The Four Categories Of Asshole

— 2 minute read

Earlier this year I got involved in a “discussion” with somebody about their sexist language, and how they reacted when they got feedback on that language from one of the people affected. Details unimportant.

I’m not this person’s boss — this was at a conference — and I usually suck at stepping up in a way that's productive. However, for once, this ended pretty well with an apparently sincere apology being made to the relevant people.

The turn in the conversation was when I responded to his “I’m not sexist, I have daughters, etc.” rant with “Are you never an asshole? Even accidentally after a bad day?“.

From there we ended up with four categories of asshole — which was the thing that seemed click for this particular dude on what the feedback meant, and how his behaviour was being perceived.

So just in case this is useful to anybody else — I present the Four Asshole Categories:

  1. Intentional asshole & proud
  2. Accidental asshole who ignores feedback
  3. Accidental asshole who acts on feedback
  4. Never an asshole (empty set :–)

When we ran the conversation through the categories Bob (not his real name) could start seeing everybody else, especially the provider of feedback (let's call her Mary) was not seeing things his way.

  • Bob says something unintentionally offensive, and Mary calls him on it.
  • Now Mary doesn't know what category Bob is in — so they’re taking a big risk in giving feedback. They're hoping he's an accidental asshole who acts on feedback.
  • Bob heard the feedback as Mary saying he was an intentional asshole.
  • Bob, like most people, saw themselves as an accidental asshole at worst.
  • But from the outside intentional asshole & accidental asshole look exactly the same
  • So unless you listen and act on the feedback you get guess what people walk away thinking you are?

TL;DR: Everybody is an asshole some of the time. Try and be one of the ones that listens to feedback and acts on it.

(Anecdata count of one. No idea if this will be generally useful. No idea if any long term change actually happened. Milage may vary. etc. etc.)