Viranga Perera

Postdoc at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

On the Issue of Jerks

Over the years, I have slowly developed the art of letting go of my frustration when someone irks me. It is a good ability to have but I am not even close to mastering it since I still get upset when people behave in annoying ways. Humans are weird sometimes and probably unexplainable most of the time. Often I think it is best to talk it out with family or friends, go for a run, and let it go. 

Occasionally, I find it useful to tell certain stories on the web for others to hear. If we are going to build a better world then we need to talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t. I think this is one of those times. Today, I was talking to someone who burst into laughter in a belittling manner once I asked the definition of a word he used. I wondered why…

There are two points I like to make about what happened. First, this occurred in an academic setting which makes this action egregious. The environment of a school, college, or university should be structured so that every person within the institution can feel welcome and comfortable to learn. That is the whole point isn’t it? Laughing at, making fun of, and/or belittling someone’s lack of knowledge on a particular matter should not be acceptable. Although the vast majority of the people I have interacted with in all of my schooling have been those with a welcoming focus towards learning, there are some who I have come across whose personal insecurities or whose overall bad manner makes them come across as arrogant. It seems like the primary intention of those few is to proclaim their greatness.

My second point is on the definition of words we use in day to day life. The words we use and the references that we make are specific to certain cultures. That point might seem obvious but without thinking too many people overlook this point. ‘American’ culture includes, for instance, heavy uses of baseball terminology. “It’s a new ballgame,” “cover your bases,” “it was a curve ball,” “you hit it out of the park,” “that came out of left field,” “play ball,” “rain-check,” and “right off the bat” are terms used frequently in ‘American’ culture. Or so they say. I use quotation marks when writing ‘American’ culture because it is something that is not well-defined. America includes a range of people who have been here for a few seconds because their airplane just landed to those whose families have been here for generations. It is probably the most diverse place on Earth and that is a wonderful thing. But what isn’t so wonderful is the need to pass on a or the ‘American’ culture. Isn’t it a form of discrimination when one calls someone “uncultured” as a way to demean them? Who’s culture are they referring to? Which stories should one have read to be an “insider?” Which pop culture references must one know? Who decided or decides these?

You don’t know what ____ means? Hahaha! Huh?!

I am a weird hybrid of an American insider/outsider. I was born and lived in Sri Lanka for the first 13 years of my life and then immigrated to America. Now I have lived more than half my life in the United States. This strange condition of being an immigrant gives me opportunities to both know and to not know the meanings of certain words and phrases. While many words and phrases I have learned were by listening to and imitating some people, some words I learned due to awkward laughs from others. Today, I try to use my perspective to kindly help newcomers to America who might ask for a napkin as “could I please have a tissue?” and who might refer to a cookie as a “biscuit.” Making fun of them might make some people feel a sense of superiority but I know that is not the case with a majority of Americans who are welcoming to those tempest-tossed.

Don't be a jerk!