occur in the first few moments we begin speaking to them, and it often involves scrutiny of 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 acceptable hairdo? How much did we pay for that hairdo? How much did we pay for the clothes we wear? Do we wear fashionable clothes? If clothes make the man, what kind of men are we? Some say it’s all about the shoes. Others say that by creating a pleasing dimple in our tie, by denting that tie with the thumb in the tying process, we can create quite a first impression. Most people don’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company. Yet, those same people worry about the first impressions they make. What are impressions, but an attempt to define ourselves among our peers?
Is it all about the clothes, or do we make a better first impression through a confident posture, the way we sit, the manner in which we hold our head when we talk, or whether or not we look our counterpart in the eye? Do we have a tongue stud? Are we tattooed or non-tattooed, and who is superior in that dynamic? It’s all relative.
First impressions can be difficult to overcome, but some suggest that what we say after the first impression has greater import. If we have a noticeable flaw 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, might result in them enjoying our company more.
Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form. Moments after taking the 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 addresses 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 us, 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 a successful follow up rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it. When our self-deprecating humor works in the second stage of impression, we attempt to move into the more personal third and fourth stages of getting to know our counterpart better. In these stages, we begin to feel more comfortable with the person on the receiving end, and we let our guard down. The problem we encounter, partially due to our insecurity, is that these people might not be as entertained by us as they were in the second, more self-deprecating stage of impression. As a result, we might begin to fall back on the more successful, second impression to lessen the impact of our attempts to be more personal with them. “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” is a qualifier that we insecure types add to an insightful comment we make that they don’t find as entertaining. When that proves successful, and our counterpart begins laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we become it in their eyes. They can’t help thinking this is who we are, because it’s the impression we’ve given them so often that it becomes part of what they think of us. One way to test if we’ve 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, the recipient of the qualifier 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 we do it 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, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” 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 whispered 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 Christians use that condemnation 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 that 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 constantly ask me questions about the motivations I had for doing what I did. I didn’t mind it at the time, for I didn’t mind jokes about how Americans seem to be driven by sex, violence, and other “unclean” motivations. I also didn’t mind that some of her questions involved me, as I didn’t mind being self-deprecating. It didn’t dawn on me until 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.
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 our questions on the backs of others. It’s a shortcut around introspective examination and self-reflection. Some feel superior to another, based on another’s religion, their politics, their race, or their education level. Some even gain feelings of superiority based on the manner they use to brush their teeth. Those who brush their teeth top to bottom are not doing it in the manner advised by the American Dental Association, but do those of us who brush our teeth in circles find vindication and validation from our dentist? Others base their comparative analyses on the manner in which they shave 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.
This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for the subtleties and nuance of guerrilla style warfare. The age of standing toe to toe occurred in the days of duels, and The Civil War, are over because most modern field generals would never risk their troops in 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 for that might involve some sort of equivocation that details the strengths and weaknesses of both parties in which no one is a winner and no one a loser. No, the battle between two modern day, psychological combatants, more often than not, involves a never-ending battle of guerrilla warfare-style pot shots.
Long before my mind’s eye was opened to the comprehensive nature of this conversation, I met a kid named Walter in high school. A decent description of Walter is that he was at the bottom of the teenage boys’s totem pole. He was the rabbit and the ground squirrel at the bottom of the food chain. An indecent way of describing Walter is that he was a target for every other boy who feared being in the crosshairs of every other boy. In this indecent description, I was superior to Walter. If I was above him, I was clinging to the divider by my fingernails.
Walter did all the things boys like. He never let a slight go by without reply, and his replies were feckless screams of indignation. Teenage boys love nothing more than knowing they can get under another boy’s skin, and there’s nothing the subject can do about it. It makes them feel superior to drive another boy crazy, and it gives them a greater sense of superiority when that kid acts as if he’s being attacked by a hive of hornets.
It would’ve been so easy to join the pack of jackals, as I saw an overwhelming number of my peers (those of us clinging to the border that divided us from Walter) join in on the barrage against Walter. The fact that I did not was based on sympathy and empathy. I knew what it felt like to be on the other end of a barrage. If Walter dominated the bully charts, I was in the top five. I thought we rabbits and ground squirrels should stick together and advise one another on how to deal with these awful moments in our lives. Not only did Walter fail to heed my advice, because why would he, I suffered from almost as much abuse as he did, but he joined the barrages against me to take a step up on me in this superior vs. inferior world.
‘Et tu, Walter?’ I wanted to yell, ‘but I refrained.’ You gave me ample opportunity to ride you, like a horse, to the promised land, but I refrained. Did I expect gratitude, respect, or appreciation from Walter ? Did I expect him to recognize me as one of the goodfellas who chose to refrain? If you knew Walter as well as we did, you knew he had a no-one-gets-out-of-here-alive mentality. I knew that, but I thought he might consider the numerous times I refrained. Not only did he fail to value, or even recognize my efforts for what they were, he apparently thought less of me for doing it.
I don’t remember if I wanted Walter to recognize my previous efforts of refraining, or if Walter joining a barrage against me fueled some competitive animosity I gained for him, but I joined in on the next barrage against Walter. The funny thing was Walter didn’t react any different.
For those, like me, who might feel guilty about cashing in on those opportunities to nuke another person for the purpose of gaining superiority, there is no reward for refraining. Even the most inferior will take any opportunity they can find to make another look bad. They enjoy it without reflection or feelings of empathy or solidarity, especially when they consider the new target 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 who expose flaws that can be easily corrected. 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 any refraining a display of inferiority on our part.
In a perfect world, our interactions would involve others recognizing inferiority and superiority in a gentlemanly manner. We would wait for enemy fire before firing, to win the battle off the field as well as the one on it. The problem with refraining too often, or only firing in self-defense, with those we battle in psychological warfare, is that most enemy combatants do not view refraining as an order to hold your fire. One would think that in the absence of pot shots, the other party would recognize any 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 souls stay vigilant. Every once in a while, we need to fire off a few rounds just to keep our enemy combatants hunkered down behind shields. Are we superior, are they inferior? We don’t care. We just want to keep them level with us, as we learn that 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.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the personal experience that drove it: Are You Superior? II