Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bloated: A rant on arrogance and competing self-identities

Arrogance is nothing new, and as such should have no particular reason for bothering me now more than...say...5 years ago. It's probably been around since shortly after the first social, political and academic organizations formed. Nix that - the trait likely first emerged as soon as there were sufficient people around to impress. Cockiness, conceit, and (oftentimes false) bravado - while these descriptions have traditionally and more heavily been associated with (or socialized into) men, they still occur in the female variety. Sometimes arrogance is founded - though it would more effectively be left alone as self-confidence. But more often than not, it's without substance. Despite its varying forms and age-old existence, why is arrogance a trait that publicly gets a bad rep, but still seems to be encouraged behind closed doors? And more tellingly, why is its source often left unquestioned?

One of the richest (and most comical) places to see this dynamic at play is in the workplace. With all that's been written in the press lately about the sense of entitlement that generally characterizes Gen Y at work, it's likely that we all know at least one of "that guy or girl". The one that states opinion as fact. The one that answers questions about issues he/she has had little involvement in - ones that are better answered by someone else. The one that recounts client expectations, reactions, and discussions with the assumed tone and delivery of a first-hand participant - even when he/she wasn't involved. Even when he/she has been on the job for a matter of weeks. (I also wrote about this guy/gal in my last posting - see "Archetypes at Work").

What misguided management book - or mentor from the school of seagull management - encouraged this person to use this self-assumed level of authority as a persuasion strategy and power play? Yes, human nature and common sense indicate that people tend to listen when you speak with confidence and authority - no surprises there - but authority on a subject is gained through experience and research - not by assumed tone and perception. Someone is bound to eventually question what the source of this person's presumed authority is - if not because they possess some intelligence and discernment, at least because the perpetrator of this ultimately annoying "authority" will likely begin to irritate the hell out of most colleagues within a few weeks. Common sense and ancient advice tell us that confidence, doing your research, taking calculated risks, and trusting your gut are effective strategies, but they don't preclude actually doing the research and gaining the experience that serves as the foundation for that confidence. At the expense of sounding crude - this "perception is reality" attitude takes on the swagger, demeanor and voice of someone that's full of s--t. And that particular scent will always give you away.

Of course, arrogance isn't limited to the office. Socially, arrogance is oftentimes dressed up, tarted up, and allowed to sneak in unchecked if it makes up the right backstory. Perhaps it's our American tendency to supersize everything that encourages what would otherwise be a healthy self-confidence to push moderation aside, indulge and bloat up into full-blown arrogance. There are several examples of exagerated, bloated confidence and authority in the social realm - the cruel but popular high school kids that govern by fear (of your being the object of their mean-spirited jokes), the proverbial "bad boy" that's adulated for his me-first carelessness, the cheeky tees that let everyone within eyeshot know "I'm kind of a big deal". Much more subtle and passive than these, it's one-upmanship that I find the most fascinating and amusing. Because sadly, at one point or another, we've mostly all gotten caught up in it before realizing what we're doing (and why).

Who got invited to or learned about a promising shindig first. Name dropping, who-knows-who, and how well. How many obscure indie rock bands or film references you know. What artsy publications you cite as your sources. Who's first to wear a new designer or style. Drawing the line between a conversation that is sincerely based on the open, sincere exchange of opinions, ideas, and personal interests - and one that turns into a very subtle competition or comparison of who is better-informed or connected - can be an extremely vague exercise. The subsequent inquisition on who told you, or how/where you learned of it. The look of unease and discomfort at not having an equally informed response or reaction. It's not exactly something you can define or prove, other than describe it as a distinct impression that you're being evaluated or compared against someone else's self-identity.

What makes most of us susceptible to letting what should be an open, honest exchange of ideas turn competitive? Is it the feeble, transient nature of the criteria we're often using to define our identities? Is it our well-veiled insecurity and fear of no longer being interesting or desirable company if we aren't always uniquely-dressed, well-versed on emerging talent or quick with an obscure literary or film reference? Is this sense of competition and arrogance over ultimately incomplete factors in our identity really masking our insecurity?

Before I get any more critical with my observation or hypothetical with my questions, let me add that I know I'm guilty of it, too. After all, it might be a tad trite, but applicable - noone can make you feel inferior unless you let them (or yourself). My concluding comment on what I recognize was a rather "dynamic" subject (for those of you still following, it was originally arrogance, but ended as insecurity and competing self-identities) is just how ultimately ineffective and incomplete certain criteria are in developing our self-identity. There will always be someone better connected in a particular circle, more experienced in a particular field, better informed in a particular subject, more stylish or even smarter than you. I can't believe that to be the worst thing ever, or a challenge to my self-identity - particularly not when what's the most difficult to replicate are the collective characteristics that make someone so unique. A seeming contradiction of Barbie-doll looks and witty intelligence. A consistently positive outlook on life, despite some otherwise skin-thickening experiences. A penchant for dirty jokes and foul language, but a virginal-till-marriage existence. That's much tougher to compare or compete on, vs. an encyclopedic knowledge of anything you can devise a Top 10 list of.