What’s with all the pettiness?

Petty gifPettiness, by definition, focuses on the insignificant. So why spend time thinking about it? Because, for all its smallness, pettiness is a signal of something bigger that can stand in the way of relationships and success.

Now that worries us — more so because pettiness is on the upswing. To help us understand what it means and what to do, we spoke with Dr. Emily Stein, a psychologist in private practice in New York City, affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital.

Now trending: Pettiness

At least it feels that way. Visibility of petty comments and actions began noticeably  rising on social media in 2016, along with celebrity-based memes and braggadocio tee shirts (#petty & proud).  

This surprised Dr. Stein, who says, “There’s no honorable reason to look up to people who are petty. It’s a sign of insecurity and lack of personal integrity.”

And yet…

“Sadly online has given a forum to find other like-minded people who are cruel or sadistic or ill mannered” observes Dr. Stein. “You can put anything online and find a quorum of people who think it’s funny.”

Indeed. In April 2017, thethings.com posted: ”Sometimes, being petty is just way more fun than being mature, especially when you have friends who feel the same way…Sometimes, the more mature people in your life will try to talk you into joining the dark side. Don’t do it!”

As tongue-in-cheek as that statement is, it contains a snippet of truth. Most of us can be tempted to indulge in a bit of mean merriment at the expense of another because there is something “fun” about it. But if mean equals fun, what does that really say about us?

Petty’s just another word for hostility

Yep. It’s akin to bullying because it intends to hurt someone (though it usually stops short of the repeated harm that bullies inflict). It’s also an attempt to make the petty person feel better about themselves.

One of the most common forms is cattiness, which  emerges when we feel competitive around someone. Rather than admit our insecurity outwardly — or even to ourselves — we make fun of appearance or habits (“I haven’t seen a pair of pants like that since 1989!” or “Did you ever notice how his eyes cross right before he speaks? How weird!”). Or, we verbalize assumptions that we wish were true but may not be (“She brown-nosed her way to the top.”).

“Insecure people feel hurt by everything, so they call people on things that don’t make sense,” explains Dr. Stein.

The other type of pettiness proliferating online as amusement is vengeful passive-aggressiveness. This roundup on Buzzfeed documents some creative paybacks for crimes like squishing a sandwich in the office fridge, leaving teabags in the sink, and banning microwave popcorn. Even the more serious offenses are outsized by the responses.

“It’s punitive,” says Dr. Stein. “It often results from a narcissistic injury that makes people feel worthless.” In other words, when people feel inadequate, they are highly vulnerable to criticism, which prompts them to respond in larger-than-expected ways.

Then there’s nitpicking — a highly effective way to avoid a real issue. Let’s say you went out for an expensive meal with a friend, and your partner keeps bringing up how much money you spent. Chances are, this quibble distracts your partner from a concern that’s harder for him to deal with, like not feeling loved or respected.

Pettiness limits our lives

When we don’t deal directly with what bothers us, it’s confusing on both sides because nothing is as it seems — hardly conducive to flourishing.

For instance, it narrows our circle of friends. When we’re acting petty, we stop ourselves from pursuing relationships for insignificant reasons. At the same time, we distance the people we do know by “focusing on the mini instead of the real issues at hand,” says Dr. Stein. “If these issues were addressed, it would pave the way to a clear, more connected relationship.”

Similarly, when we are consumed by petty concerns at work, it blinds us to the bigger vision. “You’re not getting all the information you need to think things through clearly,” Dr. Stein explains. This kind of persistent tunnel vision is not the stuff of leaders, so we may find ourselves left out of the larger conversations.

Cure for the petty

Pettiness happens to the best of us, but it’s not chronic. When you find yourself obsessing on an event or person, Dr. Stein recommends asking yourself these questions:

  • Why is this getting to me so much?
  • Can I think of this in another way?
  • If I wasn’t focusing on this, is there a bigger aspect to consider?
  • How important is this on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • How does this matter in the world?
  • Would would things look like if this weren’t important?
  • If this wasn’t bothering me, what else would be?

If you’re on the receiving end of pettiness, here’s Dr. Stein’s advice on how to deal:

  • If it’s your boss: Accept the way they think and accommodate as best you can.
  • If it’s someone you manage: Help them think bigger by posing a question or request in a different way.
  • If it’s a partner: Shake up the dynamic a little with an “I” statement, such as: I don’t like it when… or  it hurts me when….
  • If it’s someone you don’t have to interact with: Cut off the relationship and/or find someone else.
  • If it’s a good friend: Accept them for who they are and avoid situations where their pettiness will bother you.




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