The Inklings: Chapter 104

To read the story from the start go to:

At 12:45pm Syafika left her desk to go and meet Anthony. She didn’t change into her running clothes this time because she was determined that she and Anthony were going to talk. As Syafika walked to the café in the Botanic Gardens she mentally rehearsed the list of questions that she and D’arby had come up with. D’arby seemed to think that Anthony was some kind of spy and told Syafika that she should pretend she knew what he was up to. Syafika was impressed with the way D’arby thought. Anthony being a spy would explain his disappearing, name changes and maybe even the wig. It also explained why Anthony had wanted Celine to work in her team – Celine must be another spy. What Syafika found disconcerting was that if Anthony was a spy he’d probably only had lunch and dinner with her to get information out of her. Syafika imagined that Anthony had a set of tricks similar to Celine’s and knew how to make people like him and think he was interested in them, when really he was only interested in what they knew.

At 1:10pm Anthony hadn’t arrived and Syafika started to think that he wouldn’t turn up. She decided that she’d continue to wait outside the café until 1:10pm and then she’d go inside and order herself some lunch. She wasn’t going to let Anthony completely ruin her lunchtime.

At 1:15pm Anthony still hadn’t arrived. Syafika looked in all directions to see if she could see him approaching but she couldn’t so she went inside and lined up to order herself something to eat. Syafika was very disappointed that Anthony hadn’t come and tried not to cry as she ordered one of the fancy salads. Then she noticed the chocolate cake and ordered a slice of it too.

“Same for me and I’ll pay for it all” said the person behind Syafika in the queue and Syafika jumped because it was Anthony.

“Thanks”said Syafika and tried not to show how happy she was to see Anthony. “You were so late I thought you weren’t coming”.

“I tried to call you lots of times to tell you I couldn’t get here until a quarter past, but your phone’s been off” said Anthony.

Syafika thought that was pretty funny and said “I hate mobile phones”.

Syafika and Anthony took their food to an outside table and sat down to eat.

“Why didn’t you call me sooner?” asked Anthony.

Syafika thought that was a ridiculous question and guessed that Anthony was trying to get her to reveal how she’d got his number.

“You didn’t make it easy to call you, especially when you only gave me a number that didn’t work” said Syafika.

“So how did you get a number that worked?” asked Anthony.

“I saw you with Celine, in your silly wig so I got your number from her” said Syafika.

“What did you tell Celine?” said Anthony.

Syafika could tell that Anthony was worried about what she had told Celine, or maybe about what Celine could have told her and thought it might be funny to let him think that she and Celine had discussed him but she didn’t think she’d be able to trick Anthony and so she kept closer to the truth.

“No, I took your number from Celine’s phone when she wasn’t looking” said Syafika.

Anthony looked relieved for a second, then started to look worried and Syafika guessed that he must have realised that he wouldn’t have been listed as ‘Anthony’ in Celine’s phone.

“But she has a nickname for me” said Anthony. “How did you know that?”

“Mr L?” said Syafika. “I didn’t know what Celine called you but because there was no ‘Anthony’ in her phone I wrote down all the names that sounded masculine. There was also a Mr X and a Mr Triangle”

Anthony didn’t look entirely convinced by Syafika’s explanation but didn’t say so.

“Now it’s my turn to ask you some questions” said Syafika. “What’s going on between you, Celine and Nelson? Is Celine spying for you? Do you want your old job back?”

Anthony looked frightened when Syafika mentioned Nelson and after a pause he answered “My old job back? No. Celine is just someone I went on some dates with and I knew Nelson when I was working there before. We sometimes catch-up” said Anthony.

Syafika didn’t enjoy hearing Anthony say that he’d been on dates with Celine because she was hoping that their relationship was professional, even if it was that they were both professional spies. Syafika tried to remember the exact words of the conversation she’d overheard between Anthony and Nelson so she could work out whether what Anthony said about him and Nelson being friends could be true. She remembered that Anthony had been pressuring Nelson to make sure that Celine got a job in her team. Syafika supposed that Anthony may have done that because he was in love with Celine, but if Anthony and Celine were in love then why hadn’t Celine spoken to Anthony when she’d seen him in the Botanic Gardens last week? And why had Celine told her that she was single?

“Where are you working now?” asked Syafika.

“Here and there. I mostly do short term contract work” said Anthony. “It gives me the flexibility to travel to see my Mum when I need to. She lives in Perth and she’s been quite sick lately”.

Syafika wasn’t satisfied with that answer. She wanted to know what kind of work Anthony was doing but knew that if he really was a spy he wouldn’t tell her. Syafika wondered whether she should bother asking how Anthony could afford his harbourside flat. She suspected that he’d just make up a story about having been given free rent by a relative or something. Syafika wondered what Celine would do in her situation, and then she remembered what Celine had taught her.

“Sorry to hear about your Mum” said Syafika. “What’s wrong with her? Is she going to be ok?”

Anthony looked relieved and started telling Syafika how his Mum had a heart problem that meant she got tired and dizzy easily. As Syafika listened to Anthony she looked at his eyes and imagined describing them to Celine. Anthony’s eyes were a greenish brown and Syafika wondered if that meant they should be called ‘hazel’.

“What’s Perth like? Did you grow up there?” Syafika asked Anthony and as Anthony told her how he had grown up in Perth and about all the places there he liked to go Syafika was busy working going through the rest of Celine’s list of observations.

“What are you doing tomorrow night?” asked Anthony. “Would you like to go out for dinner and a movie?”

Syafika was so happy she almost laughed. “Yes, I would like that” and they arranged the place and time. When they said goodbye Anthony gave Syafika a hug and she tried to work out what Anthony smelt like.

As Syafika walked back to work she looked at her watch and realised that it was 2:30pm.  She walked a bit faster and hoped she hadn’t missed anything important.

The Inklings: Chapter 103

To read the story from the start go to:

Syafika rushed to work on Tuesday and worked diligently until Celine arrived, then she walked over to Celine’s desk.

“Will you come for a quick coffee with me after the meeting? I’d like to go back to the café and see the waiter again” said Syafika.

“Sure” said Celine, sounding pleased. Syafika noticed that Celine looked towards Fanta’s desk and thought Celine might have been checking to see whether Fanta looked jealous but Fanta was too busy reading to have noticed.

And so straight after the team meeting Syafika and Celine went to the café. When they arrived Celine noticed that the waiter who’d given Syafika the note wasn’t there and suggested they come back another day.

“But I saw him here when I walked past this morning on the way to work” said Syafika. “Maybe he’s just gone to the bathroom. I really need a coffee anyway. We can come back again tomorrow if he doesn’t turn up today”

Syafika was feeling proud of how she’d thought of a convincing lie so fast. She could see D’arby sitting at one of the tables and noticed that he was holding a mobile phone, which made Syafika feel like laughing because D’arby hated mobile phones more than she did – he didn’t have one and would normally have refused to even use one.

When they’d ordered their coffees Syafika lead Celine to the table next to D’arby’s, and sat down facing D’arby. This meant that Celine had to sit in the seat with her back to D’arby.

As soon as Celine was comfortable D’arby dialed her phone number. When Celine heard her phone ringing she took it out of her bag and answered.

“Hello?” said Celine. “Hello?” Celine looked at her phone screen and shook her head. “Someone called me from a private number and hung up as soon as I answered”

“Maybe it was a wrong number” said Syafika.

When Celine noticed the coffees being delivered to their table she put her phone back in her bag and was just about to take a sip of her coffee when D’arby rang her phone again. Celine sighed and answered but D’arby hung up again.

“Maybe they keep losing signal?” suggested Syafika.

“Maybe someone is trying to annoy me!” said Celine.

D’arby quickly sent Celine a text message that said “Why did you hang up?” Celine’s phone made a soft chiming sound when D’arby’s message arrived.

“I’m not going to read that” said Celine. “Stupid phone”

“It might be important. I don’t mind if you check it” said Syafika.

“No. I’m cross with my phone now” said Celine.

D’arby had to send another five messages before Celine’s curiosity grew large enough for her change her mind. Syafika watched as Celine unlocked her phone to check her text messges then Syafika deliberately picked up her coffee cup without taking a proper grip. The cup slipped out of her hand and spilt coffee all over the table

“Ow!” said Syafika, pretending she’d burnt her hand.

The next bit had been hard to plan because D’arby and Syafika could only guess what Celine and the waiter might do, but fortunately their behaviour suited the plan. The waiter rushed to get some ice for Syafika’s hand and Celine dropped her phone into her bag and rushed over to the counter to get some serviettes to wipe up the spilt coffee.

