Smug Judges With Tiny Gavels: A Brief Study on Pettiness

Does Everybody Know Your Rules?

Sam Bush / 9.20.21

Do you ever take offense when you ask someone how their day is going but they don’t reciprocate? Do you think someone who eats a generous portion of your french fries but doesn’t help pay for them should be legally punished? Are you overly particular about seating arrangements? If you said “Yes,” you may suffer from being petty. You wouldn’t be alone. Millions of people suffer from pettiness throughout their entire lives without ever being properly diagnosed. You probably know or even live with someone who is petty. I was diagnosed with this affliction shortly after getting married. It is something I have learned to live with ever since.

What exactly is pettiness? The dictionary says it’s “undue concern with trivial matters” but it might be better understood as social inflexibility. It’s putting a strict definition on social situations while refusing to ever stray to someone else’s interpretation. It is insisting on one’s own personal code of law and judging everyone else by it, rejecting the possibility of reaching any kind of consensus with those who don’t comply. Pettiness is appointing oneself as the merciless judge in one’s own tiny courthouse, conducting her sessions with smallest of gavels.

Perhaps, the best illustrations of pettiness outside of everyday life come from the show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David, its writer and protagonist, is the king of societal nickel-and-diming. He refuses to follow someone else’s house rules for taking shoes off inside. He accuses a stranger of taking too many free samples at an ice cream shop. In a particularly petulant scene, he takes a stand against two teenagers who pretend to be little kids on Halloween and ask for candy. While most people would roll their eyes and give them candy anyway, he scolds them for being entitled and sends them away. Of course, the teenagers respond by toilet-papering his house but a police officer refuses to press charges, explaining to Larry, “There’s kind of a social contract that you enter when you open that door. They say ‘trick or treat,’ I would advise you, give the treat.” When Larry later complains about feeling misunderstood to his wife, she responds, “Not everybody knows your rules, Larry.”

Can you relate? Does everybody know your rules? What about your rule about not closing doors too loudly? Or about using the precise grammar spoken by the Queen herself? If you are petty, much of your psychodynamic space is made up of enforcing your own laws while simultaneously defending yourself for violating the laws of others.

What drives us to act this way in the first place? Joseph Lamour, in his article for Mic last year, “Why Being Petty Feels So Good,” gets to the psychological rationale of pettiness. He cites a recent study showing that even the thought of retaliation rewards us with that ever-sought-after dopamine. Physiotherapist Danny Greeves is quoted, saying, “It’s our animalistic pride that wants us to be seen and perceived as being right. It’s much easier to reply with a petty action to balance the scales than it is to engage in a dialogue and find common ground.”

A better word might be “sinful,” but Greeves is onto something with the word “animalistic.” The need to be right is so ingrained in our nature that our pettiness is hardly a matter of choice. Our paltry ways are not just a refusal to find common ground, but an inability to acknowledge that we might be wrong. Even though we know, deep down, that pettiness often has a malicious nature to it, the best we can do is try to suppress it. Rather than directly confronting a situation (i.e. the Larry David way) we resort to cowardly nitpicking, the very thing that makes pettiness so insufferable in the first place. It’s hard to pin pettiness down because it is so passive-aggressive by nature. It is a self-defense mechanism out of fear of being direct. Greeves says, “Humans focus on slights in our interpersonal human relationships because while they may seem trivial to the offender, the person on the receiving end can see the nugget of truth within. That’s why shade is such a sharply effective expression of contempt — it’s offensive because it’s kind of true.”

Of course, if you’re a petty sort of person and/or live with someone who is petty, it won’t be long until life is unbearable. Pettiness can ultimate leads one to an involuntary solitude. There isn’t anyone who can tolerate living under such incessant scrutiny. An offhanded, petty comment might feel painful in the moment — like an unexpected paper cut. But a thousand of these could kill you, or so they say.

What does God have to say about our paltry concerns? He is hardly passive-aggressive, but, rather mercifully direct: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies … the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil” (2 Tim 2:23-34). What is His response to our exacting egos? “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). Rather than holding each other accountable to the mundane laws we institute for each other, we are called to love one another, outdoing each other in showing honor (Rom 12:20). Perhaps Jesus told us to abstain from judging others not just because it’s immoral, but because we are all-too-often corrupt judges and lousy legislators.

And yet, God is interested in the banal areas of our lives. He is Lord of both the mammoth and the microscopic. But He is more interested in putting our more paltry ways to death so that he can raise us up with truth and grace. What’s so outrageous is not that God died for our murders and misdemeanors, but even for our most minor infractions. He died for our trivial slighting and gossiping. He died for abusing our ice cream sampling privileges. All of it was put to death, not by a thousand cuts but by crucifixion. Whenever I am reminded of this gospel truth, I tend to hold my own list of rules less tightly. As Larry David’s wife would say, not everybody knows my rules anyway. After all, the world wasn’t saved by rules — not yours, mine, or even God’s.