When Theatre of Peace (“TOP”) runs our workshops at schools, students have the opportunity to submit anonymous questions. We try to answer as many as can right then, but because they spark such great conversations, we often run out of time and can’t get to as many of them as we’d like. So, from time to time we’ll pick one that we think is really universal and will answer it in a post. Recently, a 6th grader submitted this question:
Q: Why Are People So Mean?
Wow, that’s a great question. Here what some TOP students answered:
I think people take out on others what they can’t handle. So, for example, let’s say someone was mean to a kid; then that kid ends up acting mean to someone else as a way to either make themselves feel superior or to take out that pain on someone else – to sort of get rid of the pain. Another possibility is: some people just don’t feel good about themselves – like they don’t feel like they are good enough in some way. That person might be rude to someone else as a way to make themselves feel superior. Sometimes people struggle with understanding themselves or are trying to figure out who they are – especially in middle school – and they end up attacking someone else.
I think people can be mean when they are trying to protect themselves or are trying to prevent others from getting too close. People are curious, right? And we ask each other questions to get to know each other better or find out what’s going on in each others’ lives. But some people don’t want others to find out much about them; maybe they are trying to hide something. So they put up this shield, and if you try to break that down, they respond by being mean to get you to leave them alone.
One theory I have is that it’s in response to how somebody else is making you feel. So, take 2 girls who are friends, and let’s say one of them is feeling annoyed by the other. The girl who feels annoyed might end up being mean to the other one because she’s bothered by that kid’s behavior. Of course, that doesn’t make it right, but it definitely happens.
It always roots from insecurities or a bad home life. What I would say is people who are insecure about themselves tend to pick on others who they perceive as having a similar problem. For example, a girl who feels like she’s not attractive enough might be mean to another girl who she thinks falls into that same category. That other girl probably feels really confused and might wonder, “Why me?” or just like this question, “Why are people so mean?” because she doesn’t realize that the meanness is based on how that other girl views herself. It’s confusing, for sure.
I think it all has to do with feeling inferior. Like, one person might be better at science than you are, or you might think they have more friends than you, or people like them more than they like you. So, you do something to tear them down to prove to yourself that they aren’t better than you. Then you can think to yourself, “See, you’re just as miserable as I am. You’re not better than me.” And, you know, I mean hypothetically “you” and “me” here because I try really hard to never be mean! I just think sometimes people feel so terrible about themselves that they want to bring everyone else down with them.
So, what Sonia’s describing is like the classic, “If I can’t have it, nobody can” scenario.
My thoughts are similar to Sonia’s, but I think it all comes down to jealousy. Someone has something you want or is something that you want to be, so you’re cruel to them to bring them down.
In addition to what everyone has already said, I think immaturity often has something to do with people being mean. Say there’s a kid who likes doing something that’s different from what most of the kids at her school like to do. A group might make fun of her and say that what she likes to do is weird or stupid, when the truth is that they just don’t get it … like, they’re not mature enough to understand why she would be interested in the things she likes to do.
I agree with what everyone has said, but I also feel like it’s a control thing. If someone is having bad things happen in their life or people are being mean to them, then they can feel like they’re losing control. So, they lash out at other people as a way to kind of try to get a grip on things – to try to get back in control.
Like everyone has already said, the reasons can be because they’re insecure or they’re jealous, but I think the thing is that they don’t want others to know that about them. Being mean is their way of hiding their insecurities or jealousies. So, they come off as super-confident and strong, but it’s really just them trying really hard not to let everyone else know that they have the same problems.
Just to add on one other idea: maybe there’s something happening at home with them that’s affecting them and making them be mean to others.
Adding onto what Nikki said, I think lots of times people don’t even realize they’re being mean. Like if something’s going on at home and people are being mean there, then the kid comes to school and treats people around them the way they see people treating each other at home. So, they think that’s just how people treat others; they don’t even realize they’re being mean.
Along the lines of what happens within families, I think there are circumstances where a kid can feel inferior to their siblings, like maybe they feel like the parents love the sibling more. Maybe the sibling is a super-star athlete or straight A student and you’re not, so you don’t get as much attention as them at home. Then, you go to school and really want to feel superior in your friend group because you feel so inferior at home. If some kids in the friend group who don’t value you, then you might be mean to them to keep them in their place and keep you at the top of the group.
It’s definitely a cycle, and it’s really likely that it starts at home. Let’s say that within a family, siblings tease each other and pick on each other constantly, and by the time the youngest kid comes along, there’s this pattern of how the siblings treat other. Then, he grows up getting picked on constantly by the people closest to him, which makes him learn that teasing and picking on others is how people behave when they’re close – like, it’s how you show affection. Then, he goes to school and picks on and teases his friends because he doesn’t know any other way to behave. He’s just doing what he learned at home. His friends will think he’s mean – for obvious reasons. But he doesn’t get it; he’s just doing what people do at home.
Along the lines of what Chase was saying, it’s definitely a cycle. And not just with teasing; it’s with aggression, too … you know, like physical aggression. Maybe a kid gets beat up by his older brother; then he goes to school and beats up someone else. It’s learned. People are just repeating what someone has done to them.
Like Sonia and Fiona were saying, if there’s a situation at home where a kid feels like they don’t get any attention, they might try to get that attention at school. Like, they can’t get a grip at home, so have to get a grip at school. Since they’re not in control at home, they feel like they have to be in control of the friend group or the school or the classroom. And a lot of it might be sub-conscious; they might not even realize they’re doing it.
I think this is all really important to think about when someone’s being mean to you. There’s stuff going on with them, and they have feelings, too. If you just try to stay positive, rather than be mean back, that’s probably the best thing to do. So, this could be a way to break that cycle: think about why that person might be being mean to you – like it might not have anything to do with you.
This is such a great question, and I think what’s really interesting about the answers everyone has given is what they have in common: people are mean to others because someone has been mean to them. It could be a situation at home that starts it, or it could be the norm among a group of friends. People might be mean within a friend group to keep others in their place. Similarly, a group might be mean to kids outside their friend group to maintain their social status at school – a way to maintain control and keep others in their place.
The truth is: there are as many different answers to the question, “Why are people so mean?” as there are people in the world who have ever behaved in a mean way. Somewhere along the way, they’ve learned that by acting this way, they can get a result that they want such as feeling powerful, getting attention, being in control, feeling superior, or getting people to fear them. We might not always know the answer to the question, “Why?” but there’s always a reason. If you can remind yourself of that, like what Makena was saying, and take a step back to think about some possible reasons for why someone might be behaving in a mean way, that might make their behavior feel not as hurtful.
So, the next time someone is mean to you, try this: instead of focusing on what they said and how it made you feel, try to think about all the possible reasons for why they might be acting that way. You can also come back here, and read over the TOP students’ thoughts again. Also, be sure to check out these great resources, which give even more ideas about why someone might bully or be mean to others:
What do you think: How would YOU answer the question, “Why are people so mean?” Tell us in the comments below.
Disclaimer: We are neither medical nor mental health professionals. We are anti-bullying advocates here to offer support, share ideas and opinions, and be part of the solution. We believe the best way to get bullying to stop is to talk about it and share ideas about what works. We want to make sure that no one feels alone; these kinds of things happen to all of us.
If you are experiencing bullying, please confide in an adult who you trust. If an adult in your family is mistreating you, please tell someone so they can help you; you might confide in an adult at your school such as a teacher, principal, or counselor, someone at your place of worship, a friend’s parent, or your neighborhood police. There are people in your life who want to help, but they can’t help unless you tell them there’s a problem. So, tell them.