Episode 12 – Be A Light or Why People Act Mean

Why People Act Mean
The Random Commute Show
The Random Commute Show
Episode 12 - Be A Light or Why People Act Mean

As you heard in the episode, friends of mine have been insulted for being themselves. This unacceptable behaviour hurts me deeply. For one because it made a good day turn out bad. Then it also hurt people I care about. But lastly, it’s what happens on a daily basis in the world. Verbal insults, physical aggression, #blacklivesmatter, #metoo and similar news are all around the newspapers, TV broadcasts and of course the realm of the internet. In the article, I want to highlight why people act mean.

Why People Act Mean

Negative Behaviour

This negative behaviour is a way of living for many people. Or at least this seems to be the way. The amounts of any form of aggression and negative creating behaviour seem to grow exponentially. I don’t have researched any evidence for this, so consider this my subjective opinion. What are your thoughts on it?

The issue seems to be found within the lives of the people causing this behaviour. Something must not be completely right with them or their lives, something must be certainly off. There is no reason to call anyone bad names and you could argue that there is no reason to get physically aggressive (I understand that there might be extreme situations, but we are talking “everyday life” here).

Lashing Out

What causes people to lash out then? With this question we enter the realm of psychology and a field of study that is huge, to say the least.

There are a couple of easy answers to this behaviour and why people act mean in the broadest sense:

  • it feels rewarding
  • it gets you noticed

Acting out mean is rewarding to some because they might get praise. This praise could come in different forms, a high five from your buddies, some extra money because you closed a deal. No matter what kind of reward the people acting out feel, if they do it on a consistent basis, they absolutely feel they get something out of it.

Getting noticed feels good and by being mean you can achieve this easily and with a high degree of certainty. This might be our brains running on instinct, portraying old schemes of survival, as we are wired to see, remember, act and react to negative situations. This is because we might be endangered by those moments.

So while hurting people has no direct benefit – and it might push people into a corner and leading them to do drastic things – the behaviour feels still good to the aggressor.

Reasons Why People Act Mean

There are many ways of grouping those reasons. We will see that those reasons mostly portray a flaw in one way or another in the person itself. This also means that unless you really acted out, i. e. did something of significant, the actions taken towards you have nothing to do with you. You are simply (and I don’t want to downplay the effects on you), the receiving vessel of their own problems. Knowing this ought to help you to not feel hurt, or at least, to get over it quickly.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Misunderstanding

It might be an actual misunderstanding because acting mean doesn’t necessarily imply bad language. When two people exchange information, there might be at some point a problem in the process, leading to a misunderstanding and hence to miscommunication. This could be the tone of voice, the actual wording, but also the interpretation. Those type of problems are usually not intentional and can be resolved if addressed properly by the people involved.

Why People Act Mean

In such cases, it’s good to take a step back and tell the communication partner what you heard them say and what it made you feel. Then the situation can be clarified and misunderstandings can get resolved, arguments settled.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Lack of Skills

Lack of skills can refer to interactions where a person acts out mean due to inexperience in social norms or simply by not having the ability to move around in certain social environments at ease. This could be because one has never been taught in those norms or maybe the person falls into the spectrum of people with Asperger’s syndrome.

Furthermore, it can also describe a situation in which a person doesn’t understand certain types of communication like irony or sarcasm. When one party uses this type of communication people might be insulted or insult people without wanting to. This can also quickly happen when your tone of voice isn’t communicated, like in e-mails for instance. You might use humour in your message, but the people reading it might not hear this humour because the verbal outspoken tone is missing.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Lack of Awareness

This can be a hard one. Lack of awareness can be a cultural problem. The moment people with different backgrounds interact many things can go wrong and misunderstandings might happen. The person might have a completely different belief setting than you or a different understanding of personal boundaries or space. By simply acting on what they deem “normal”, i. e. the way its common practice in their native country, people might be mean in your eyes, but in their belief, they act nothing but kind.

