The Power Dynamics Behind The Phrase "My Boss Is Such An A—hole!"

In "Ascent of the A-Word," Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg unpacks the concept of being an a-hole. Fast Company talks with the author about why so many bosses earn that pedigree--and how to avoid it.

Geoffrey Nunberg is intrigued by assholes. Such epithet-eliciting luminaries as Steve Jobs, George Patton, and Donald Trump adorn the cover of his new book, Ascent of the A-Word, in which the Berkeley linguist discusses vulgarity's brief history and the actions that earn it. Fast Company talked with the author about why so many bosses are assholes, how they can avoid that classification, and the importance of gender equity in swearing. The interview has been condensed and edited.

FAST COMPANY: So what is an asshole?

GEOFFREY NUNBERG: People talk about an asshole in terms of a sense of entitlement, which is actually a phrase that came into the language at the same time and spread at the same rate. I think a crucial element of being an asshole is a kind of obtuseness, a culpable refusal to acknowledge what the situation really requires.

That's the core idea, an idea that can be realized in different ways, how somebody's an asshole to his girlfriend or to his employees--I use the "his," well, we'll come to that in a second.

That notion of being obtuse toward what your responsibilities to another person are is what makes a person an asshole and what gives people a swollen sense of importance.

Are we living in the age of the asshole?

We're living in an age of assholism is the way I'd put it. I don't think there are more assholes walking around than there were heels and cads and bounders in earlier ages. That people are ruder and less civil than they were is something people have always said in every generation.

There's a particular style of interaction that I call assholism and there's much more of that around, there are more opportunities to act in that way, particularly in anonymous public situations, whether the Internet or the context of entertainment. And that we have a fascination with the asshole, in the same way that the people of Holden Caulfield's day had a fascination with the phony. This is our miscreant.

In the book you discuss Donald Trump.

He's a pure asshole in the way few people are a pure anything. If Steve Jobs hadn't been an asshole, he'd still be well thought-of and written about, but Trump, if he weren't an asshole, would be no better known than 50 of the people who are richer than he is whose names no one's ever heard of.

It has to be an almost infinite amount of times that someone's said, "my boss is an asshole." Why is it something so attached to management and seemingly exemplified by Trump?

Managers are characterized as asshole for a number of reasons. First of all, an asshole is somebody who obtuse and inauthentic in a certain way. That is to say, he's somebody who believes that his station, his institutional role, his corporate role, his fame, his wealth, whatever, entitles him to behave toward people in ways that it doesn't.

Giving a person power over others naturally imposes on them the obligation to decide what they can reasonably expect of other in virtue of their position and what they owe to others in virtue of just their common humanity.

So the boss who has his admin go out and get coffee or pick up his shirts at the cleaners and so forth is overstepping the limits of what his role can reasonably demand, and that's why people see their bosses as assholes. Possessing power is a very tricky business, whoever has it has to understand that the power is given to you for this reason by these people and it doesn't extend to other kinds of infractions, so to speak.

So how can you avoid being an asshole of a boss?

It isn't easy. Some people can't avoid it, they're congenitally assholes, that's what they do, they've been that way since they were eight. Some assholes are incorrigible, usually to their own disservice—for every asshole who makes it to the C-suite, there are four hundred who wind up eating lunch by themselves in the employee cafeteria. But for the rest of us, it helps to remember that assholism is a condition we're all liable to, even if it's hard to be aware of it at the moment it strikes us. But if you realize you're going to sound like an asshole at least three times a week, you're apt to catch yourself at it now and again.  

There are some bosses that become assholes because they're under the illusion that it makes them more efficient bosses or makes them more effective leaders--these are the one that rush to the George Patton/Steve Jobs titles on the leadership shelves of the bookstore--or because they think it's impressive to their superiors, or to their colleagues. It can't be said that this kind of behavior's never effective, but in a long run I don't think there's much of a correlation between being an asshole and being successful at one's job.

Like Jobs, (as biographer Walter) Isaacson argues, and this seems right to me from the other people I know at Apple, that he was a brilliant manager despite being an asshole, not because of it.

I see. So just because you have feathers, doesn't mean you can fly, just because you're asshole, doesn't mean you can be a good boss.

I think that most of the people that go to those shelves go to buy those books because they want to justify their being an asshole to other people. They have to become an asshole as a career choice. There are very few people that become assholes as a career choice, but some people think, I'm an asshole, and that makes me a better manager.

Something we've skirted around is gender. You've used the masculine pronoun every time to refer to an asshole in our conversation, can you investigate that?

Most assholes are men. And the reasons most assholes are men, there are three of them.

Most people in the positions of power that assholes are apt to abuse are men. If 90 percent of all bosses are men, and 20 percent of all bosses are assholes, you do the math. But in the second place, I think men are more likely than women--though there are powerful exceptions--to confuse their role with their sense of self, to confuse the power that's given them in virtue in the organizational role with the entitlement they have to deal with other people. As I say in this book, if you hear someone say "Do you know who I am?", it's a pretty good bet he doesn't know either--something much more likely to come from a man than a woman.

There's a third reason here, and that's that we don't really give women credit for being assholes as much as we should. Very often when a woman does something that would earn a man the epithet "asshole" gets called a "bitch" instead, when really it has nothing to do with some primordial feminine malignity, it just has to do with the fact that this person is an asshole.

A person remonstrating with the gate agent because he or she wasn't given an upgrade-- "do you know how much money my company spends at your airline!"--if that was a man you would say "what an asshole." If it's a woman, you should also say, "what an asshole!" but you are more apt to say "what a bitch!" as if it has something to do with her being a woman.

Gender equity demands that we call women assholes more than we do.

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[Image: Flickr user Deiby]

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  • Margaret Weigel

    Very interesting read.  I would like to draw a finer distinction between "asshole" and "bitch," though. Asshole as defined here signals entitlement; bitch is typically reserved for women who overstep proscribed boundaries of any sort, even if they are justified and defensible. Screaming at the ticket agent is the sign of an asshole; mentioning to the ticket agent that you've been waiting for five hours for a new plane in a somewhat annoyed tone may brand you as a bitch.

    I, of course, do neither, ever.  I never raise my voice and I avert my eyes demurely.

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    Margaret Weigel
    margaretweigel.com