Pettiness is a proxy for powerlessness

In my freshman year of college, I had a roommate who’d borrow my stuff all the time. (Understandably, I had the finest men’s shampoo in the…dorm hall.)

On the rare occasion I’d ask to borrow his stuff, he would always have some excuse as to why I couldn’t. (He had the finest Korean spices in the land).

After a few strikes of this I wrote him off as a petty person.

Our relationship degraded. By the end of freshmen year, I was relieved to move out.

Years later, after attending Landmark Forum I saw things differently.

That entire time, during freshmen year when I was thought he was petty…I never confronted him. The issue might have been resolved with one awkward conversation.

If I think someone is small minded, then am I also big enough to let go out of that judgment?

Here’s how the Oxford dictionary defines pettiness:

“undue concern with trivial matters, especially of a small-minded or spiteful nature.”

Say that with a British accent, and you’ll really get that sense of condescension.

Moral superiority is just a fancier version of pettiness.

Ironically, the more we judge others for pettiness, the more we should examine that pettiness within ourselves.

My internal script was flipped. I was also petty.

There’s no such thing as a petty person.

There are only people who exhibit petty behavior.

If we separate action from identity, then we’re left with more interesting questions to examine:

  • What causes pettiness?
  • What causes us to think of others as petty?
  • What causes us to feel petty ourselves?

Feeling petty? You’re probably not feeling empowered

We do petty things when we feel small.

We feel small when lacking a sense of agency or power in dealing with problems.

Here are 3 areas of life where I sense that the situation less about pettiness, and more about the sense of powerlessness.

Powerlessness in self expression

Small fights used to occur to me as petty, until I realized the underlying issue was that one person or the other didn’t feel heard.

What if they got space to fully express what’s there for them?

Conversely, how many of us have clung on to small things that could be resolved with one conversation?

If I think someone is petty because they made a big deal out of small thing…then aren’t I being petty in my own way?

Maybe something bothers us but we feel too petty in saying it. “Ah, it’s annoying but I shouldn’t mention it…”

But what if the same issue keeps arising? Do you let it build up until it eventually boils over?

Pettiness can accumulate along with silence; the longer we let something simmer, the more internal discomfort it creates.

So we desire to air out our grievances, and that’s why we vent to our friends. When they ask us “Why don’t you just talk to that person?” We say “naw….I can’t say that too her. It’s too awkward!”

If we step into the power of authentically expressing what’s there for us — even if it’s awkward, even if it’s uncomfortable — we activate the release valve and can get somewhere.

Powerlessness in going against the group.

Can we do separate checks? Enter the high-quality problem of splitting restaurant bills.

There’s a cognitive dissonance when we all know Jessica ordered 3 organic kombuchas but the group dynamic is moving towards splitting the bill equally. So that it’s easier and simpler.

You’re feeling uncomfortable. You don’t know Jessica and don’t want to pay for her goddamn kombuchas. But you don’t want to look petty either for wanting to calculate & split the bill. There could also be the feeling of not wanting to seem like you’re cheap, or not generous.

This is less about pettiness than the power of group cohesion. There’s a strong and real social conditioning to please others by conforming to – and not disrupting – the group.

All it takes is for one brave soul to offer an alternative. Someone speak up and take charge. (Thank you, accounting/finance friends)

The more willing we’re able to take charge and communicate clearly, the less it’ll feel like we’re going against the group.

Powerlessness in enforcing boundaries

There was a friend who always showed up late.

It wasted a lot of my time and other people’s time…

But we never bothered to enforce the boundary. There was no consequence, no conversation. Just a growing resentment, and eventual ex-communication from the group.

It’s death by a thousand cuts…both ways. We slowly stopped inviting her to things.

On the surface, we didn’t want to be petty by making it seem like a big deal. Under the surface, none of us were willing to deal with the discomfort of having a (potentially) productive confrontation.

Hey Jessica, you’re often late and it affects the group negatively when we’re trying to get together. I want you to be part of our group, but if you continue to be late, I’m not sure if it’s going to be fair to everyone else to keep inviting you. We request that you show up on time the next time, or at least cancel well in advance so we’re not left hanging.

Whew, I felt riled up just typing that. But it’s probably the type of feedback that people need to hear, so that they can grow.

What’s the opposite of being petty?

I don’t want to just leave you hanging. I think it’s useful to consider what occurs as the opposite of pettiness. My main takeaway in musing on and writing about this is that clear communication is often the way to connect with others, and ultimately resolves the underlying issues of pettiness. In other words, pettiness is most often used in the same way it’s defined: superficially.

Here’s some other takeaways.

  • Taking responsibility for our mistakes and missteps
  • Allowing someone to pass through the conversational door
  • Having tough conversations
  • Being authentically self expressed

P.S. A mini life hack I’ve found in uncomfortable situations is to call out my pettiness right away. “I think I’ve been petty in this situation or I’ve been feeling like this is a petty thing, but I just have to bring it up because it’s been bothering me.” More often than not, the other person doesn’t feel like it’s petty and they’re glad I brought it up.

P.P.S. What’s the most petty thing you’ve ever done. Tell me a funny story.

P.P.S. Names were purely used for examples and storytelling. I have no issues with anyone named Jessica.

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