D’arby reached down into Celine’s bag and took her phone. He knew he only had seconds before the screen would lock so he quickly opened her Contacts and looked for a ‘Lawrence’, but there wasn’t one. There was only a ‘Mr L’. D’arby looked through the rest of Celine’s contacts and couldn’t see any sensible names. While Celine was wiping up the spilt coffee and the waiter was presenting Syafika with a bundle of ice wrapped in a tea towel D’arby discreetly copied down the numbers for Mr L, Mr X, Mr Triangle, Lion and Mouse. Then he carefully put Celine’s phone back in her bag.

“Would you like another coffee?” the waiter asked Syafika.

“No thanks, I feel so embarrassed that I just want to go. Thanks for offering though” said Syafika.

Celine was a bit annoyed because she’d been looking forward to drinking her coffee and the waiter could tell so he poured Celine’s coffee into a takeaway cup. Syafika insisted on paying the bill and while she was doing so D’arby walked past and dropped the phone he’d been using and a piece of paper into Syafika’s bag.

As they walked back to the office Syafika apologized to Celine and they organized to go for a coffee again the next day.

Back at the office Syafika did some work for about half an hour and then discreetly put D’arby’s phone and piece of paper into her pocket and headed for the bathroom. Syafika checked that the cubicles were all empty and then opened D’arby’s note. It said:

“There wasn’t a Lawrence in the phone so here are some possibles. Try them until you get him”

Underneath the note was a list of the phone numbers D’arby had copied from Celine’s contacts and ‘Mr L’ was first. “L for Lawrence” thought Syafika. “But what about T for Tucker?”. Syafika noticed there wasn’t a ‘Mr T’ on the list. Complicating Syafika’s thinking was the fact that when he’d been working with her, Anthony had gone by the name ‘Anthony Long’.

Syafika opened the phone D’arby had given her and tried ‘Mr L’ first.

“Hello?” said Anthony.

Syafika was so relieved that she didn’t have to call everyone on the list that she almost forgot what she was supposed to say.

“Hi. It’s me – Syafika. We really need to meet today. At lunchtime. I’ll wait for you at the café in the Botanic Gardens at 1pm. Ok?”

“What?” said Anthony. “What’s this about?”

“I can’t talk now. Will you be there at 1pm?” said Syafika.

“Ok” said Anthony.

Syafika quickly hung up, put the phone in her pocket and tried to look normal as she walked back to her desk.

As Syafika sat down she heard a funny tinkling sound and realised that the phone was ringing. She looked at the number and realised that Anthony was calling her back. Syafika couldn’t speak to Anthony there and didn’t know how to turn the phone off so she took the back off and removed the battery. Then she looked up to see who’d been watching her and was disappointed to see that Nelson and Celine were both looking at her.

“Sorry. New phone. I don’t know how to use it properly” said Syafika, hoping that she hadn’t stuffed everything up.


The Inklings: Chapter 102

To read the story from the start go to:

As soon as D’arby woke up on Tuesday morning he went out the front to check for another parcel from Anthony and he was not disappointed. On the doorstep D’arby found an envelope with his name on it. He quickly opened it and found a letter that contained bank account details and said “You have three days to deposit $2,000,000”. This message made D’arby very angry and he was glad that RenewBank had other plans.

To keep up the façade for the other people spying on RenewBank, D’arby started his day at the official office before sneaking out and riding to the new office, which was a house that overlooked a park. D’arby wondered how Rudnika had been able to access such a nice place so quickly but didn’t want to ask questions because he knew he’d be offended if Rudnika wouldn’t answer him. Instead D’arby just showed Rudnika and Leopold Anthony’s note and told them about the plan he’d made with Syafika to get more information from Anthony.

“You will need to be very careful if you involve Syafika” said Rudnika. “And you know that you can’t tell her anything about what we are really up to”.

“I know. I don’t like misleading Syafika, but I haven’t told her anything about RenewBank or our trouble with Anthony. She just thinks I’m helping her find out information about Anthony because she wants to find out more about him. She has a crush on him and has noticed his mysterious behaviour” said D’arby.

“Do you trust Syafika? Are you sure she isn’t misleading you?” said Leopold.

“She’s a friend of a friend and she asked me to help her find out about Anthony months ago – before I even knew about RenewBank” said D’arby.


The Inklings: Chapter 101

To read the story from the start go to:

After Syafika left Fanta stayed out the front to watch the rain, and John came out to join her.

“Why didn’t Syafika want to borrow an umbrella?” asked John.

“She said she felt like getting rained on” said Fanta. “I’m a bit worried about Syafika trying to find out more about Anthony. He tends to make her go a bit crazy”.

“Yes, I don’t like the sound of Anthony at all. I think he’s shifty. But maybe the sooner Syafika realizes that, the better” said John.

“I guess. Meeting up with Anthony probably isn’t any crazier than chasing him around the Botanic Gardens” said Fanta.

“Tomorrow I’m going to teach my brother Tim how to run the restaurant so he can manage it while I take the weekened off. And Emily has invited us to dinner on Saturday. We can sleep over if we want because her place is so far away” John told Fanta.

“That will be a nice change!” said Fanta. “What about Nancy and Ruby? Are they invited to Emily’s place or should I ask D’arby if he can babysit?”

John was mortified that he hadn’t thought about Fanta’s sisters.

“What would they prefer?” asked John.

“They would probably like to come” said Fanta.

And so John went to call Emily, who fortunately was was happy for Nancy and Ruby to come to dinner too. Then John went back out the front to tell Fanta, but she wasn’t there anymore. Back inside John bumped into D’arby, who was on his way to have a shower.

“You never told me what was in the parcel!” said John.

“Not a bomb!” said D’arby. “Just urgent work stuff”. D’arby felt really sad about having to keep the exciting things going on in his life a secret and hoped that one day soon he’d be able to tell John all about this adventure.


The sound of heavy rain woke Fanta up early on Tuesday morning and she realised that rain was coming in through her open bedroom window. Fanta’s bedroom faced the street but because of the strong metal bars across the window she was not afraid to leave it open while she slept. As Fanta walked over to close the window a gust of wind blew the curtains open and Fanta thought she saw someone come in the front gate. She moved to the side of the window and peeped sideways through the gap in the curtain and saw someone leave an envelope on the doorstep. A car came along the street just as the mysterious delivery person turned to leave and in the light from the headlights Fanta caught a glimpse of a man who looked a lot like Anthony.


The Inklings: Chapter 100

To read the story from the start go to:

It was raining when Syafika left Fanta’s place, but Syafika liked being outside in the rain. There was still a little bit of light in the sky when Syafika arrived home so she decided to have a look at how the runoff was flowing through the back garden. As Syafika walked out the back door she discovered that Festus had set up his tools under the back verandah and was making something from pieces of wood.

“What are you making?” Syafika asked.

“I’m making two wheelchair ramps for India so that Penny can get in the front and back doors of her house” said Festus.

“That’s nice of you. I hope Penny and Gina are able to feel comfortable at India’s house” said Syafika. Syafika couldn’t imagine how she would survive living with India and realised that Penny and Gina would have to put up with it for at least a year.

“India will be on her best behaviour. She feels responsible for the fire and car accidents because she’s the one who asked Gina to make sweet potato chips, and it was India’s friends who filled the street with parked cars” said Festus.

Syafika took off her shoes and paddled along the miniature river to the pond. She could hear frogs croaking but it was too dark to see them. Then Syafika heard Rose telling Festus to come inside and reminding him that it was the 15th of March. Syafika had forgotten it was the anniversary of her grandparent’s death. She rushed inside to have a quick shower before 9pm.

Every year at 9pm on 15th March Rose would select something from her parents’ music collection to play and everyone had to sit in silence and listen to it from start to finish. It was not something that Syafika looked forward too, but she endured it without complaint because she knew how important it was to Rose.

When Syafika came into the loungeroom Rose was carefully opening a box that held the CDs, cassettes and records. Ousman was next to Binta and trying to stick his head into the box to see what Rose would choose to play.

“Be careful Ousman. The records are very fragile and precious” said Syafika.

There was a rule about which music was chosen. Each year they would play what was at the front of the box and then put it at the back of the box and Rose would not let anyone change the order. If anyone wanted to play any of the music on any other day of the year Rose would have to supervise and make sure that the order was not changed.

At the front of the box there was a CD and Binta took it out. The cover had a picture of a man sitting at a piano on it. Ousman laughed at the man’s hair because it was parted down the middle and stuck out a bit at the sides.

“This is the pianist who got so carried away that he often played wrong notes” said Binta.

Syafika remembered how when she was a girl her piano teacher had often been cross at her for playing wrong notes and decided that she might enjoy this record.

