What is mean?

Man being angry or mean. Photo by: Pixabay

Is someone mean if they accidentally shove you at the grocery store without saying “sorry”? Or perhaps mean is cheating on your spouse? Is killing someone mean, or is that classified as something else?

Let’s find out.

What does it really mean to be ‘mean’?

“You’re a meany!” or “He/she was mean to me!” are phrases often said by children.. Even as we get older, people continue to act mean or embody mean attitudes or actions.

According to Elizabeth Glisky, psychologist and professor at the University of Arizona, being mean stems from personal experiences, backgrounds and different personality types.

“I think people are generally mean because they are either going through something or are having a hard time with themselves or people are mean to them,” said Glisky.

Carrie Paulus, child psychologist and marriage & family therapist, explained that children are often mean because of issues going on at home.

“This little girl is going through such a hard time with her parent’s divorce that she randomly kicked a kid at school,” said Paulus. “It was completely unrelated to the kid she kicked and she just needed an outlet for all of her anger.”

Paulus explained that children often do not know how to express their emotions. Also, the media and internet have introduced a new platform where some bullies and mean people hide behind their computer screens.

“I think social media is a new form for meanness and it makes a new way to be mean to someone,” said Paulus. “You are not face to face and you do not need to approach them so it changes things.

Scholars also adhere to several theories which support why people are mean to others. One of these is social comparison theory, which explains that people inherently make comparisons between themselves and others. Often, this leads back to positive distinctiveness. This is the idea that all people feel the need to be unique and different from others. This often leads to people belittling others in order to make themselves feel better. In many cases, those who belittle others end up temporarily making themselves feel more special. In turn, they may end up hurting the other person or people.

“Normally, people are just not happy or have been going through some rough times,” said Glisky.

Can you be born mean?

A woman being mean or reacting to someone being mean. Photo by: Pixabay

This can be looked at in several different ways.

“No, children are not born mean, I think most are born well-spirited and positive,” said Paulus. “It is their environments that alters their behaviors or attitudes.”

However, Dr. Elon Schwartz, MD. a psychiatrist in New York City believes otherwise – people can be born mean. Schwartz has been practicing clinical psychiatry for the past 40 years. He specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disorders.

“Sometimes people are treated absolutely terribly, both emotionally or physically, you know neglectful which causes a lot of hurt,” said Schwartz. “Sometimes people are just born with those genes.”

Schwartz explained that although rare, some people get a kick out of being mean. This could either be because they are letting out their own anger to receive attention or self-gratification. Also, he stands by the idea that certain genetically inherited mental disorders can have a correlation with meanness. For instance, if someone inherits a mental health disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder, this can often lead to unhappiness. This does not indicate that all people who suffer from these disorders are mean, but there may be a correlation. Often disgruntled people are mean in order to compensate for their unhappiness in life.

In order to understand this better it would be valuable to look at notoriously “mean” people. Mean does not necessarily signify cruelty. One example might be Adolf Hitler. He is known to be one of the cruelest people to have ever lived.

“I do not believe Hitler was a sociopath or had an extreme mental disorder,” said Schwartz. “I just think he was one of those people who was born mean.”

Although rare, some people get pleasure out of being mean. Perhaps they were treated meanly in the past and want others to feel the same pain as they did. Most people who may act mean on a regular basis generally have more underlying problems or are going through something difficult. There are very few exceptions, according to Paulus.

So, then how do we handle mean people?

According to Leslie Langbert, executive director at the Center for Compassion Studies, it can be tricky to decide how one should deal with a mean person.

“It depends on the situation – whether it is someone you know or not,” said Langbert. “If you do know them then you may want to confront them about why they are being mean, but if you do not know them then it becomes more difficult to deal with the situation.”

People sometimes channel anger by acting overtly mean to others and will constantly harass or degrade people in order to make themselves feel better.

“Often, mean people are bullies,” said Paulus. “And a bully keeps on tugging at a person until they stop responding, so you should just stop giving that bully attention.”

If a person has gone through a traumatic experience or suffers from mental illness, it is important to seek help. For example, Dr. Schwartz explained that he has worked with several firemen from 9/11 who are still suffering from PTSD. In order to cope with this, they often drink and at times end up abusing their wives and loved ones.

But can they be helped?

A young girl who looks sad or hurt. Photo by: Pixabay

“Some people can be treated and fixed,” said Schwartz. “Some people can’t.”

Often people are mean because they have been through a hard time in life and do not know how to handle their anger. Perhaps they have a mental illness and need professional services to help them.

Being compassionate to others and trying to look past meanness can often help those affected. Before being defensive, try to understand the person who is being mean.

“Ask yourself: What is this behavior and what is this about?” said Langbert. “Their behavior is a combination about their background and there are many factors that shape how we respond to other people and move around the world.”


Emily Zinn is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at emilyzinn@email.arizona.edu



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