On Real Life Trolls

The other night, I was enjoying dinner out with my wife and two young kids. When my wife and youngest son were in the bathroom, the man in the booth behind my son got out of his seat and came toward us. He looked angry and approached us aggressively enough that it made me uncomfortable. I reached out to protect my son when the man stopped and snapped at me, “Tell him to stop kicking the seat!”

I was confused. I hadn’t noticed or heard my son kicking anything so I said, “He’s kicking your seat?”

“Yes! Make him stop,” he snapped back and turned away before I could respond.

So, I said loudly enough for him to hear me (it was a very loud restaurant), “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again.”

No response. He just turned back and glared at me.

I told my son, who was obviously shaken up the exchange, that it was ok but that he needed to be more careful not to kick the seat. A moment later, my wife and youngest son returned from the bathroom. My oldest needed to move so she could get into the booth and, when he did, the man turned back and glared at me again, obviously annoyed with us. I explained the situation to my wife. My son heard me and said, “I’ll get up on my knees so I don’t kick the seat.”

Again, his movement annoyed the man behind him to the point that he glared back at us and this time started kicking our seat hard, over and over again. My wife started to say something to him but I asked her to stop. It seemed he was looking for a fight and I have no interest in such things. I called a waiter over, explained the situation, and asked to be moved to a different seat. The manager came over and took us to another seat. The man just glared at us as we left.

I didn’t want to move. It was inconvenient and unfair. I wasn’t the one being an asshole. Why should I have to move? But, I didn’t trust him. I didn’t like how close he was sitting to my wife and son, and, honestly, he struck me as just horrible enough to hurt a child if he lost his temper again. Getting far away from him was the smart thing to do.

Two quick things about this story before I get to the main point.

One, I put a premium on good behavior from my kids, especially when we are out in public. I have a very high bar for what I expect from them and I don’t hesitate to take them out of a public place if they are misbehaving. Had I known he was kicking the seat, intentionally or unintentionally, I would have stopped him. As big an asshole as this guy was being, I still feel badly that I didn’t notice my son was bothering him earlier.

Two, I’m perfectly willing to grant the premise that this guy was having a really bad day and that this wasn’t reflective of his behavior in general. I realize I only got a glimpse of what kind of person he is and, even though his behavior was deplorable, it may be that he’s normally a very different sort of person. We’ve all had bad moments and I like to imagine that he went home, embarrassed by how he acted, and wishing he could apologize.

I doubt it, though.

I suspect he goes through life looking for things that make him angry. I suspect he goes through life baiting people; trolling in real life. That sort of approach to life tends to work for people in the short term. The other night, he got exactly what he wanted… for us to leave. He threw a fit, and because it was more important to me to keep my family safe than it was to argue with him, he got what he wanted.

What’s interesting is that most people grow out of that sort of thing. As we get older, we stop looking for things that make us mad (or sad or scared) and start to turn our attention to things that make us happy. It’s called socioemotional selectivity (named by Dr. Laura Carstensen out of Stanford) and is rooted in the idea that as we get older, we realize life is short, and that negative emotions aren’t worth it. People shift their attention toward things that make them happy and avoid those things that make them sad, scared, or angry. It’s a mark of healthy emotional development to grow out of looking for things that anger us.

Put another way, if you go through life looking for things that make you mad, you’re going to find them and you’ll spend you entire life angry.