Syafika looked at Mamadou to see what he thought of this ceremony because it was the first time he’d been there to take part. Mamadou looked happy and Syafika wondered whether all artists were obsessed with music.

Festus turned on the lamp near the CD player and turned off the overhead light. Syafika realised that she sitting in the darkest seat in the room and was glad because it meant she wouldn’t have to worry about her face giving away any of her thoughts.

The first piece of music was slightly familiar to Syafika but not something she’d ever tried to play so she wasn’t able to tell if the pianist made any mistakes. The left hand played the melody and the right hand ran up and down the keyboard making complicated patterns that Syafika suspected were beyond her ability. Syafika enojyed the piece and wondered whether her grandparents had hoped she would be able to play it one day.

The second piece was something Syafika had played, but never as beautifully. The pianist on the record was explaining something using music, as if he wasn’t able to talk but had something very important to say. When Syafika had played the piece she’d been so worried about keeping time and getting the notes right that she’d made it sound robotic.

Syafika looked at Ousman to see if he was getting bored. He had his eyes closed and was leaning against Binta. At first Syafika thought he’d fallen asleep but then he smiled and moved his head to the other side so Syafika realised he was just enjoying the music.

The third piece of music was a trio and something Syafika had heard her grandfather listening to many times. The violin’s cheerful start made tears come to Syafika’s eyes. She remembered her grandfather’s bushy eyebrows and couldn’t help crying. Then Syafika remembered a stream of other things, like the day she’d got stuck at the top of a pear tree and her grandmother had called out helpful instructions to guide her down, and the taste of the dark purple plums her grandparents had grown. Syafika wiped tears from her cheeks and tried not to sniffle too loudly.

The next piece was just for piano and not something Syafika remembered hearing before. It reminded her of running up a hill and her mind drifted to other things. Syafika realised she missed being a kid who had nothing much to worry about apart from music lessons and she realised that she missed her piano teacher too.  Next Syafika remembered the photo of Anthony that D’arby had shown her that evening and the plans they’d made for her to contact Anthony. She realised how much she enjoyed being part of a plan that involved team work. It had been fun to spy on Anthony by herself, but also a bit too scary for comfort. Now that D’arby, Fanta and John were involved Syafika thought she would be able to relax and enjoy the adventure more.

When Syafika realised that instead of listening to the music she’d been thinking about Anthony and she decided that she’d give her full attention to the music for the rest of the CD. So Syafika spent the next half hour thinking only about the music she was listening to and she enjoyed it so much that when it was over she was disappointed.

When Festus turned the light on Syafika realised that Amanda was sitting on the floor near the door and looking really sad. When Amanda noticed that Syafika was looking at her she dashed out of the room and up the stairs so fast that Syafika wasn’t sure she’d really seen her.

Nobody else in the room mentioned Amanda and Syafika wondered whether they’d even noticed her. Ousman asked whether they could listen to music like that more often but Syafika didn’t wait to hear what Rose and Binta would say because she didn’t want anyone to notice that her eyes were red from crying. She said “Goodnight” and went to her room without looking back.

The Inklings: Chapter 99

To read the story from the start go to:

D’arby couldn’t help running the last kilometre of his trip home. He was anxious to find out if he was right that Lawrence the spy was also Syafika’s Anthony.

When D’arby burst in the front door Fanta came out of the kitchen and whispered for him to be quiet, then pointed towards the chair where John was sleeping.

D’arby quietly opened his backpack and took out an enlarged copy of the photo on Lawrence’s license.

“Is this Anthony?” D’arby asked Fanta.

Fanta looked at the photo carefully and then said “I think it is him, but you should ask Syafika to be sure. I only saw him once, and he was running pretty fast. But why on earth do you want to know?”

D’arby hated that he couldn’t tell Fanta what was going on. “I decided I would try to find out what Anthony is up to afterall” said D’arby.

“Where did you get that photo?” asked Fanta.

“I’m not supposed to say” said D’arby. “Is Syafika coming for dinner tonight? I’d really like to show her the photo”

“She is. I will call her to see if she can come early” said Fanta. She had never seen D’arby looking so excited and didn’t want him to have to wait any longer than necessary.

The stress of the fire on Saturday had left Syafika mentally exhausted and she was not enjoying being at work on Monday, so when Fanta called to ask Syafika to come early for dinner she was happy to oblige. Syafika turned off her computer and went downstairs to change into her running clothes. The clothes were still damp with sweat from Syafika’s lunchtime run but she decided that being a bit smelly was a fair price to pay for getting to Fanta’s place a bit faster. Syafika started running as soon as she came out the front door of her office building and smiled to herself because she looked and felt like she was running away from work.

When Syafika arrived at Fanta’s house John answered the door and Syafika thought he looked like he’d just woken up.

D’arby was in the kitchen making salad to go with leftover pumpkin soup and bread. Fanta and her sisters were in the backyard taking the washing off the clothesline because it looked like it was about to rain.

Syafika went to the kitchen to get a glass of water and caught D’arby muttering to himself.

“I want to show you something” said D’arby and he quickly washed and dried his hands before going to get the photo of Lawrence.

“That’s Anthony!” said Syafika as soon as she saw the photo.

“I thought so” said D’arby. “I just have to make a quick phone call and I’ll be back in a minute” said D’arby and he rushed to the phone to call Rudnika.

“I was right” said D’arby to Rudnika.

“Ok. See what else you can find out and I’ll see you tomorrow” said Rudnika.

Syafika was still looking at the photo of Anthony when D’arby returned to the kitchen.

“Where did you get this?” Syafika asked.

“I can’t say” said D’arby. “But I’ll help you find out more about Anthony if you like”

“Why now? A couple of months ago when I suggested we spy on him you and the others thought it was a dangerous idea” said Syafika. She’d been feeling a bit hurt ever since.

“I realised I should have been more helpful” said D’arby. “Tell me what else you want to know about Anthony”

Syafika didn’t want to tell D’arby that she wanted to know if Anthony had a girlfriend so she tried to think of other things she’d like to know and eventually said “I’d like to know how he can afford to live in a flat with harbour views and where he really went last year when he said he was moving to Perth. And I’d like to know where he works now, and why he pretends to be someone called Lawrence and has meetings with Celine and Nelson from work”

D’arby couldn’t help smiling when he heard all this information, even though he’d heard most of it before, because this time it made sense and he no longer thought that Syafika was making it up. D’arby really wanted to give Syafika some answers but knew he had to be careful. Then D’arby had what he thought was a brilliant idea. “Why don’t you organize to meet up with Anthony and just ask him all your questions?”

“I don’t know how to contact him” said Syafika. “I don’t have his current phone number”.

“Nelson must have it though” said D’arby.

“And so does Celine” said Syafika. “I saw her put it in her mobile phone”.

“What’s going on?” asked John as he walked into the kitchen with a fresh teatowel.

“Do you know anything about mobile phones?” D’arby asked John.

“Only how to steal them” said John.

12 Steps to not being an arsehole.

Last year I wrote a post about cooperating in groups ( but not long after I finished writing it I realised I was still lost. What troubled me in particular was how to deal with people I already have a bad relationship with. How can you get a group to agree to a certain standard of behaviour when at least one member does not like you (or will think that you are just trying to get at them) – especially when these rules for behaviour are something you seem to have made up on your own?

It reminds me of when I tried to climb Black Mountain[1], because it feels like climbing a never-ending mountain made up of boulders. I struggle to the top of one boulder, or a pile of boulders, thinking I’ll be ‘finished’ when I solve that problem, only to find I’m at the bottom of a new part of the mountain.

I’d probably still be stuck at the bottom of the last boulder if I hadn’t had my friend Sweta to talk to. As we told each other about various awful experiences we’ve had when trying to work with people who aren’t cooperative we came up with the ideas that I have used to write this article. It started with the realization that the worst characteristics of our society tend to get embedded within each of us, even if we don’t like those characteristics. My best example is ‘neoliberalism’  – which I take to mean a combination of selfishness and greed that disregards relationships and nature and cares only about making more and more money – it gets blamed for many problems in the world, but I’ve seen plenty of people who fight neoliberalism that have their own inner neoliberal that stops them from being able to work well with other people.

I was struggling to choose a word to describe people who make cooperation a misery. The term ‘neoliberal’ felt close, but it wasn’t spot-on and it also means different things to different people. Then my Dad pointed out that other people have decided that they are ‘arseholes’[2].  After plenty of reading and discussion, I realized that everyone is capable of behaving like an arsehole, that our culture has a lot to do with it, and that we need more than a private resolve to stop ourselves from being one.

What is an asshole/ arsehole/a-hole?

