This article was originally written for Post Grad Survival Guide.
Sometime around eighth grade, I dropped and smashed one of the school laptops in front of my entire class.
My peers looked up and almost unanimously burst out laughing. Someone shouted “Well done!” I froze. I looked at the teacher waiting for him to start yelling.
But instead, he did something that stuck in my mind. He stood up, told the class to be quiet, picked up the broken laptop and tossed it in a drawer. Then he looked me straight in the eye and told me to get another one out. He never mentioned it again.
Even after years, I still remember that moment as one of those subtle experiences that changed, however slightly, how I saw the world. It was the first time I’d been aware of someone having valid grounds for being angry, yet choosing not to be.
That teacher took the high road. They recognised the futility of anger over a mistake I was unlikely to repeat. And that anger would only make me fear his class in the future.
That moment was significant because it taught me about the true nature of pettiness.
Pettiness is not about you
The reality is that pettiness is rarely personal.
Pettiness is not the same as setting boundaries or ensuring you don’t let things escalate. It’s the act of responding in an over the top, vindictive, deliberately hurtful way over something that is meaningless.
It can involve revenge-seeking behaviour, whether that revenge is something tangible (a physical consequence) or intangible (negative emotions, like guilt.)
Another factor that distinguishes pettiness from normal reactions is that it is often directed at things that are unintentional, accidental, or otherwise not meant to cause harm.
Instead of ignoring it or explaining what’s wrong, the petty person lashes out. Their reactions can be so disproportionate that we doubt our own judgement.
We’ve all encountered petty people. We’ve all lived with them, worked with them, dated them, been friends with them.
Some people seem to be petty about everything, all the time. Some people are petty in one particular area of their life. We are all petty some of the time. It doesn’t automatically render someone ‘toxic’ or abusive. However, it can be part of a wider pattern of abusive behaviour, which is one reason why the way we normalise it can be concerning.*
Let’s dig a little deeper. Pettiness is not about the infraction in question. That is entirely irrelevant.
The person being petty is using something inconsequential you’ve said or done as an excuse for expressing an unrelated emotional display.
This isn’t about things that are genuinely upsetting or offensive and we have to be careful not to label people responding to genuine slights as petty. What I’m referring to here is the kind of people who are locked in a pattern of jumping at any excuse to make someone feel bad.
Pettiness is usually insecurity in disguise
Most illogical or unhealthy human behaviour is insecurity in disguise.
The underlying emotions leading to pettiness could be a means of displaying a more deep-seated issue with you. If you don’t like someone, full stop, you’ll jump at anything that supports your opinion.
But, more often, the person being petty is letting off steam from some unrelated insecurity or unhappiness. When someone gets angry or annoyed at you about something insignificant and of little consequence, their reaction is not about you.
Emotionally healthy people in full possession of their rational capacities do not blow up over nothing. When we’re in a good frame of mind we can absorb minor slights and annoyances without letting them. When we’re secure in ourselves, we can shrug off the irrelevant without much effort. When we care about and love someone we don’t want to hurt them over an inconvenience.
Only small people care about small things.
You can tell a lot about how someone feels about you by what they’re willing to let go of.
Petty people can be intimidating. They shouldn’t be.
Their behaviour is pitiful. It’s miserable and vindictive. It shows you that they do not have enough meaningful things in their lives to worry about. So they get in a flap over anything that comes along.
Or they’re so full of pent up emotions that they jump at an opportunity to spew it all out at whoever proves available. The best way to deal with petty people is to see their behaviour for what it is and not take it personally.
How to stop being petty
Again: we all do it. We all let our emotions run away from us sometimes. We’re all shitty even to the people we love sometimes.
But it’s not unavoidable. The reality is, pettiness doesn’t do us any favours. It makes the other person miserable and pushes them away.
I lived with a housemate who would flip out if someone happened to use any of her cutlery, even if they’d confused it with their own on the drying rack. She claimed to have some magical capacity to detect which of the identical IKEA spoons we all had were hers. One time, she messaged me four separate times in a single day accusing me of using various items of cutlery.
I hadn’t even been home that day.
While the house had started off with a pleasant vibe, her out of proportion, petty behaviour soured the mood. People started avoiding her. I spent less and less time at home. I literally deleted my Facebook account to stop the obsessive cutlery-centric messages without the drama that blocking her would spark.
Did she achieve anything? Was it really worth making everyone she lived with hate her over cutlery? Of course not.
It’s not worth it. There is no real benefit to creating bad feelings over behaviour that is annoying, but not to the point of being impossible to tolerate.
Never assume malice when incompetence would suffice as an explanation.
There are huge benefits to learning to let things wash over you without perturbation or letting them ruffle you.
People who have their shit together are not habitually petty. They have their values sorted and know where to direct their energy.
So the only real way to stop yourself being petty is to get your head straight about what you care about. Stop externalising emotions.
According to Seth Godin, ultra-marathon runners decide before a race under which precise circumstances they will quit. They don’t make a reactive decision when the pain sets in. In a similar vein, decide what you care about and what you consider worth reacting to.
Hint: it’s the big stuff.
Learn to catch yourself when you start being petty. Put the brakes on your anger. Stop and consider what you’re really angry about.
Another hint: it’s not the matter at hand. You’ve jumped at an excuse to unleash an unrelated emotion.
Get out of the revenge mindset. As every Hollywood film ever tells us, revenge does a hell of a lot of harm to the enactor.
This isn’t about letting people walk all over you.This is about preserving your time and attention and energy for what serves you. Not wasting it on outbursts that only make people resent you.
Here is a helpful list of signs of emotional abuse if you’re concerned that someone’s petty behaviour could be more than merely annoying. Another important caveat here is that describing normal reactions as petty can be a form of gaslighting.