“So I sat there,” he said.
“And I thought to myself, ya know, ‘ruthless honesty’ and all that. This guy sold me a terrible sandwich and I’m going to tell him just how terrible it was. But then he was upset when I told him! He made this shitty, awful sandwich—which I paid money for—and when he asked me how it was, what was I supposed to tell him? What did he think I was going to say! I said it was just awful. The worst sandwich I’ve ever had. He got upset! So I told him, if you don’t want the truth—don’t ask.”
A long pause. No one laughed. Someone eventually coughed. I tried to imagine what the weaver of this intricate, melancholy tale expected from this little group, all of us looking into our cameras and illumatined in a soft blue. Did they expect us all to laugh? Or for everyone on the video call to slam the poor shop owner and belittle that sandwich, too? Maybe this Sandwich Cicero imagined we were going to be impressed by their high standards? Or the sheer courage they had to look someone in the eye and tell them, and their bad sandwich, to fuck right off.
No one, I must say, was impressed.
For months I’ve thought about this conversation, and all the ways I might’ve been small and petty like them. It’s such an insignificant thing to point at, or write about, but these little acts of meanness are no less painful because they’re common. But to then brag about the story afterwards?
Sweet, I must say, Christ.
But it’s the kind of cruelty that we let go. It’s really difficult to confront shitty, toxic behavior like this because 1. the person will absolutely not change whatsoever and 2. to even comment on a story like this seems like a waste of time.
Yet it’s these small details, all these mean quirks, these are the things to watch out for in other people and also in ourselves. Because I believe deep down in my gut that intelligence isn’t enough. I really don’t care how well we know flexbox or how many beautiful typefaces we’ve made, because if we’re an asshole then that’s the ballgame.
We don’t have license to be an enormous, raging bastard if we’re smart, or if we’re good enough at our job, or even if we’re rich. Here in the Bay Area tech scene, I think that this the worst thing people took from a certain bespectacled, turtle-necked gentleman—they don’t quite get that he was good at his job despite being an absolute bastard. But we can all aspire to be better than the turtle neck guy.
Because here’s the thing that’s impossible to teach (and extremely difficult to learn): kindness is the only form of intelligence that really counts.