Of course, it could also simply mean that the person didn’t notice something, i. e. not paying proper attention. A person bumping into you, leading to spill your coffee, because they were focused on their smartphone certainly could be seen as a mean act. Yet, it was more likely nothing but unnecessary lack of awareness in form of focus on their surroundings.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Misdirected Intentions

Similar to cultural differences, people might seem to act mean by their principled behaviour. This is something I often struggle with. By being honest with people I tend to say things that are true, but the way I say it can be harmful. I don’t intend on harming or hurting those people, I rather try to be helpful. It’s about the way you say it more often than what. Being principled is a fine thing, but make sure your tone is appropriate.

Why People Act Mean

The same goes if you try to be of service and be helpful. You or any other person might act harmful instead. Men fall often into this sort of behaviour by giving advice, especially to women, when they weren’t asked to provide any. The intention was good, but all that needed to be done was to listen in most cases. Also, the language used to get over things, like “man up” or “boys don’t cry” fall into this category. Well intended, but more mean than helpful.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Pleasure

Pleasure is a very dominant force in anyone’s life. We are wired to seek pleasure in many different ways. Our brain is simply set up to seek pleasure and mechanisms that reinforce it. Pleasure seeking can be both positive and dramatically destructive (for example, helping other people vs. taking hard drugs).

The types of reward can differ though, there is power, respect, attention and money. Those categories might overlap at times too. Power is a tool of control over a situation (people, things, processes etc). The moment someone has power over another person, this tool can be exploited which can be harmful. On the same time in order to gain power one might choose to act hurtful and mean, ensuring success in their endeavour.

Respect is very close to power, as it often reinforces power structures. That’s because people tend to confuse respect with fear. It is great if you are such a respected persona that people go above and beyond to help you achieve your goals – out of their own free will and desire. Yet, respect isn’t something you can ask for, you can only behave in a way that other people deem worthy of respect. The moment you want to force people to “respect” you, you use tools to do so. Those tools (i. e. a threat) will only cause fear. You end up with people who will abide, but only because they fear you, not because they respect you.

Getting noticed can be a great feeling. You did a great job at your work and your boss applauds you for it, in front of the team. That’s an amazing feeling! Some people get hooked on it because they want it again, like a drug, or because they feel neglected (maybe a child not getting any form of parental attention). One way to basically guarantee attention is hurtful behaviour. Call someone bad names, or punch a person in the face and you will get noticed.

Money is the ultimate form of reward in a capitalist system. Mean behaviour can often translate into a lot of money. that is why we have Ponzi schemes, insider trading, front running and so on. Hurtful or harmful behaviour will lead open the gates to plenty of (illegal) financial rewards.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Self-Protection

This relates to people who cover their hurtful acts with arguments of self-protection. The points made above are mainly covering unintentional acts that caused harm, while this is for the following points less the case. Understanding those cases helps to act with a clearer understanding of the situation and makes it “easier” to not get hurt by the situation (too much).

Self-esteem, or the lack of it, is such a cause. People who have low self-esteem nonetheless do their best to protect themselves from their surroundings. A practical way of this act is to make sure to feel superior to others. Blame works well for this behaviour. They basically project the errors or shortcomings of other people, while not acknowledging their own. Finally, passive-aggressive behaviour is another “tool”. Over time it almost always works, as the people on the receiving end will lash out first. Now they are the ones who are in the wrong.

Not accepting emotions but rather rationalizing them is another way of self-protection. It is a way to escape intense feelings, such as grief or loss. It pushes the focus on external happenings in life instead of internal processes that would help to accept those feelings.

Why People Act Mean

Control works great too, especially if the person using this technique has problems with anxiety or fearfulness. By controlling people and situations it is easier for them to get by. They often pressure their loved people to comply with rude words causing guilt (“you would stay here with me if you really loved me.”). Some other people go the different path and seek validation. They are looking and getting into situations that prove their point and exclude any other potential view of things. Being around miserable people makes them feel less miserable themselves (hence the phrase “misery loves company”).

