If my previous post was about being kind and respectful (or enacting those qualities), this post is about being (or being perceived to be) mean.
I've long noticed that I'm drawn to people whom many people don't like. By "drawn to," I don't mean "attracted to" (or at least not usually), and by "don't like," I don't mean "...because they're horrible and evil and have bad breath." I just mean difficult people: people with short tempers or frosty demeanors; people who don't empathize well; people who can seem arrogant or bitchy or high-handed.
Generally, these people are not friends; I'm not talking here about people whose difficult qualities you put up with because they're also fucking hilarious or because they can be tons of fun in the right setting. No, I'm talking about people who are usually situationally inappropriate as friends: bosses, supervisors, or co-workers/colleagues somewhat more advanced than oneself.
I used to think that it was just that I got along well with difficult people--that I was tolerant, knew what not to take personally, and could appreciate their positive managerial qualities (which in the cases I'm talking about always included extreme intelligence and extreme efficiency). But as I've gotten older, and have racked up more such relationships, I've realized that there's more to it: I really do seek out difficult people. Actually, I admire them.
I don't exactly know what this is about. The majority of the people I'm thinking of are women, so maybe part of it is about finding aggressive, intelligent women appealing as role models (although I'd like to make it clear that I don't think the women I'm talking about are particularly "misunderstood"--that, because they're women, they're read as bitchy while men with the same traits would simply be seen as commanding and efficient; most of these women actually are somewhat lacking in empathy, or self-knowledge, or interpersonal skills).
What's to admire? Well, toughness. Determination. Smarts. But most of the difficult people I'm thinking of are also, in their way, self-sacrificing.
The other day I was having lunch with some of my junior colleagues when The Devil Wears Prada came up. Someone spoke admiringly of Meryl Streep's performance.
"Yeah, she's pretty great," I said. "But really, the reason I love that movie is because Miranda Priestly is my dissertation director."
One of my colleagues, who has worked with Advisor, spat out his coffee.
"Am I exaggerating?"
"No." He shook his head. "In fact, that's a remarkably accurate comparison."*
And it is, but (as I went on to say) it's not so much the boss-from-hell caricature that I'm thinking of as it is the surprising sense of duty and obligation that Streep's Priestly is revealed to have: she really believes that she's the only person who can do what she does, and she sacrifices large parts of her life--not just her marriage, but arguably some of her humanity--to that sense of duty.
Is she right? I'm not sure that it matters. What matters is that she perceives herself to be under an obligation to her profession; she knows what she owes people, and she never shirks a responsibility.
To me, that's more admirable than not. I guess that I like nobly flawed people.
But I also like intimidating, somewhat scary people. Maybe that's because I don't perceive myself to be particularly intimidating, and I want to be associated with strength. Or maybe it's because I am intimidating, at least to some people--I admit that I have a tendency toward impatience and imperiousness; I'm demanding; and when I'm angry my voice gets soft and silky and completely freaks my students out.
Or maybe, and probably more to the point, I'm motivated by fear. What academic isn't? Whether it's the fear of objective failure (not finishing the dissertation, not getting a job, not getting tenure) or the fear of relative failure (not doing as well as a colleague, friend, or ex-friend), we're all trying not to prove ourselves frauds.
But in my case--and since so many of the scary-difficult people in my life have been people I've actively chosen to work with--I wonder whether I don't prefer to set up a situation that produces fear: one in which I know I'll be nervous and intimidated, never feeling that I've done enough or that I'm good enough. I complain about not being petted and loved and appreciated, but I suppose that those things aren't really very important to me.
Why: because I already have sufficiently high self-esteem (so I don't need the validation)? Because I have excessively low self-esteem (and so wouldn't believe compliments and flattery anyway)?
I don't know, actually.
*Seriously. 90% of the time, when I get asked whom I worked with, the response is some version of, "Oh. She doesn't seem very. . . nice."