“I dropped out of college because I knew more than my professors did.”
“I often have to explain things to others because I just grasp stuff more quickly than most people do.”
“I often read books and think to myself, ‘I could have written that.’”
“People of the opposite sex reject me because they are intimidated by my intelligence, good looks, and/or success.”
“If I’d been alive during the Holocaust, there’s no way I would have run and hid. I would’ve been in the streets fighting those evil bastards!”
“I don’t normally cut in line, but I’m running suuuuuper late! Do you mind?”
I’m willing to wager good money that, at least once during the past year, you have heard at least one person utter some version of one of the above statements.
Probably, it was inserted into casual banter playing out in an office or in a bar, and probably it made you roll your eyes. At least figuratively. Probably, you tried to ignore it and promptly forgot the unpleasant encounter, because what did it really matter?
Taken as standalones, such utterances can be passed off as mere pageantry, an overwanking desire to impress. Taken as a set, they are indicative of a larger and rather disturbing social trend that merits wide collective concern.
My husband and I have taken to calling it the PATSIE Principle (actually, I’ve just coined the term right now, myself, but he and I have been discussing its general thrust for the past month): a Pervasive Arrogant Tendency to Self-Identify as Exceptional. The principle is simple, and goes as follows: For every 100 people who claim to be exceptional in some regard, one of them actually is exceptional; the other 99 are mistaken.
Mistaken, unexceptional, and prone to annoying the hell out of everyone around them on a regular basis.
The PATSIE demeanor implies on the part of its perpetrator several key beliefs about how the world works: I know best, I know more, and when things don’t go my way, it’s the result of a failure on the part of the machinery of the external world, not a failure on my part.
It’s a common and clouded lens through which the world is often viewed these days. And, for my money, it’s a tendency that ought to be named and shamed and then stamped out, loudly and without delay.
Admittedly, each generation can claim credit for breeding a few Very Special People. Prodigies and great humanitarians, powerful orators and social connectors capable of bringing together the masses.
I am not saying that such exceptional human beings aren’t alive and well within my generation, and walking among us each day. We live with them. We work with them. We meet them in the course of social and professional encounters, or fantasize about meeting them but instead just stalk them on Twitter.
What I am saying is that exceptionalism is an overdiagnosed state of being, and the vast majority of people who consider themselves exceptional … are actually not. Let’s call these the Common AAPEs (Autonomously Appointed Persons of Exception), and their numbers are growing by the day.
Who are the primary perpetrators of the PATSIE Principle? I’m sure you can name a few people in your own life who fit the bill; we all can.
Your brother, whose demeanor renders him completely unemployable and terminally single, and yet who is the owner of an ego so hulking, you sometimes wonder how he manages to fit through the door to your parents’ basement apartment, where he’s been living since finishing his philosophy degree at the local college.
Your ex-girlfriend, who was quick to loudly call you out on the tiniest slip in behavior, yet was totally unable to cop to her own mistakes and shortcomings, even when they were staring her right in the face.
Your best friend, who’s got a decent personality but can’t ever get a date because he’s a four going after women who easily rank as eights and nines, and nobody has raised the issue with him for fear of hurting his feelings.
The guy at the TSA security screening checkpoint who attempts to shove his way to the front of the line because he’s “about to miss a flight,” totally indifferent to the fact that so is everyone else being crammed down that godawful, slow-moving funnel.
Common AAPEs move through the world with a sense of profound entitlement, wrapped cozily up in the security blanket of their own biggest delusion: that they are deeply special.
I’m not talking about special in that “everybody’s got something unique to offer the world” kind of sense. I wholly endorse that brand of special, because on some cheesy and powerful level, I think it’s true: we’ve all got gifts to give the world. And so we should. Fine. Not a problem.
I’m talking about “special” in a way that sets the Common AAPE apart, in his own mind at least, from the masses. The kind of special that makes such a person singular, remarkable, even. Exceptional in a way that serves as a sort of override function for major personality and lifestyle defects that are, in truth, handicapping them greatly as they move through their lives, both personal and professional. Exceptional in a way that elevates any minor roadblock or delay to the level of shared crisis.
Where did this pretense to greatness come from? When did the moniker, “common” become such an insult? When did “average” become synonymous with affront? When did so many people start grasping at exceptionalism?
The cultural roots of the affliction run deep and thick. The United States is often accused of practicing a larger brand of the PATSIE Principle, termed American Exceptionalism.
This theory suggests that America labors under the belief that there is something profoundly special about the US as a country, something wonderful and unrepeatable that was crystallized during our very formation. A nation of rebels, rewriting the rules for itself and its predecessors, monarchy be damned.
Although the theory originally pointed to the uniqueness of our constitutional framework and values without commenting much on the rightness of the self-conception behind them, the term has transmogrified over time into a pernicious running insult: America thinks it’s better than other countries. Americans believe that the rules apply to other nations, but not to them. The United States is a big fat playground bully with pork belly grease dripping from its chin.
