Some thoughts on what “being mean” means

We have all been mean at some point in our lives. The act of “being mean” to someone is a common component of our societal lives. While it would be ideal if at all times we can treat each other with respect, compassion, and understanding, a part of our humanity leads us to at times doing just the opposite. We can be disrespectful, hateful, and bigoted. Is that though what “being mean” is? This short article discusses a few facets of what “being mean” means. First I will classify what we are talking about, then raise points on its effects, and will ask the question should it be our civic duty to forbid and cast judgement on people who are mean.

When someone is “being mean” to you, you know it. We learn that at a very young age. Whether it’s your brother or sister, or a school bully, we have this ingrained sense in our psyche to know even when there is a hint of sarcasm that may offend our sensibilities. A mean person is someone we do not like at that moment. That is not to say we cannot see past a moment of disrespect, for example when it is your sister, but it is certainly an action that generates a guarded response in the recipient. It can be said to be an action, verbal comment, gesture, or similar, that puts us on guard and causes use to dislike the individual. Is it just the opposite of being friendly? In many ways, it is the opposite. When the two are combined, I believe it is how we learn how to treat another person.

Can a person be mean and not know it? I think many would agree that, yes, a person can be mean and not be aware of it. It could be the mannerism a person has is not compatible with a new group of acquaintances who treat, for example, debating, as something which is not seen as a friendly activity but rather argumentative and confrontational. The example just given may, in fact, be extreme. There are many who see aggressiveness and assertiveness, even in the absence of debate and shouting, as not being entirely friendly and leaning on the side of mean. So we can add to how we are classifying it as at times a conscious action and at times an unconscious mannerism. But has this distinction now separated what it means to “be mean” and what it means to be immoral or bad? I think to an extent we can, in fact, say yes that with the conscious and unconscious element it is sufficient to say the conscious or active actions that put us on guard, in fact, are immoral and bad. If it is, on the other hand, an unconscious manifestation of the persons self, then it can be said to be “being mean”. It is interesting that we often in common language differentiate between saying “that person is mean”, and “that person is evil”. I believe the active and passive element is what provides the distinction between the two. The act of “being mean” is, therefore, not an action which a person is necessarily conscious of when they are said to be “being mean”.

So what does “being mean” to someone do? What are its effects? Without generating an exhaustive list I want to mention just two effects. The first is that it causes us to distance ourselves in the moment and in many cases for prolonged periods, from the person socially. It is often said a mean person is no one’s friend. The second is that it makes us often question what it is we as an individual did to perhaps cause the negative outward action. Thinking that it is surely something the individual did to cause or trigger the mean action is not uncommon.

If someone were mean to you, would you want to hang around them? Certainly, the answer is no. The action of “being mean” is an anti-social action. You are pushing someone away, albeit unknowingly, and can most often even see the disagreeing response immediately. It is from the response that we learn we have been mean. Is it inherently an anti-social action? I would say no. It can be a process whereby individuals in a group learn each other’s persona. It can be said to be a part of learning how best to be social with a particular person or group.

When someone is mean towards another person the one on the receiving end often wonders why. Why was this person mean to me? The act of “being mean” makes us at times question ourselves. This is a strange response. With common phrases such as “He woke up on the wrong side of the bed”, or “He’s just having a bad day” we reassure ourselves consistently that our question of whether it was our fault is, in fact, no, it was some other factor. Perhaps, someone he or she spoke to just before seeing the person who was offended. This supports the idea that “being mean” is not the same as being evil or bad, although often not differentiated.

With all of the above in mind, should we cast judgement on people who are mean? How far do we put up with a person whose characteristics are not compatible? I would suggest we do not cast judgement and see it as a part of the social phenomenon that is our existence. Rather than judgement and casting out the individual from the group or setting, we can ask why this person said or did those actions that they themselves may not understand as negative. A critic might say to tolerate mean spirited individuals as simply being misunderstood is a big ask. Why should we care what causes the action? It was the fact that a person was offended that matters. In response, it can be said that it should be tolerated because it is unconscious, and is a part of the socializing aspect where we learn the do’s and don’ts of a social group. “Being mean” in small measure may be a part of a person’s persona. Change cannot be mandated but must be the result of socializing of the individual into the norms and boundaries of a new group or person.