My friend Stacey used to get quizzed by a mom at play group about everything from the brand of her stroller to how many hours she put in at the gym. I probably don’t have to tell you Stacey had an awesome stroller and had the body of a Dallas Cowgirl. But Stacey didn’t see herself that way and when the play group mom quizzed and one-upped her with the number of hours she spent in the gym, Stacey felt slighted and ragey. My tall, successful friend Teppi deals with this confusing situation constantly. A one-upper one ups, Teppi feels bad about herself. Rinse and repeat.
I know you have dealt with a one-upper. If you got up at five, they got up at four. If you got an email from the alderman, they got an email from the pope. Maybe they do it to everyone. One-uppers are on a conquest to be a better mom than you or let you know how fancy their gizmo is or make sure you know they have dinner at nice places. (Because you care!) One-uppers like to tell you how much greater/smarter/fitter/holier/more-sexual-conquesty they are than you in every conversation. You walk away with your energy zapped and your mind fingers all like:
You figure one-uppers act this way because they think they are better than you. How insulting! Maybe on some level you do think they might be right. HOW INFURIATING. The truth is you need to be as gentle as possible with one-uppers because they don’t really think they are better than you at all. In fact, one-uppers have fragile self-esteem and telling you how great they are is how they are trying to impress you. You are worthy of impressing. That is the only message you need to hear the next time someone tells you they refuse to eat processed food when they see you with a hot dog. If they really thought you were beneath them they wouldn’t say a word. When was the last time someone walked up to a homeless guy and said, “I refuse to not have heat and working bathrooms”. That would only happen on Planet Of The Asshats.
One of my favorite Cracked articles, 5 Reasons You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You says this:
[An] unspoken power dynamic is always at play, whether you acknowledge it or not. In any conversation between two people, one person is going to be more successful than the other, or more attractive, or smarter, or physically stronger, etc. — there are all of these invisible “ranks” where one of you has risen over the other on society’s ladder. Both of you will be aware of them, but neither of you is allowed to mention them. […]
For many of us who are insecure about our “rank,” the subject is basically an open wound. So not only must the subject be avoided, but courtesy demands that the higher person has to pretend to be the lower. So, this leads to the absurd situation where you can be talking to the dude who won the Nobel Prize in astrophysics, but the second he looks at you and says, “I’m smarter than you,” you will hate him for life — even though both of you know it’s true. The boss who acts like your buddy and phrases his or her assignments as requests (“Hey, can you get that report over to accounts by the end of the day?”) is cool, while the boss who says, “Do what I say because I’m the boss and you’re just a minimum wage peon” is an asshole … even though nothing changed other than the phrasing.
These implied power dynamics in every human interaction are the root of the one-upping. The problem is no one ever thinks they are in the position of power. The person one-upping you thinks you are higher on this imagined social ladder because you are worthy to impress. They want to gain your respect or convince themselves they’re good enough or any combination thereof. You think they are in power because they are putting you down, ergo, they must think lowly of you and are judging your choices. Both parties walk away annoyed.
The solution is to know your power and concede to the other person.
There is a one-upper in my life who used to bother me. She would ask questions about everything I did from how often I get highlights to what gym I go to, what lessons I pay for, what I drive, where I live. She kept asking me questions, then would seem to be trying to one-up my answers. Her questions started big and got smaller. She quizzed me for 20 minutes once about the tea I was drinking – was it loose leaf? Do I use a fancy loose-leaf tea apparatus? What was the brand? Did I buy it at Whole Foods? What next, lady, questions about my tampons?! I was thinking, WHY THE EFF DO YOU CARE SO MUCH ABOUT MY TEA? For the record, the number rat’s asses I give about her tea is zero. Zero rat’s asses. I felt so judged and frustrated.
And then I had my epiphany. After a series of these frustrating conversations it dawned on me that she thinks I’m higher on the pecking order than her. Absurd! She’s gorgeous and amazing. She must not know that about herself.
On the drive home my heart softened. She’s not judging my tea because she’s horrible. She just wants me to know she’s fancy too and knows the right questions to ask about tea. I am worthy of her fancy tea questions.
There’s a little game I like to play with her now. The conversation turned to drinking coffee and she bragged that she drinks only french press. So I told her I reheat seven-hour-old drip in the microwave. Cooking came up and she told me she has pre-chopped organic meals delivered three times a week, so I joked that I just shove chips in my mouth and get them all over my shirt. She does designer salons and frou-frou camps for her kid – and what about us? Oh, we go to a little place down the street and haven’t thought about summer. I just don’t play the one-up game. I don’t have to. She can go right on impressing me and bragging and I’m not biting.
This lady is not a bad person. She’d never tell a trashy waitress from down state Indiana that she only takes her daughter to Vidal Sassoon. That would be the work of an obvious asshole. But telling me is okay because she (wrongly) assumes I am on some higher social hierarchy because of my answers to her bigger questions when inside I am still that waitress. I used to feel so slighted after talking to her because she doesn’t know I still see myself like this:
We’ve got to stop seeing ourselves as the proverbial dorky kids with Duggar hair we were in 1990 and start seeing ourselves as the one-uppers see us: that is, someone worthy to one-up. We are worthy. Drink that in. Your stuff doesn’t make you worthy, other peoples’ stuff doesn’t make them better or worse. What kind of tea we drink or where our kids go to camp has nothing to do with our worth. Other people use your stuff as a reflection of their worth, but that’s not your problem. You are still worthy. Every time someone seems to judge your choice, be it for bottle-feeding or city-living or long-haired-son-having, just know that deep down, they are afraid your choice is the better one. They are afraid of you. Let them win.
There is a flip side of one-upping I’d like to encourage. Sometimes it comes in the form of low-roading, i.e. if you say you’re broke, they say they’re broker. I once got into a conversation with a lady about which one of us was less productive (naturally I voted for me). Truthfully both of us were pretty productive, but we both had the wisdom to let the other person “win” in the bigger sense. It’s like fighting over who’s going to pay the check in a restaurant. I’m not saying we should put ourselves in the garbage, but a little zap of “you’re the winner” to another person is worth volumes of good vibes. That’s how you make friends. That’s how people start to like you. That’s how you can avoid being that person who has to tell everyone how cool they are.
Oh, and drink the good tea. Because you’re worth it.
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