Poor communication abounds these days for lots of reasons, but smugness is at the top of the list. It’s pervasive now, both in personal communications and in world diplomacy. The thing about smugness is that the speaker never detects a problem and fails to understand why the recipient is put off by the message. Ill-managed confidence is the problem.
I was sifting through old photos recently and saw one of an old girlfriend that I was completely captivated by. She was adorably cute and funny and stylish, and supremely confident. She liked to say provocative things to get attention, and she seemed to believe most of the things that she said. She talked about old boyfriends and how she took care of them in special ways. But, she said she never really committed to any of them. For example, she told one guy that they were only going to be dating for one year, and sure enough, after a year, she broke up with him. She said he didn’t believe her, and then she laughed as she told me that because she thought it was funny. At the time I did too.
One day we were getting ready to go out to dinner and, after she finished getting dressed, she turned and asked me if I thought she looked nice. I told her that, of course she did. She flipped her head back to the mirror as she smiled, remarking “you know I once broke up with someone because he stopped telling me I looked nice.” Then she started laughing, so I did too. But then, as I started to think more, I felt stung. Essentially the message was “tell me I look nice or I’ll break up with you like the other boyfriends that I wasn’t all that committed to.” We got along great and never fought, but she kept making these weird smug comments. I couldn’t really explain to her what she was doing and so eventually we broke up.
I guess the reason I thought of that story is that I really liked her a lot; she was someone who really cared about other people, but, for some reason, she often conveyed things in a smug way, which I’m sure she was completely unaware of. The most insidious aspect of smugness is that the person who conveys it is often acting in with the best possible intentions. That not only adds to the smugness, but it also makes it impossible for the smug person to detect.
The United States is a amazing country; we have often helped countries around the world at great sacrifice to our own people. We usually act with the best intentions. But sometimes we carry out those intentions in ways that other countries regard as arrogant or smug. It’s hard for us to see that for the reasons I just mentioned. And when I say ‘us’ I mean ‘me.’
My dad told me one time that he thought a couple of my blog posts were smug. Being a psychiatrist he knew how to say it in a very subtle way. Nevertheless I immediately dismissed the observation. Later, however, after thinking about it I could see he was right. I’ve been thinking about this problem of smugness and I think I need help to see myself doing what I shouldn’t be doing: so if any of you catch me making strident observations please let me know. In as nice a way as possible, of course. We ‘smug people’ tend to get our feelings hurt kind of easily.
Which is ironic isn’t it?