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6 Subtle Signs That Say: This Is Not a Very Nice Person

This is how you can tell for sure.

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illustration of man holding bouquet with red flags
Melanie Lambrick
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Many, many years ago (30) in a galaxy far, far away (Chicago) — before I got married and moved to New York — I dated a man named Cliff. Only once. On paper, Cliff was full of potential. Soft-spoken. Clean fingernails. Nice, shiny teeth. Showed up at my door with a rose, for crying out loud. And complimentary. He must have liked my clean fingernails, too, because by the time we were seated at our elegant, candlelit restaurant, he’d extolled upon half a dozen of my, apparently, admirable traits.

Wow — this guy was too good to be true. Which, unfortunately, was true.

Cliff was mid-compliment when our waiter appeared. Good evening. I’m Bob. I’ll be your server tonight. At which point Mr. Dreamboat snapped: “Excuse me! I’m speaking with this lovely woman, and you interrupted!” Red flag. Throughout the meal, Cliff slathered over me and treated poor Bob like he was some personal employee in constant need of chastising. Confirming: Cliff was not a nice person. “Mean people can be attractive because they seem to have a certain confidence or swagger,” observes New York psychotherapist Joanna Weber. “Until they express their own insecurities by being unkind.”

If Cliff were here right now, doling out his insincere compliments, he might say: “Good job, Linda — catching a sign up front that I’m an insecure jerk!” But, oh — how many times in our lives do we ignore those telltale indicators that someone is Bad News.

There should be an entire school curriculum devoted to learning to spot these people. Maybe, say, starting in first grade. Followed by a gym class that specializes in running. But until that happens, here are six signs that someone’s not nice.

1. Anyone who’s rude to cab drivers, bus drivers, doormen, salespeople, parking lot attendants, or — yes, waiters.
It also includes cheap tippers and anyone who doesn’t say hello to toll booth operators. That’s a fellow human you’re handing your cash over to. Does it hurt to say “good morning”? If people can’t extend common courtesies to those who are there to make their life easier, they probably aren’t capable of extending small kindnesses to you.

2. Me, me, me, me, me!
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Self-involved souls want an audience. Not a friend. And then I did this … and then I did that … and next I went here … and afterward there. You spend the entire time with them nodding and saying, Oh, my! and Oh, how interesting, until they finally ask: So, how are YOU? As soon as you start to answer, they check their watch and say: Where did the time go? Forget the time going. YOU go. And do not come back. Who needs someone who makes you feel like your life doesn’t matter? It does. It matters a lot. Which is why you don’t have time for narcissists.

3. Debbie Downers (with all due respects to all upbeat women named Debbie). 
If you want to be a pessimist, there’s enough going on in the world to knock yourself out. But if you want to try another route … say, toward happiness … steer clear of anyone who spoils good news. You: “I’m dating someone wonderful.” Debbie Downer: “I hope this one’s not an alcoholic.” Or … You: “They offered me the job!” Debbie Downer: “Let’s see if it lasts.” Whoa. What’s with these perpetrators raining on parades?

One year a friend brought a new beau to our big annual Thanksgiving dinner. In exchange for my husband Randy’s homemade turkey and stuffing, I go around the table and make everyone share something they’ve been grateful for in the past year. It’s a tradition and basically nonnegotiable. You want turkey? You share thanks. Except the new beau seemed compelled to comment on everyone’s comments. Someone would say, “I’m grateful that my children and grandchildren are all healthy.” And the beau would say, “What about all the children in the world who aren’t healthy?” Someone else would say, “I’m thankful we’re all together this year.” And the beau would pipe in with, “What about all the lonely people out there?” By the next Thanksgiving, my girlfriend had broken up with the guy. That’s what I felt grateful for.

4. Misery lovers. Your misery.
Cousins of the Debbie Downers, these folks can’t wait to hear your latest troubles. They exude faux concern. Tell me everything isn’t empathy. It’s schadenfreude — that hard-to-spell word that means “people who get pleasure from the woes of others.” The surest sign of this is: When your life is rolling along happily, they get bored; they stop calling. Do not invite these people to Thanksgiving dinner.

5. Sneaky critics.
In the book Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Stooping to Their Level, author Jay Carter writes about so-called friends who “will listen to you share something that you don’t like about yourself and then later use it against you. This is all done in such a subtle way that you are unaware of it.” Watch out for any sentence that begins, “I’m just being honest …” followed by something like, “That dress makes you look fat.” That’s not honest. That’s rude. A subtler version is the head shakers. The sighers. New Yorker Elizabeth Braffman did not pursue a friendship with a woman who kept rolling her eyes. “It was so dismissive,” she says. “Not overt. But a warning.” Warning: Dismiss anyone dismissive.

6. Anyone who’s mean to members of the animal kingdom.
If you’re really not sure about someone, run them through the Dog-o-meter. Cat-o-meters also work. If your pet backs away from the candidate, you should back away too. Trust your gut. Trust your dog. I didn’t hang around long enough to find out, but I bet my long-ago dinner date Cliff wasn’t nice to animals. New York clinical psychologist Mindy Greenstein says, “Even if you see a sign — like someone treating others badly — you need to put their behavior into context. Does it seem like a pattern? Or maybe they’re just having a bad day.” That sounds fair. And reasonable. But bad days aside, tune in to subtle mean-person signs, and don’t get involved with them. Clean house. If you can do that, the world will be a kinder place. At least your world. And what better place to start?

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