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The Upside of Being Petty

How spite helps us all maintain the social contract

No one likes a petty asshole: It’s not sexy, cool or admirable to be a small-minded, nitpicky score-keeper, exacting revenge on the most trivial scale for the most trifling reasons. Yet we’re all petty at some point, for an understandable reason, too: It sometimes seems like the only recourse we have when someone has wronged us, and when done cleverly, it also happens to be one of the most satisfying experiences on Earth. The entire existence and success of Twitter (specifically subtweeting) is a testament to the enduring force that is pettiness.

But like the petty act, the petty victory is always shortsighted, never quite filling the void underneath it.

So, does it ever have a good side?

Well, for starters, it isn’t hard to see why being petty can be pleasurable:

Petty, here, of course isn’t only the bee sacrificing itself on the altar of minor stings, but also my irresistible need to point out that the bee ends “its” own life, not “it’s” own life.

Petty Draper, indeed.

There are plenty of listicles celebrating all manner of pettiness, boldly admitting that petty is just how it’s gotta be sometimes. The strategies are myriad:

People even write about how proud they are to be petty. “I’m petty as hell,” Brittney Ganster writes at Bolde. “If I’m feeling wronged by someone in any way (and trust me, I’m always feeling wronged), I will do everything in my power to bring that person down with me. A lot of people shame this behavior, but I honestly see nothing wrong with it as long as you are truly just being petty and not burning down someone’s house.”

Well, there’s a lot wrong with it, but Ganster still makes an important distinction: Scale matters. If the revenge in question matches a minor grievance with nuclear war, you’re not petty, you’re psychotic. If someone makes fun of you in front of your coworkers, you don’t slit their tires, you “accidentally” forget to invite them to any work lunch. For a month.

Psychologists have studied the petty personality type, and petty is not pretty: Petty people tend to have lower self-esteem, less impulse control and less resilience; they also have more trouble solving problems, are less content and typically have a more negative mindset. Additionally, they aren’t good at resolving conflict, and they’re less flexible and more frustrated and angry at life, which they’re really, really bad at dealing with.

That’s actually pretty embarrassing. Being petty, like being malicious or spiteful, comes from a place of unhappiness. And not just unhappiness, but an inability to do a goddamn thing about it except sling arrows in whichever direction feels good in the moment. (Feels good is a top excuse in the petty defense literature.)

At Very Smart Brothas, Panama Jackson gives the perfect petty example:

Say you’re asleep with your significant other or random person who is asleep next to you. The person doesn’t matter really. Say they keep pulling all of the covers off of you and in a fit of petty — and after they’ve done it enough to truly annoy you — you get up, take all of the covers and throw them bitches smooth out the window. Now nobody has covers. But you’re not cold. The heat from your boiling blood will keep you warm at night (since your degrees won’t! ZING!) while your significant other is pissed AND cold for the rest of the night. Petty? Absolutely. Okay? Absolutely. Why? Because sometimes folks don’t respect your feelings until you lob the petty at them.

This is, again, funny, but very eye-for-an-eye. Buried deep into our overwhelmingly New Testament-leaning Christian culture’s conscience is the notion that we must strive to be the bigger person, transcending our weakest impulses and most malicious intent to become mini-Gandhi in the face of interpersonal microaggressions.

This is unreasonable, of course — we’re just people, after all. Yet even the most canned, pop-culture version of any religion, feel-good philosophy or self-help book preaches some kind of transcendence over our baser impulses. “We’re all in the gutter,” Oscar Wilde once wrote, “But some of us look at the stars.”

So what is to be done? Perhaps we can learn how to use pettiness for good in the same way there might be an upside to spite. Spite, like pettiness, is associated with poor self-esteem, callousness and general lack of agreeableness. Writing about the existing research on spite in the New York Times, Natalie Angier notes that studies have found that men are typically more spiteful than women, and younger people are more spiteful than older people. But there is a bright side to spite:

Frank Marlowe, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, argued that what looks like spiteful behavior in the real world may really be a matter of image-making. He and his colleagues have used the ultimatum and similar games to study barter and exchange in a broad cross-section of non-Western cultures, including foragers, pastoralists and farmers. They found that no matter how hardscrabble the life or how much the players obviously could have used even a sliver of a potential award, game participants would reject a partner’s stingy offer indignantly, an apparent act of spite that left both empty-handed — at least for the moment.

Marlowe concedes it doesn’t make sense as a short-term strategy, but in the long run, you’ve made it clear you won’t be fucked with, which pays dividends in future deal-making upon which your livelihood will depend.

In a way then, the petty among us can set a low bar for behavior, or be the sort of the people who make sure some kind of justice is met. By selfishly calling attention to other people who are doing bad things, petty people end up making sure those who do bad things are dealt with and exposed. Nietzsche, Angier notes, argued that punishment actually began as spite, but became our system for maintaining fairness.

While it’s not as funny or anywhere near as pleasurable, spite and pettiness can be used as motivation to improve an individual life, too. You can channel it into something more useful. In a post at Ribbon Farm called “The Power of Pettiness,” Sarah Perry argues that pettiness is a key component of curiosity. In her view, the advancement of knowledge includes a kind of ridiculous level of interest in seemingly trivial details many other people would skate by. And in some instances that can be a good thing. The key is what you do with that gotcha moment.

She writes:

If you’re the kind of person who gets enraged enough to investigate an innocent factoid that sounds too good to be true, tracking it to its dubious source like a predator, then you are in the middle of curiosity. But if you simply correct the error, or make a petty subtweet, all the energy will be dissipated. For curiosity to be realized, pettiness must be suppressed and transformed into energy, gleeful malevolence transformed to honorable ends.

In smaller petty moments, transformation is the only way through. Experts say channeling negative emotions rather than giving into them is the best way to make them productive. Spite can make you work harder and focus more on specific goals, even if you’re just proving all the haters wrong, or mimicking someone you’re jealous of.

So the next time you feel really petty or spiteful, think in the most selfish terms possible: How can you turn this into something that benefits you far more in the long run?

Being petty is ripping all the covers off the bed and throwing them out the window, but being honorable or productive is pulling the covers over both of you and getting back to sleep. There is no award for that, either, and it definitely doesn’t feel as good. But you’ve preserved your relationship another day, and at least there’s the satisfaction of being better than all those other spiteful, petty people out there.