According to the 2012 book ‘Assholes: A Theory’ (James, 2012), an asshole is someone who has an entrenched sense of entitlement and is resistant or unwilling to listen to complaints. So they think they don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else, either because they are superior or because their cause is more important, and they don’t even pretend to care about what you think or bother to show you respect.

In the book ‘Asshole Survival Guide’ (Sutton, 2017) an asshole is “a person who leaves people feeling demeaned, deenergized, and disrespected”. Sutton (2017, p 117) says that in groups ‘the asshole poisons this well of goodwill by turning well-meaning people against one another’

James (2012, p122) mentions that assholes cease to cooperate if group decisions don’t go their way ‘… he can’t hide the fact that, in his view, this is of course his meeting, that a decision he disagrees with would be completely outrageous and raise serious questions of retaliation. He needn’t openly threaten retaliation, with memories fresh in the group from the last time things didn’t go his way.’

Other examples of asshole behaviour that James (2012) gives are:

  • Pushing in line.
  • Frequently interrupting when other people are speaking.
  • Driving without care.
  • Persistently emphasizing another person’s faults and using insulting language.
  • Being extremely sensitive to perceived slights while being oblivious to their own crassness.

I find it hard to write about examples I’ve experienced. At first I thought it was because I didn’t like remembering the pain of the experience but when I looked hard I started to better understand what went on and then the a-holeness seemed to vaporize (maybe because I realised things I hadn’t noticed at the time, like that the person behaving like an a-hole had been hurt by something else) – leaving me feeling silly for having been so upset by the situation. I guess there is also the chance that a well-practised a-hole will leave you feeling like it was all your fault.

Some examples I’ve seen of a-hole behaviour in group situations are:

  • When a group excludes certain (or most) people from decision making. I’ve seen this done in a number of ways:
    • People who don’t let other people have a say (commonly by responding angrily, speaking over people or just talking and talking until there isn’t any time left). I’ve often seen people who ask a question, or make a suggestion, be shut down by someone who doesn’t want to listen. It is awful when someone obviously isn’t interested in hearing what you have to say – as if they have already decided that nothing you could say would be worth listening to.  I know that this sometimes comes as a defensive action if you are making comments on something a person has done or proposed, and so the way you make suggestions is important too.
    • Hostility towards people who express ideas that don’t match the groupthink (sometimes dismissing these people as timewasters). I know it is hard to feel happy about sitting and listening to someone who comes across as a bit crazy talk about their ideas in a meeting when there are other things that need to be discussed before everyone leaves, but there must be a better way to deal with this than by being rude. There’s also the risk that if you don’t take the time to understand the seemingly crazy person you will miss out on an incredible idea. I’d like to see more questions aimed at understanding , and less defensive comments. Not everyone with great ideas is a great communicator. People talk about not wanting to be held to ransom by loonies, but this means you’ve decided that the people who don’t agree with you are loonies (a-hole behaviour, I reckon) rather than concluding that you don’t yet understand them. This excuse also gets used by developers and miners who want to destroy the lives of neighbours to their development or people living on the land they want to mine – labelling people as crazy so you can get your way is definitely a-hole behaviour. A friendly devil’s advocate is also something to be valued.
    • When a member of the group who has control of something the group needs refuses to cooperate unless group decisions go the way they want them to, or when one or two people in the group decide between themselves what is going to happen and think meetings are just for them to announce their decisions. To be fair, if some people in the group end up doing most of the work it is unlikely that they will think it is fair for other people to have just as much say in things as they do, but what then tends to happen is that people who have been excluded from decision making lose interest (I’ve left groups because of this) and so even fewer people are left to contribute to projects. Then it ends up not really being group work at all. I think help comes at a cost – you have to invest some time communicating and developing trust so it is easier to let go of control of parts of the project.
  • People who pride themselves on being inclusive but fail to value people of a certain race, sex, class or religion and then don’t even notice their prejudice – pretending to themselves that the person just doesn’t perform well.
  • Competitive behaviour – including unnecessary point scoring and rudeness.
  • Intellectual snobbery – people who don’t value uneducated people, and seem to think that a lack of education is an inherent indication of inferiority. This is especially annoying when it comes from people who believe in reducing inequality, or when it comes from university lecturers who regard explaining things properly as ‘spoon feeding’. I think they should remember the saying ‘If you can’t explain it to a 6 year old you probably don’t understand it,’ but I also realise that if everyone could understand the work that intellectual snobs do then it would reduce their value as an expert – they are protecting their cultural capital by limiting access to the same kind of cultural capital. This behaviour makes a-hole behaviour more likely because it divides people into those who are apparently too stupid to understand complicated things and those people who do understand complicated things but don’t understand the real world (and are able to use resources self-indulgently when ordinary people can’t because they are too busy growing the food, providing essential service etc – doing the real work).
  • Black and white thinking, like labelling a person who disagrees with you as ‘stupid’ or demonizing someone who once behaved like an a-hole towards you, or thinking that because a person has a certain characteristic or background that they will never understand you. This lazy thinking really annoys me because it leads to people having to continually develop their case against someone – as if there’s no intention of listening to what the other person has to say, except to use it to strengthen the argument for your point. Places dominated  by black and white thinking are not good places to develop friendships, or not what I think of as friendship – the kind that accepts none of us is perfect but we all our good qualities as well as bad, and that we all have a lot in common even if we have some differences. It may seem trivial to mention friendship, but the relationships between people in a group make a big difference to how well people cooperate.

I think a-hole behaviour happens when a person doesn’t feel your pain, or when they don’t feel any connection to you (or no connection to whatever it is they might damage). I think it is easier to be an a-hole in big cities or  large organisations because it’s easier to be distant from other people – you can treat someone badly and not expect to find yourself in a situation in the future where you depend on a person you’ve treated badly. In small towns or organisations, if you behave like an a-hole it is likely that everyone will find out, which will affect how other people treat you. [3]

Variations on assholes

James (2012, p87) points out that some people have an entrenched sense of entitlement without being bold enough to disrespect people to their face. Instead they are ‘open to the voiced or expressed complaints of other people, but immunized against their motivational influence’. So they listen to complaints, and maybe pretend to care, but do not care, because they are insusceptible to anything you might have said. ‘You really feel things have been sorted out between you, and that you really are mutually understanding and responsive to each other’s concerns, until you later learn that the discussion made no difference’ – the betrayal then happens behind your back. James uses the term ‘bitch’ for people who behave like this. This kind of behaviour is probably just as damaging as a-hole behaviour but might take more time to recognize – if you don’t witness the person being disrespectful you might initially be confused about what is going on. Maybe the same person can be capable of both ‘asshole’ and ‘bitch’ behaviour, adjusting according to who they are dealing with. Maybe ‘bitch’ behaviour is sometimes used in response to ‘asshole’ behaviour when the ‘asshole’ is too scary to confront. I think it is important to note that both kinds of behaviour come from the same feeling – that your thoughts or feelings should not interfere with what they want to do (Maybe the person behaving badly has decided that you are too stupid or uninformed to have anything worthwhile to say, maybe they think you are pursuing a different agenda to theirs, maybe they think it would be a waste of time to make an effort to understand you).

Psychopaths also don’t care about what you think or feel, but not for the same reason as a-holes. Gillespie (2017) explains that a lack of empathy is the common feature of psychopaths. The sense of entitlement an a-hole feels may block their ability to have empathy for you but because psychopaths cannot feel empathy it doesn’t matter whether they have a sense of entitlement or not, they just don’t care about you (It doesn’t mean they can’t be charming when they want to though) and that’s why I consider psychopaths to be at the extreme end of the a-hole spectrum.

What is the opposite of a-hole?

When I was searching for information about a-holes I couldn’t help noticing that some people have written guides about how to be an a-hole, so maybe you are worrying that trying not to be an a-hole isn’t a good thing because it makes it easier for people to walk all over you. When talking about how to be a good, strong leader Azzarello (2017) explains that: ‘The opposite of asshole is not “weak person”. The opposite of asshole is strong, genuine and respectful.’

So if I don’t want to be an a-hole, what do I want to be? Words that come to mind are decent (recognizing that other people are people too, being fair and proportionate), reasonable (appropriate, fair, sensible) and good (ethical, principled, honorable). Jureidini (2014) suggests that to be a decent person we need to respond with empathy. That would mean that on the empathy spectrum decent, reasonable and good people are at the high end and a-holes are at the low end.

What’s wrong with a-holes?

