Until recently, the problem of the jerk in the workplace seemed to be a matter of paramount national importance. The knuckleheads, slobs and social misfits in question were those maddening coworkers who talked too loudly on the phone, cavalierly invaded other people's space, came to colleagues with their most intimate gastrointestinal problems, gossiped behind coworkers' backs, told offensive jokes, and generally made it impossible for anyone in the immediate area to get their work done.
For awhile the workplace-jerk epidemic appeared to be a bona fide nationwide crisis that was sapping the average person's will to live and seriously hampering productivity. It was addressed directly in books with titles like "Working with You Is Killing Me," "The Cubicle Survival Guide," and "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today." Not to mention "Dealing with People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst," and "Thank You For Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing with Difficult People."
Grass-roots jerk-stymieing organizations such as The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute began lobbying states to pass laws prohibiting threatening or abusive conduct in the workplace. Self-help guru Guy Kawasaki set up a self-awareness test on his blog so employees could determine whether they were out-and-out jerks. And the work-is-hell paradigm delineated by "Dilbert," "The Drew Carey Show," and the cult comedy film "Office Space" paved the way for "The Office," a popular TV series that routinely addresses the horrors of office life.
In recent months, however, the obsession with the carnage wrought by the promiscuous jerk has abated. People are not complaining nearly as much as they did a couple of years ago. Media fixation on cubicle jerkage is on the wane.
So when I read a review of the new book "I Hate People!" in The Wall Street Journal, I scented the aroma of mold. The book seemed like yesterday's news, like something that had been sitting around waiting to be published. It was like coming across a book that addressed the wisdom of bombing the Serbs at a time when the nation had moved on to bombing the Taliban.
There are several reasons that jerks have ceded the spotlight to other noxious cultural types. First, in times of high unemployment, most people don't care if they work with jerks. They're happy to have jobs. Jerk scorn is a luxury society can indulge during a raging bull market. Once everyone's 401(k) is cut in half, obsessing about the jerk next door seems like an affectation.
Second, and perhaps more important, jerks are often the first people fired during recessions. Particularly vulnerable are middle-aged jerks, not only because they earn more than younger jerks but because slacker jerks tend to be less infuriating than Baby Boomer jerks. Slackers have less energy to be annoying. A lot less.
So has the American jerk suddenly stopped behaving obnoxiously?
Tellingly, in a 2007 New York Times article entitled "Help, I'm Surrounded by Jerks," New York University management professor Richard Freedman stressed that "difficult people are distributed evenly throughout society," that the jerk in the workplace only seems to be more numerous and irksome precisely because "career is at the center of people's lives." In other words, while we all have friends and relatives who are incredibly annoying jerks, we don't have to see them every day.
I for one do not believe that the jerk-in-the-workplace phenomenon was cooked up by the media. Nor do I believe that the furor was concocted by what the Journal once referred to as "undercover business therapists" who dream of topping best-seller lists. Rather, I believe that in times of economic crisis, jerks zip their lips.
Jerks are annoying, but they aren't stupid. They know that first-class nitwits make mouth-watering targets for human resource officers with layoff quotas. The office jerk has not disappeared. He is merely hiding in the hills. One day, he will come down from the mountains and wreak havoc again.
The grim specter of the return of the office jerk is perhaps the only reason some of us wish this recession goes on for a while. At least that way, some of the more odious office jerks will have a chance to get run over by a truck or start writing a blog. The solitary blogger is unquestionably a jerk, but a self-employed jerk is a threat to no one.