Our politicans grapple endlessly with this political hot potato, choosing either to pound their chests in affirmation of our country’s exceptional status, or to take the backwards tack and offer critiques of the system in a bid to seem more measured.
But whether a politician orders his lunch with a side of Freedom fries or plain old French, the debate is ignored at great peril.
At the level of community and family, the question of how and whether to inure children to disappointment, loss and failure is bandied constantly and spiritedly about. Parents fret endlessly over the implications:
Should every child get a trophy for participating in a sport, or does that negate the entire point of trophies?
Should children be held back in grade school when they fail to meet academic benchmarks, or should they be socially promoted to avoid permanently damaging their standing amongst peers?
Are kids these days entitled little worms because the world is pushing them too hard, or not nearly enough?
No doubt, we Youngish Americans have come up in a Cult of Esteem, marinating in our own obsequious juices at least since the sloppy, drug-and-booze-soaked entitlement-fest that colored the entire 1980s, and, our collective childhood.
In the ‘90s, comedian-turned-senator Al Franken nailed the phenomenon in a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Stuart Smalley, the touchy-feely host of a self-help show called “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley.”
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” Stuart Smalley would preen, pulling at his powder-blue cardigan and grinning slavishly.
The catchphrase stuck like glue. People loved Stuart. Or, rather, they loved to hate him for loving himself so very much. It was art imitating life, and a prescient commentary on the self-conception of the generation just reaching maturity.
Cut to 20 years later, and the PATSIE Principle guides the behavior of huge swathes of the population. What makes the presence of these Common AAPES troubling instead of merely irritating is the fact that we must live, work, socialize, and wait in line with them. And these interactions are regularly unsatisfying, occasionally infuriating, and consistently baffling.
We’re not given a say in whether we’d like to have them in our lives. We’re stuck with them, and we’re often guilted into indulging their terrible comportment. PATSIE-fueled behavior is regularly excused away with the assertion that your average Common AAPEs are merely deeply insecure, and deserving of empathy and pity over our condemnation.
That guy at the office who consistently hurtles micro-aggressive barbs at you in the presence of your mutual superiors? He was probably bullied as a kid and is just acting out. Ignore him.
That old roommate of yours who claimed she dropped out of her history master’s program because she didn’t agree with the way the courses were structured? She was probably just trying to cover up her disappointment in her own academic failures by trying to sound smart. Spare her.
That obnoxious twat at the bar who’s been prattling on about Proust for the past 45 minutes? He’s probably deeply lonely and impotent and will go home and unsuccessfully masturbate to the smell of moldering library book pages anyway. Pity him.
I object. The Common AAPE is absolutely not entitled to our pity and indulgence! Such behavior is a veritable scourge, and such peccadillos ought no longer be ignored or passed off as mere bad behavior.
We ought to call out such self-aggrandizing behavior when it arises, and in doing so slowly build up a calculus of social stigma that eventually discourages egotism and peacocking and rewards, instead, a measured and thoughtful worldview.
At the very least, we ought to directly challenge these AAPEs on their ridiculous assertions using a playful mix of sarcasm, wit, and constructive questioning. Let’s revisit the original humblebraggy six statements that began this essay, and consider for a moment how we might retort:
“You knew more than professors who spent eight years mastering their subjects did? That’s hard to believe. Can you give me a bibliography of examples?”
“You often have to explain things to others who are less intelligent that you? Have you ever thought about opening an advice booth, like Lucy did in the Peanuts comic strip? You could be rich!”
“People can’t keep up with you in conversation? Have you ever considered that it might be because you interrupt them so much?”
“You live in accordance with your morals 100 percent of the time? That’s amazing! Even great moral philosophers like Kant and Hume were occasionally hung up by tricky moral dilemmas. How does your approach differ from theirs?”
“You say you could have written Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel yourself? Tell me, how many novels have you finished so far?”
“You’re rejected by potential dates because they’re intimidated by you? Have you ever thought about making yourself more approachable?”
“No way you would’ve run and hid from those Nazis, huh? Too bad the allies didn’t have you around to give them some pointers. Sounds like you’ve got a really nuanced perspective on mass genocide.”
“You’re running late? Well, the double-chip-frosted-caramel-marshmallow Frappuccinos they make here are soooo worth a wait in a teensy little line, believe you me! I’m sure your boss will understand it was important.”
Does my mandate read as unconstructive? So be it. Sarcasm and snark have yet to save the world from its worst actors, I’ll admit, but they offer us a secure starting place. At the very least, shouldn’t we, the long-suffering Non-Common AAPEs, start treating ourselves to as much petty indulgence in common conversation as our Prattling Counterparts so easily do?
Admit it. It sounds like fun.