“Although we humans sometimes express it in strange ways, we all want a life where we encounter and are damaged by as few assholes as possible, we want the same thing for those we care about, and we don’t want to behave like or be known as assholes. As one reader wrote me, “No one ever says, when they are on their deathbed, ‘I wish I had been meaner.’ ” (Sutton, 2017 p39)

When I started writing this article my specific problem was that when people who want to do good things behave like a-holes it damages their cause. A-holes also damage people – causing them pain, misery and anger. Another big problem is that a-hole behaviour spreads (Sutton, 2017 p143), making people who aren’t usually a-holes behave like them.

Now that I’m looking I find that most things that annoy or upset me seem to boil down to a-hole behaviour.  Violence and war definitely require a-holes who think it is ok to hurt and kill other people; starvation and homelessness require a-holes who think it is ok for them to be so greedy that other people miss out, and other a-holes who think it’s ok to abuse other peoples’ kindness; destruction of nature requires a-holes who don’t recognize the value other forms of life (and don’t care about the people who will suffer in the future because of the destruction).

Seemingly minor a-hole behaviour between fairly reasonable people could be preventing effective action against hard core a-holes because if we are tied up being awful to the people who we mostly agree with we can’t cooperate properly, and if we can’t cooperate, the biggest a-holes will continue to get their way.


Culture has an impact on how many people behave like a-holes. James (2012 p92) suggests that individualistic cultures may tolerate the required sense of entitlement more than collective ones and that individualistic political philosophies with a clear entitlement message ‘may push many mere would-be assholes over the line’.

According to Kohn (1986, p128) ‘Because the US is both an exceedingly competitive and a highly individualistic society, and because competition here usually takes place at the individual level (rather than group), we often assume that competition promotes individualism. But the word is actually associated with two very different philosophical movements’.

Kohn (1986, p128) explains that these two movements are:

  • Genuine self-sufficiency, conscience, autonomy and nonconformity (a commitment to deeply held values and courage to risk disapproval or worse from others)
  • Pop culture/human potential movement – alienation from others, be your own best friend, look out for number one, privatization and the absence of communal forms of production, consumption and recreation.

Kohn (1986, p 129) adds that competition is compatible with the latter version of individualism, and I think it is usually the latter version of individualism that people mean when they say critical things about individualism. James (2012, p48) also mentions that ultra-competitive culture can also unleash the a-hole within people.

Gillespie (2017, page 153) finds that ‘Wealth drives individualism and individualism drives the free expression of psychopathy. He also points out that only ‘empaths’, which are people with empathy (not psychopaths), can cooperate.

Even just being too busy and distracted to be polite makes people behave like a-holes (Sutton, 2017 p146).

Sutton (2017, p143) points out that ‘power can cause you to have less empathy for others, to exploit them more, to focus more on your own needs and less on the needs of others, to be rude and disrespectful, and to act like the rules don’t apply to you. Wealthy people are more prone to such unflattering tendencies because, after all, being rich means that you have high social status, the ability to influence others, and to get more of what you want—all elements of power.

James (2012, Chapter 6) talks about how ‘Asshole Capitalism’ sends a strong entitlement message, encouraging others to behave like a-holes. Asshole Capitalism is an unstable capitalist system where there is:

  • The incentive of unbounded personal enrichment
  • Where ‘you can rightly get something for nothing or get rich without having to worry about the costs to others’
  • Under-management (not enough laws or protections against a-hole behaviour)
  • And ‘the resulting profusion of assholes undermines the cooperation needed for a capitalist system’s healthy functioning…’)

Tannen (1999, p3) describes the warlike atmosphere of Western culture (and the United States in particular) that she calls an ‘argument culture’ where we approach the world and the people in it with an adversarial frame of mind – we look at things in terms of black and white and winners and losers. According to Tannen (1999, p36) the argument culture creates an atmosphere of animosity that spreads. This is hardly likely to help us solve our problems and will make cooperation much harder.  The media is especially fond of the argument culture. Tannen (1999, p28, 29 and 30) writes about how the media likes to describe news items as fights between two sides and how they think they have achieved ‘balance’ by looking for people from the ‘right‘ and ‘left’ to provide views (and that this also means a label must be attached to people who may hold views that are a mix of conservative and liberal).

Having to have ‘two sides’ gets in the way of solving problems (Tannen, 1999, p47) because people with the greatest expertise are often rejected or refuse to take part in polarized debates if they don’t want to slot complex issues into a simplified debate format. This means that people who are willing to use the format get the parts, even if they don’t have much to teach us. Instead Tannen (1999, p 286 and 288) suggests that we learn from Japanese shows that have guests who are identified by the expertise rather than their political perspectives, that the number of guests is anything but two (1 or 3+) and that the goal is to mediate and diffuse polarization.

The talk of our individualistic argument culture encouraging a-hole behaviour made me wonder what else we could learn from other cultures. When discussing individualism Gillespie (2017, p151) mentions a study by Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) of survey data about the values of people in more than 50 countries that discovered that there were different cultural dimensions, which lead me to read the original work (Hofstede and Hofstede, 2005) and subsequent work (Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) and Hofstede Insights (2018a and 2018b)). You might consider this a bit of a detour, but I think it is important to consider how different cultures will shape potential a-holes. It is also important to understand why other people might think differently to you. If you can’t comprehend why someone else would not agree with you it is tempting to just label them as ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’, but if you are aware of the different values of their culture you might be able to understand why they would see things differently to you, and that would allow you to find them to be reasonable people (being able to imagine that in their position you would think the same as they do), even while you disagree with them.

Cultural dimensions and the impact on a-hole behaviour

The six dimensions of national culture are Power Distance, Individualism vs Collectivism, Masculinity vs Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Orientation and Indulgence vs Restraint (For more details see Table 1). The meanings of ‘individualistic’ and ‘collective’ are narrower than I would have expected, with some of the characteristics that I would associate with these words being in the Power Distance and Masculinity indices (Power Distance deals with the preference for or against equality while Masculinity deals with the tendency to compete rather than cooperate, reach consensus and care for the weak).

Table 1. Dimensions of National Cultures from Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) and Hofstede Insights (2018b).

Power Distance

This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. It is not the same as the GINI coefficient and there is only a weak correlation between the two.

High Power Distance Low Power Distance
People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.
Individualism vs Collectivism

A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”

Individualism Collectivism
A preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. As countries become wealthier they become more individualistic. A preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
Masculinity vs  Femininity

This is about what motivates people – wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).

Masculinity  Femininity
A preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.

Investing in armaments is given higher priority than aid to poor countries and economic growth is prioritized over environmental protection.

A preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

Aid to poor countries is a higher priority than investing in armaments and protection of the environment is prioritized over economic growth.

Uncertainty Avoidance

The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Strong Uncertainty Avoidance Weak Uncertainty Avoidance
Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour, and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.
Long Term Orientation vs Short Term Orientation

This dimension describes how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future.

Long Term Orientation Short Term Orientation
Encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. Prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.
Indulgence vs Restraint

This dimension is defined as the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses, based on the way they were raised.

Indulgence Restraint
A society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. A society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.


According to Hofstede and Hofstede (2005, p373): ‘Both what is “rational” and what is “ethical” depend on cultural value positions.’ They define culture as ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others’ and explain that the core of culture is formed by values, which are broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others and that these values are acquired early in life, and because of this they remain unconscious.

‘Every person carries within him- or herself patterns of thinking, feeling, and potential acting that were learned throughout their lifetime. Much of it has been acquired in early childhood, because at that time a person is most susceptible to learning and assimilating. As soon as certain patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting have established themselves within a person’s mind, he or she must unlearn these before being able to learn something different, and unlearning is more difficult than learning for the first time.’ Hofstede and Hofstede (2005, p2 – p3)

Values also vary according to age, sex and profession. For example:

  • Power distance varies between occupation just as much as between countries, but also countries with high power distance had high power distance in all occupations while those with low power distance had a low power distance in higher status jobs but a high power distance in low status jobs – so the power distance of the country affected high status much more than low.
  • In feminine countries there is no difference between scores of men and women but in masculine countries the gap in masculinity between men and women was largest (men very tough, women fairly tough). Overall the gap between women’s and men’s masculinity becomes smaller with age, becoming equal after 50 years of age.
Which values encourage a-hole behavior?