Due to completely different reasons in their previous lives, people might act mean or say mean things because the went through trauma. They have been deeply hurt themselves and lost all trust. They might withdraw from people that actually care about them. For the people who are on the receiving end of this withdrawal, this act makes no sense and can be very hurtful or at least be seen as unfriendly. The opposite of withdrawal is being tough. People simply never seem to be vulnerable and protect themselves in this manner. Those tough acts may look rude, sound impolite, and can be hurtful.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Reactive Behaviour

Stress and frustration might lead to – especially emotional – behaviour that is solely reactive. This means that the offender simply reacts to a given situation without even thinking about what their words or actions might cause on the receiving end. Both states can build up over time and might even reinforce each other in certain situations. Stress is especially bad for your health (see here, here and here for more stress-related information I shared) as it triggers all sort of hormonal changes in your body.

Stress can also lead to passing your problems forward. This stress transfer, induced may come from your boss (who got a lot of pressure, hence stressed behaviour due to his boss’s actions), you come home and pass it forward to your spouse, who in turn es frustrated and passes the stress forward to a friend, who passes it on to their child and the child not knowing what happens, gets angry and frustrated and kicks the dog… no one wins in this situation.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: A Feeling of Superiority

The feeling of superiority is not only common as a source of mean behaviour, it is also a very strong one. This complex is a foundational source of low self-esteem. There are plenty of reasons why people feel entitled to this feeling.

The most obvious source of this belief comes from being raised in the belief that one is superior to others. You might see this in royal families, but also in the caste system in India. Of course, parents simply raise their children in the belief that they are special and better than anyone else. This might be true in the sense that they have been born into privilege or money. Either way, it might cause them to act negatively to anyone they deem lesser than them.

Why People Act Mean

Next, to people who are born into privilege, you have those you actually did some work and achieved some form of success. Those people can, of course, feel superior towards others, too, and believe that they’re better.

Moral superiority often can be hurtful too. Simply by thinking you have the “better” morale than you’re surroundings because you eat a certain way, live in a certain manner can cause them to harm or hurt others. Those people might be genuine in their actions and beliefs. That being said, their actions can nonetheless hurt others.

Reasons Why People Act Mean: Mental Disturbance

Now we are moving a level deeper as those reasons of why people act mean can become really hurtful and severe.

Mental illness, while it is unintentional, can cause many problems in social interactions. People suffering from mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bizarre very bizarre out of the view of a third person. Their behaviour can be hurtful and in times lead to physical aggression. I want to highlight that people suffering from mental illnesses usually don’t want to hurt anyone.

Unlike the psychopath, who usually intentionally with full awareness of their behaviour, actions, and results walks around and hurts people. Their behaviour is often much more than just mean, it can be malicious and dangerous for anyone close to them. They cover up this behaviour by blending in and being nice and charming on a superficial level. This means that you usually don’t know you deal with one until you know.


I don’t suggest that any of above-mentioned points are an excuse to mean, bad or hurtful behaviour. I wanted to share those points though, as knowing why someone might act in a certain way gives you power over the situation. The moment you have this insight you can use it to your advantage and not let it hurt you or at least make the impact less harsh and shorter in duration.

Being kind, of course, would be the way to go. It is, in my opinion, how we human beings ought to treat each other and is definitely more appropriate, decent and loving. Practicing loving-kindness and mindfulness can open the gates to this way of acceptance and love and I suggest you give it a try. Sharing this positivity and goodness helps the people around you, too (positivity is contagious). I would like to live in a world in which we can respect each other for what we are, a place in which we can be ourselves and spread our wings. Spreading pain isn’t helping anyone. It creates only more pain. Creating joy and positivity makes this world a brighter place.

Let me know what you think of this and feel invited to share your stories.

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