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opinion | jennifer graham

Free to be you and mean

In important jobs, an abrasive manner shouldn’t be a disqualifying factor

Former Harvard president and Obama advisor Larry Summers is known for being “brusque.”AP/file/J. Scott Applewhite

The euphemism was “brusque demeanor,” but what Larry Summers’ critics really meant was: The guy’s kind of a jerk. In the pantheon of descriptives that encircle the former Harvard president, who withdrew recently from consideration for the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve, Summers is “abrasive,” “blustery,” “bull-headed,” “a bully.” But if anything, words like these are meant as sugar coating.

“I’ve heard it said that I can be arrogant,” Summers has admitted rakishly, and the confession always elicits a laugh. But a thimble of self-deprecation cannot desalt an ocean of erosive ego. Therefore, Summers will not replace current Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, not because people don’t like Summers’ views on the market, but because so many people don’t like him.

In Shakespearean terms, Summers was hoist by his own petard, and petardians — literally, the carriers of explosives — get a bad rap these days. But should being a jerk stop you from being the Fed chairman? Or are there certain jobs in which a certain level of jerkiness is an asset? Divorce lawyers, maybe. I’ve heard it said you should never hire one you like.


True, it’s important that we like our kids, and life is significantly better when we like our neighbors, our mothers, and our spouses. Everybody else is optional. The more important the job, the less we need to like the people performing it. Unless the Fed chairman or the Joint Chiefs of Staff are coming over for tea and crumpets next week, their winsomeness, their personal appeal, is unimportant and irrelevant. By all accounts, Jimmy Carter is a really nice guy.

What we should desire most of our fellow human beings is ability, the “clear, hard, radiant competence” for which Dagny Taggart longed in “Atlas Shrugged.” Gentility is a gift, an unaccustomed grace in these parts. But, like sugar in tea, we shouldn’t demand it. A virtue faked holds no value. It’s hollowed by inauthenticity. And in business and politics, as in the academy, a certain brusqueness may be of benefit. Not taken personally, it suggests a person of serious mind and intent, a person whose purpose is greater than the adolescent craving to be liked and admired. Still waters run deep. Sometimes they’re cold. We could all be more tolerant.


Increasingly, the workplace has no room for the Summerses of the world, the Billy Blokes Gruff snorting and charging about the office. “Nice-ish girls get the corner office,” writer Hanna Rosin proclaimed in her 2012 book “The End of Men.” With women comprising 47 percent of the US workforce, the workplace is becoming less blustery and caustic. To put it in terms familiar to viewers of “The Office,” more Pams mean fewer Dwights. But we’re not all glad-handers by nature, and those who lack the milk of human kindness shouldn’t be penalized for being lactose intolerant.

This doesn’t mean that diplomacy is a skill required only of diplomats, or that expletives, name-calling, and personal insults should be ignored in a work setting. Ad hominem, subtract Cro-Magnon. But remember, the nicer people are in a business setting, the greater the likelihood they’re trying to sell something.

In her book, Rosin quotes Emily White, now with Instagram, who describes herself as competitive and opinionated, a “really aggressive person.” Summersy, you might call her.

“I’ve definitely tried to change my style and hold my tongue a lot more. I always actively ask for other people’s opinions even when I don’t care about their opinions,” she said, adding, “It drives me nuts. I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.”

The more mannerly of the world, then, have a task, for which they are amply equipped. When faced with a bull-headed colleague, take a lesson from Pamplona. When the bulls are running, don’t stand there and smile. Stop the chit-chat and get out of the way.


Jennifer Graham, who lives in Hopkinton, writes regularly for the Globe.