The key differences between each end of each spectrum for each cultural dimension are summarized in Hofstede and Hofstede (2005, Tables 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5,4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, 5.2, 5.3, 5., 5.5, 5.6, 6.2, 6.3, 6.4 and 6.5) and Hofstede (2015). It seems to me that people with a sense of entitlement would be more accepted in High Power Distance cultures (assuming they were at the top of the hierarchy) because inequality is expected, subordinates expect to be told what to do and because people in power get away with bad behaviour; that in Individualistic cultures selfishness and rudeness would be better tolerated because individual interests prevail over collective interests, sharing is not expected and it is ok to say things that will hurt another person in the name of ‘honesty’; in Collectivist cultures an a-hole could get away with treating people from out-groups  badly because laws and rights vary depending on which group a person is part of; in Masculine cultures male a-holes would be acceptable and the competitive nature of Masculine cultures probably makes people less empathetic (competitive people have less empathy);  in Strong Uncertainty Avoidance cultures people are more likely to behave like an a-hole because the culture is more stressful and because a-hole behaviour towards certain groups is acceptable. In Weak Uncertainty Avoidance cultures there tend to be fewer written rules and laws so a-hole behaviour might be harder to prove;and greedy people will get away with more in Short Term Oriented cultures because of the belief that people should be able to take as much as they can get. Indulgent cultures can be expected to use more resources and have more children, and be less likely to repress urges to behave like a-holes. In Restrained cultures men will be given a sense of entitlement.  I expect that that a-hole behaviour would be most acceptable /expected in cultures that are high power distance, masculine and short term oriented.


Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) found that values varied with class (with class based on profession). For example, Mewburn (2013) discusses how cleverness is a form of currency in academia (cultural capital) and because negative or unkind people are often seen as more intelligent, competent or expert than people who express themselves more politely that perception encourages a-hole behaviour, especially at public forums.

Williams (2017) has also studied different classes in America and has noticed double standards – the ‘elite’ class (household income in the top 20% and at least one university graduate in the household) is capable of a-hole behaviour towards the ‘working class’ (those neither rich nor poor – in the middle. Williams (2017, p11-12) says:

‘In an era when the economic fortunes of the white working class plummeted, elites wrote off their anger as racism, sexism, nativism – beneath our dignity to take seriously.’ ‘..when you leave the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss “the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America”, this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working-class whites. Deriding “political correctness” becomes a way for less-privileged whites to express their fury at the snobbery of more-privileged whites.’

Williams (2017, p25-30) claims that looking down on religion is a common form of modern snobbery (elites prefer to be spiritual but not religious) but that not all working class people who participate in religion believe in God and these people value religion for other reasons:  ‘For many in the working class, churches provide the kind of mental exercise, stability, hopefulness, future orientation, impulse control, and social safety net many in the professional elite get from their families, their career potential, their therapists, and their bank accounts.’

Williams (2017, Chapters 6, 8 and 9) explains why working class people see elites as two-faced:

  • They use their social lives to get ahead instead of spending their spare time with real friends and family.
  • Elites play political games, know how to be phony and suck up.
  • Implicit association tests show that elites are no less racist than working class. Working class racism is more explicit but ‘Among the professional elite, where the coin of the realm is merit, people of color are constructed as lacking in merit. Among the white working class, where the coin of the realm is morality, people of color are constructed as lacking in that quality.’
  • ‘Professors who would never let a racist comment pass their lips openly embrace “the stereotype of the southern redneck as racist, sexist, alcoholic, ignorant, and lazy … redneck jokes may be the last acceptably ethnic slurs in ‘polite’ society”, reports a Southern class migrant.’
  • Elites don’t value stay-at-home mums, but the working class would love to not need two incomes to get by. ‘… the average working-class man is less likely to espouse egalitarian than his professional class counterpart; but he spends more time caring for his children than does his elite counterpart.’


I mentioned a spectrum of empathy before because I think that a-hole behaviour comes from a lack of empathy, not necessarily because the person isn’t capable of empathy, but because something stops them from using their empathy. Things that can block empathy include:

  • Social distance. According to Goleman (2013) people with the most social power pay less attention to other people than those with less social power. They are also ruder in conversation (more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the person they are talking to). To feel empathy you need to first pay attention to the person.
  • A busy mind, stress (Barnecut, n.d.) because the emotions you are feeling get in the way of feeling empathy.
  • Sack (n.d.) explains that there is a link between addiction and lack of empathy (regardless of which came first) and that empathy must be restored for successful long-term recovery. Lack of empathy is also linked with the use of painkillers (Capps, 2017) and cocaine (Whiteman, 2014). This doesn’t mean I think that all addicts are a-holes[4]. What I suspect is that the same pain that causes addiction also causes a-hole behaviour.

Mending relationships

There are people I dread having to talk to because of the hurt they’ve caused me in the past, and that lingering pain makes it more likely I’ll respond with my own a-hole behaviour.  Thich Nhat Hanh writes about how communication can be toxic or nourishing (Hanh, 2013), that nourishing and healing communication is the food of relationships, that ‘With mindfulness we can produce thoughts, speech, and actions that will feed our relationships and help them grow and thrive’ (Hanh, 2013, p9) and ‘The foundation of love is understanding, and that means first of all understanding suffering. If you really want to love someone and make him or her happy, you have to understand that person’s suffering.’ (Hanh, 2013, p46).

Hanh (2013) makes a special mention of family relationships:

‘Sometimes communication is hardest in our own family because families share similar suffering and ways of responding to suffering. The suffering of your parents was passed down from their parents and from their ancestors before them.  Unless you begin to understand your own suffering and reconcile with yourself, that suffering will continue to be passed down to future generations.’

 ‘You have to recognize that you are the continuation of your father, mother, and ancestors. Cultivate mindfulness so you can recognize the habit energy each time it arises and embrace it with your energy of mindfulness. Each time we’re able to do this, the habit energy becomes weaker. If we keep practicing like this, we can stop the cycle of transmission, and this will benefit not only us but our children and descendants. We can also help our children learn how to handle their habit energies and nourish the positive elements they have inside’ (Hanh, 2013, p104)

Hanh (2013)  recommends:

  • Don’t act while angry because you aren’t lucid and it can cause a lot of suffering and escalate the situation. This doesn’t mean you should pretend that things are fine, it means you should first handle your anger by feeling and engaging with it in a healthy and compassionate way. Use mindful breathing to help yourself recognize anger and treat it tenderly. Because anger is a strong energy this might take time. After calming your anger with mindful awareness you can look deeply to see its nature and where it came from. Anger can be because of a wrong perception or a habitual way of responding to events that doesn’t reflect your deepest values. When you are angry it is a good time to ask for help and let others see your suffering instead of your anger.
  • To mend a rift or estrangement, first use mindfulness to recognize your own suffering and the suffering of the other person. Acknowledge their suffering, by saying something like ‘It’s not my intention to make you suffer. It’s because I didn’t understand your suffering, and I didn’t understand my suffering either’. Use your own words though, and before you say it practice mindful breathing.
  • We often get into the habit of thinking that change isn’t possible – we think that the other person should change and when they don’t we give up hope. Don’t wait for them to change, change yourself. When they irritate you, calm yourself and then invite them to speak and listen deeply. Don’t interrupt even if they say awful things or things that aren’t true. You can find a way to undo their misunderstanding later. Make time. This can take a long time. ‘Loving, compassionate speech and deep listening are the most powerful instruments for restoring communication. If you can understand and transform yourself, then you can help your partner. ‘(Hanh, 2013, p109)

What should we do about a-hole behaviour?

We can change the way we behave towards each other’ – to curtail the power of psychopaths and create a better society for us all’ (Gillespie, 2017, p161)

Even if there were special pills that cured a-hole behaviour, I don’t think we’d be able to force a-holes to take them. There is one person who sometimes behaves like an a-hole that we can influence though – ourselves.  I think this is especially important if you are working on a project meant to make the world a better place, because the negative impact that even a whiff of hypocrisy has can seriously put-off potential supporters of your cause.

In quiet moments we might all be able to explain what decent human behaviour was, but that doesn’t mean we behave that way. In the heat of the moment it might not come to mind fast enough to counteract the urge to behave like an a-hole, plus we get influenced by what other people do. It’s easier to feel ok about your a-hole behaviour if you regularly see other people behaving much worse. That’s why we need a list, and to remind ourselves regularly of the list, as well as our wish to be a good person.

Don’t be an a-hole yourself

  1. “Be slow to label others as assholes, be quick to label yourself as one.” (Sutton, 2017 p137). Make sure you aren’t an a-hole yourself. Seek and accept candid feedback from people who won’t sugarcoat the truth and apologise when you behave badly (Sutton, 2017 p140).
  2. Remember the Golden Rule and treat other people the way you would like to be treated. Gillespie (2017, p142) explains that the Golden Rule is at the core of every religion and philosophy and that all moral rules descend from it.
  3. Don’t demonise someone who is behaving like an a-hole – they might not always be like that (don’t be an a-hole to people behaving like an a-hole). Develop sympathy for people behaving like a-holes and respond to their nastiness with relentless civility and warmth (Sutton, 2017 p137).[5]
  4. Pay attention to people – listen and make eye contact. Make time for civility. Don’t cause stress to yourself or other by being too busy (Sutton, 2017) – if you can’t be civil doing all the things you plan to do then you should plan to do less. Hanh (2013) explains that you need to connect with yourself before you can connect more deeply with other people so reserve some time alone each day to communicate with yourself. He also suggests you begin each communication by remembering that there is an understanding and compassionate person inside everyone (by saying ‘hello’ to that person within them). Listen when you are at your best (practice mindful breathing and mindful walking until you are ready to really listen). Listen without interrupting or correcting (you can correct later, and listening with compassion keeps you safe from their wrong perceptions, bitterness, anger, blame and accusation). Hanh (2013, p44) suggests you remind yourself: ‘I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less’
  5. Use loving speech – speech that nourishes us and those around us. Speak in a way that helps others recognize the suffering inside themselves and in you (Hanh, 2013, p52-57):
    • Tell the truth. Don’t lie or turn the truth upside down. If you think the truth is too shocking then you need to find a way of telling the truth so that the person doesn’t feel threatened and that is loving and protective, remembering that your perception of the truth may be incomplete or erroneous. Don’t tell the truth in a violent or attacking way. If your words cause pain but are spoken with compassion and understanding the pain will heal more quickly.
    • Don’t exaggerate.Exaggerating takes away from the truth and takes away trust. If you exaggerate how bad what someone else has done then you are painting a wrong image of them.
    • Be consistent.This means no double-talk: speaking about something in one way to one person and in an opposite way to another for selfish or manipulative reasons.
    • Use peaceful language.Don’t use insulting, humiliating, accusing, judgmental or violent words, cruel speech, verbal abuse, or condemnation.  Note that we need to adjust the language we use to suit the person we are talking to – speak in terms they will understand, based on their experience, perspective and understanding (while keeping the content truthful).
  1. Argue about ideas, not the person who has them (Gillespie, 2017) and use cooperative conflict, which is not a debate where there is competition but an exchange of ideas – solving a mutual problem collaboratively. To do this it is important to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s interests and necessity of searching for a solution that is responsive to the needs of all (Kohn,1986, p156).
  2. Do not tolerate lying and keep your word (Gillespie, 2017): Judge people by their actions not their words and put your trust in people with a proven track record of passion and honesty.
  3. Keep away from a-holes because a-hole behaviour is contagious (Sutton, 2017). This might have to be a long term plan if you work with an a-hole and can’t quit immediately, or if someone in your family is the a-hole. We could apply the ‘No asshole rule’ (Sutton, 2017) to our personal lives as well as business lives – not hiring a-holes, not doing business with them and not marrying them or being friends with them. But first consider that a person might not always be an a-hole – they might just be having a bad day.
  4. Don’t act while angry – first handle your anger by feeling and engaging with it in a healthy and compassionate way.
  5. To mend a rift or estrangement, first use mindfulness to recognize your own suffering and the suffering of the other person. Don’t wait for them to change, change yourself.

Limit the damage that a-holes can cause

Hanh (2013, p130 – 134) explains that when people are exposed to altruism from members of their community your seed of altruism is watered and when your turn comes you will know how to sacrifice for the sake of the community.

‘When we speak about creating a sustainable environment or a more just society, we usually speak of physical action or technological advances as the means to achieve these goals. But we forget about the element of a connected community. Without that, we can’t do anything at all’

‘Mindful listening and speaking will make it easier for us to build a stronger community’

There are also structural things that we can do (together) to limit the damage that a-holes can do.

  1. Apply the ‘No asshole rule’ (Sutton, 2017) – screen out a-holes before giving them jobs, which means being aware of what to look out for and being open about the rule[6]. I think the ‘No asshole rule’ should be extended beyond our organisation so we don’t do business with a-holes, vote them into power etc.
  2. Limit income and wealth – remove the incentives to use bad behaviour to get more than your fair share (Sutton, 2017).
  3. Don’t enable a-holes by serving one – by cleaning up their messes and allowing their bad behaviour to continue (Sutton, 2017 p152).
  4. Encourage communal investment in goals (management by objective) (Gillespie, 2017).
  5. Use a reward system that aligns with values – reward good behaviour (remember that the threat of punishment does not deter psychopaths) (Gillespie, 2017).
  6. Limit the power of corporations – corporations are psychopaths (Gillespie, 2017).
  7. Have a culture of honesty (Gillespie, 2017, p112):
    1. Remind people that they are honest
    2. Tell people that everyone else is honest.
    3. Don’t allow loopholes of omission – people are more likely to lie by omission so have systems that don’t allow a default or no response option.
    4. Reward honesty
    5. Avoid secrecy
    6. Decentralise decision making
    7. Promote open communication – CEO should be in communication with all levels of the organisation
    8. Encourage communal investment in goals (management by objective).
  8. Don’t use an adversarial format for discussion, or the legal system (Tannen, 1999).
  9. Have rules of engagement for dialogue (Tannen, 1999) that include:
    1. Don’t demonise
    2. Don’t offend values
    3. Talk about needs, wants and interests rather than rights
    4. Be reasonable but stick to your convictions.
  10. Share the power and the humble tasks – incorporate the ‘Balanced job complex’ idea from participatory economics (Wikipedia, 2017) into workplaces and other organisations to improve empathy and help prevent people developing a sense of entitlement. What it involves is sharing (each day or each week) the unskilled or demeaning work as well as the more rewarding and empowering tasks (it sort of follows that you’d have to look at reducing the difference in pay between the highest and lowest paid in the organization). An important aspect of this is that everyone gets to participate in decision making, not just ‘managers’, and decisions are better informed because the people making them actually do the work.
  11. Reduce the influence of powerful a-holes by replacing elections with ‘sortition’ – selecting citizens randomly to represent the electorate they live in for a term. This way you’d get a more representative sample of people in parliament (no more career politicians) so you’d get people who are better connected with the people they are representing. Without elections there’d be no need for donations towards political campaigns and much less need for political parties, making it harder buy influence – instead of threatening a party you’d have to threaten all members of parliament, none of whom would be worried about reelection. Sortition should also be used to select people for powerful roles that aren’t elected (or if the role requires some kind of technical experience or ability then randomly choosing from a pool of candidates who have the prerequisites).

Addiction and assholism – making use of the 12 steps?

Like healthy eating and exercise, just knowing what you should do isn’t enough. Sutton (2017, p152) mentions a man who called himself a ‘recovering asshole” and worked on not being an a-hole “one day at a time.” When I think of interacting with people who I haven’t gotten along with in the past a whole day seems like a long time to resist getting angry and falling into rude behaviour, so I’d rather take it one interaction at a time.

Addiction makes a-hole behaviour more likely, but there might be more to it than that.  When Brand (2017) writes about how the 12 step program can be used to control addictive behaviour he also claims that addiction has become part of our culture and that we are all addicted to something, even if it is something socially acceptable (like food, work, money or power), and that some of these behaviours are even endorsed by our culture. On page 15 he writes:

‘I believe we live in an age of addiction where addictive thinking has become almost totally immersive. It is the mode of our culture. Consumerism is stimulus and response as a design for life. The very idea that you can somehow make your life all right by attaining primitive material goals – whether it’s getting the ideal relationship, the ideal job, a beautiful Berber rug or forty quids’ worth of smack – the underlying idea, ‘if I could just get X, Y, Z, I would be okay’, is consistent and it is quite wrong.’

 Brand (2017, p 169) adds that:

‘Consumerism and materialism are creating a culture of addiction. We are all on the scale somewhere because we are kept there by the age we live in’

Bruce Alexander was part of the team that ran the “Rat Park” experiments and discovered that if rats were given big cages with things to do, nice food to eat and other rats to socialize with, they weren’t interested in heroin (but lone rats in small cages were) (Alexander, 2010). Alexander (2010) continued to wonder what causes addiction and whether people who become addicted actually feel “caged” and so he looked at what had happened to native tribal groups in Western Canada who were moved off their tribal lands onto small reserves in the 18th and 19th Century. This move destroyed the economic basis of their cultures and split up families because children were taken from parents and sent to “residential schools” to be assimilated and native languages were forbidden at these schools. Alexander (2010) found that before colonization the native people of Western Canada there was little or no addiction but after colonization almost all became alcoholics and other addictions also became common (such as drugs, television, gambling, dysfunctional relationships). In areas where native cultures were not destroyed but alcohol was available people drank (and sometimes got drunk) but there was no widespread alcoholism and in areas where native culture was destroyed but alcohol was not available people behaved a lot like alcoholics – they stopped doing productive work, stopped taking care of their families and criminality became a problem (so if there was a genetic weakness it would have to also be for TV, gambling, bingo, the internet and dysfunctional love relationships).

‘Native people have described the anguish of being deprived of their traditional cultures and social networks in eloquent language and have explained how drunkenness relieved their misery temporarily, even as it ultimately led to self-destruction.’

Alexander (2010) concluded that an environment that produces social and cultural isolation causes high levels of addiction – drugs only become irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed:

‘The view of addiction from Rat Park is that today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, hypercompetitive, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social and culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction to drugs or any of a thousand other habits and pursuits because addiction allows them to escape from their feelings, to deaden their senses, and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.’

Remembering that feeling distant from others (either because you don’t have any empathy or because something is blocking your empathy) cases a-hole behaviour, perhaps the same lack of connection that causes addiction, and if so, perhaps the same treatment will be useful.

Rob (2017) also suggests that the 12 Steps are useful for everyone saying ‘They’re about being a decent person who builds self-esteem through honesty, dignity and reliability. The 12 Steps are a Design for Life.’ Rob (2017) explains that alcoholics use alcohol because it allows them to escape themselves and their self-loathing, feeling isolated and full of fear and that the 12-Steps allow you to become someone you are happy to be so you don’t need to use something to help to escape yourself.

Deer (2012) also suggests that ‘normal’ people can benefit from the 12 steps:

‘The beauty of these steps is that what they really do is help us see we’re trying to control things we can’t and help us let and ask for help, take responsibility and apologize when we screw up! Who would have imagined that apologizing was a spiritual practice?

This has less to do with hard core addiction and everything to do with ego! Which applies to everyone—especially assholes!’

Brand (2017, p22) also mentions the self-centred nature of addiction:

‘Curiously, later examination of these principles revealed that self-centred, egotistical thinking is the defining attribute of the addictive condition.’

Brand (2017, p177) points out the value of having the program to refer to in difficult times:

‘In moments when we are challenged it is helpful to have clearly iterated ideals to which we are willing to work. That way we have immediate access to a checklist, as I keep saying much of the spiritual life as I live it is admin.’

The ongoing nature of the 12 steps is also important. It is easy to fall back into bad habits without regularly reminding yourself of how you want to behave, especially when we are constantly being exposed to people behaving like a-holes. Brand (2017, p215) says:

‘ In my working of Step 12 is the understanding that I will always default to self-centredness; if I don’t work on my mental and spiritual state I automatically become selfish and indifferent to the suffering of others. A friend of mine says, “the spiritual life is like rowing a canoe away from a waterfall, if you stop rowing you are pulled backward.”’

Deer (2012) translated the 12 steps to be more palatable to “normal“ people:

1) Admit I have issues and I’m unhappy because of them

2) Believe I can heal if I let go and ask for help

3) Let go of “control”

4) List all resentments I have caused or have gotten, list my part in them and my issues/triggers

5) Share this list with someone

6) List my emotional issues and triggers

7) Ask for help with these issues

8) List all the people I’ve hurt

9) Apologize to them

10) Do all these things regularly

11) Meditate/pray

12) Help others

Rob (2017) explains that steps 1 to 3 are about admitting your life is a mess, recognizing you aren’t the centre of the universe and that you can’t control everything that happens to you; 4 to 9 are essentially about learning to live a decent life; and steps 10 to 12 are basic maintenance based on the previous 9 steps, as well as about helping others who need it.

The meditation step (step 11) is probably useful for another aspect of connection – with ourselves.

Now what?

I think that most of us at risk of a-hole behaviour because we are rushing around trying to achieve things that we think will make us feel our lives have been worthwhile. Cutting down on chatting time might feel like a clever time saving measure, but if we neglect to communicate compassionately with ourselves and the people around us we are likely to end up feeling disconnected and empty, no matter how much other stuff we got done. Things that reduce our chances of behaving like a-holes towards other people are:

  • Empathy – feeling what other people feel. You might not know those people or love them but you can imagine what it is like to be them, and that makes it hard for you to treat them badly.
  • Connection – you know or rely on someone. You might not really understand them but there’s a familiarity and closeness or dependence that means that if they get hurt it hurts you.
  • Real understanding – you have communicated properly with the person enough to understand what they think and feel, and because you really know the person their behaviour makes sense to you (and you think they are reasonable, even if they don’t think exactly the same way as you).

The same things can reduce a-hole behaviour towards nature: empathy for other life forms, feeling connected to nature (knowing that we depend on it and feeling part of it) and understanding nature (although this is unlikely to be via spoken or written communication, it could be developed through spending time listening to, and observing nature).

To reduce a-hole behaviour, I think we need rules for our own behaviour (the ‘Don’t be an a-hole yourself’ list), and rules for community and organisations (the ‘Limit the damage that a-holes can cause’ list). But just knowing what a-hole behaviour and decent behaviour is, and how we can make it harder for people to behave like a-holes isn’t enough. Knowing what to do isn’t the same as knowing how to do it (otherwise everyone would be fit and eat healthily). That’s where I think we need some kind of program – a regular practice used to administer the ‘rules’ that you want to live by. Another element that the 12 steps can add is the connection to yourself (by listening to yourself enough to understand what is going on inside), and to other people who are trying not to behave like a-holes. Having this regular connection or dialogue serves as a reminder of the ‘Don’t be an a-hole yourself’ list, to reinforce the practice of vigilance and to admit when we’ve slipped back into a-hole behaviour.

Ideally, I’d like to include some information on how a recovering a-hole can use each of the 12 steps, but I’m still looking for someone qualified to explain that. One difficulty I’ve already realised is that not behaving like an a-hole isn’t as clear cut as ‘not drinking alcohol’ or ‘not taking drugs’ – just being able to identify your own a-hole behavior takes effort.

After writing this article, what I think I need to do next is step 4 (make a moral inventory). I need to better understand my own a-hole behaviour and what triggers me in order to stop it, because I probably don’t even notice all the instances.

Here’s my version of the first four steps to not being an a-hole:

  1. I realise I can behave like an a-hole and I don’t want to behave like an a-hole.
  2. I realise I don’t have to behave like an a-hole. It isn’t just part of who I am, and it isn’t necessary to be the person I want to be. I believe that there is a way to not behave like an a-hole.
  3. I need help to not behave like an a-hole.
  4. Make a moral inventory – take a fearless look at myself and identify negative thoughts, emotions, and actions that make me behave like an a-hole. This is very scary so I’m going to use a guide, like Brand (2017, chapter 4) that involves writing resentments and fears from as far back as you remember.

I don’t know how I will do step 5 yet because the few people I’ve mentioned my idea to have just laughed. But things might change before I’ve finished my inventory. Who knows, maybe people all over the world are thinking the same thing as me and will start meeting to support each other to not be a-holes.

There’s one more critical question I need to answer before I finish this article. Have I found a way to make it easier to work with people I don’t get along with?

Even if I manage to never behave like an a-hole again, will it make a difference to how I feel about cooperating with people who aren’t nice to me? While I’ve been writing this article (which has been a while – it has taken all the scraps I time I could find for many months), I have definitely noticed a change in my attitude towards the people I would previously have said I didn’t like. Not that I think they are perfect now, but I no longer dislike them. I think that’s because I realise that there probably aren’t many permanent a-holes out there, but there are a lot of suffering, disconnected people who, in their weakened state, behave like a-holes sometimes. Maybe it is a coincidence (though I don’t really think so), but there seems to be an improvement in the behaviour of some people who’ve upset me in the past. I can’t help thinking it might be because I’ve become slightly less of an a-hole and they’re responding in a similar way.


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[1] Black Mountain is near Cooktown in Queensland and made up of lots of giant boulders. I’ve since heard that it is too dangerous to climb, so don’t try. My dad, sister and I were guided by local Charlie Roberts when we climbed. I remember we stopped by the side of the road and wandered over, but it must have been better planned than that (I was only ten).

[2] Americans say ‘asshole’. ‘A-hole’ is a less offensive version of the word.

[3] Not that people in small towns can’t be assholes, but if you knew everyone would find out what you were up to you might reconsider some asshole behaviour.

[4] One very decent person I knew was the opposite of an asshole, despite having a problem with drinking and being a heavy smoker. Some people don’t take their pain out on others.

[5] Gillespie (2017) recommends that you maintain your privacy when dealing with a psychopath boss (I imagine the same advice is good for any psychopath you have to deal with) so take this into account when being warm and civil to someone who is being an asshole because if they are really lacking in empathy they might use information about you against you. You should also fact check the things that assholes say and keep records of their bad behaviour.

[6] We also need to look out for psychopaths, who can be expected to show superficial charm and tell lies about their past so fact check their claims and talk to people who have worked below them.

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