You’re Selfish!

In a desire to have a discussion that isn’t about infuriating current events, I decided to resurrect this post from my old blog. I hope you’ll join the discussion.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I wanted to put it to all of you, awesome readers, to discuss.

Is “selfish” really an objective measure, or is it, as I believe, “in the eye of the beholder”?

Consider the following fictional scenario:

Bob works at a department store in stock. This means that he spends his working days lifting and moving light to heavy boxes for hours on end, then has to help with inventory after the store’s closed for the day.

Bob’s roommate, Bill, also has a job in the same department store, but as a cashier.

This set-up was always weird because Bill suffers from social anxiety and doesn’t really like people, while Bob is an extrovert and loves hanging out and being social.

On Black Friday, Bill was scheduled at 7am to open the store (which opens at 9), but got to go home at 3pm. Bob wasn’t scheduled to go in until 5pm (the third stock shift), but didn’t get off until after midnight.

Of course, being Black Friday, it was not a fun day for anyone working by any measure. Bill dealt with terrible customers, had to lift more than his fair-share of heavy TVs and stereos, had to break up a fight between four people over the last iPad Mini, had to pick up the slack from a co-worker who quit in tears only an hour and a half after the store opened, and even fell off a ladder at one point, though without any serious or otherwise problematic injuries.

Bob, of course, was working stock, so he didn’t really have to deal with customers. He did, however, have to deal with a pretty severe accident when a new stock-person knocked into an already precariously-stacked mountain of clothes boxes. Bob managed to save both the new guy and himself from serious harm, and nobody else working stock got harmed, as well, but that mountain had to be cleaned up, which delayed the emptying of a last-minute truck delivery, made last-minute by the manager who was supposed to place the orders quitting without telling anybody that they hadn’t placed the orders just a week ago, and nobody checking until two days later. On top of that, the stock team was short one person because one of their stock people was a no-call, no-show.

Bill got off at 3 and set aside a big-screen TV he planned on picking up later when the Black Friday hysteria died down. He came back to get it at 10, which was right around when the store closed, paid for his TV, and took it home before hitting the local pub.

When Bob finally got home at 12:30am, Bill was at least a little buzzed and trying to open the new big-screen TV he had bought. Bill asked Bob for help, but Bob, who’s feet and back were killing him and who was so tired he could barely drive home as it was, said “leave it ’til tomorrow”, went straight to his room, and passed out.

Bill muttered under his breath that Bob was selfish, and proceeded to open the box and set up the TV alone.

So who was being selfish? I personally would immediately say that it was actually Bill who was being selfish, since Bob clearly has the harder job. And yet Bob was actually scheduled an hour less than Bill, and while Bill definitely has a generally easier job, there are other factors to take into account: Social Anxiety is not a small thing and can be ridiculously draining on a person. I can say this from personal experience. I’ve had anxiety attacks just from being social. It really isn’t easy if you’re an introvert.

I’m not saying it has the same effects on you as back-breaking physical work would have, but it can still be exhausting and leave you wanting help.

But then again, why couldn’t Bill have left the TV for the next day and just gone to bed? Maybe he and Bob could have made a game out of it the next day, then sit back and pop a couple cold ones while enjoying their new TV. Yet Bill was insistent on getting it set up then and there.

I get considered selfish a lot because I really don’t like mingling with people and such. I don’t really want to go parties or talk to people and so on. But extroverts consider me selfish.

But my question is… aren’t they the ones being selfish? Aren’t they the ones trying to force their ideas and plans and whatnot on me?

I’m pretty convinced that selfishness is in the eye of the beholder. I know that before I immediately judge someone as selfish, I try to take the situation into stock, and consider the context. Because… honestly… it may really be me who’s being selfish… although, yes, sometimes it is them being selfish.

And yet by what measure do I, or anyone, judge that?

Here’s a thought… maybe the very act of judging other people to be selfish is inherently selfish inandof itself, because you can only ever judge someone as selfish in relation to you. They are selfish either because they did something you would never do, or because they wouldn’t do something with you, or because they wouldn’t share something with you. But it’s always about you.

So what is “selfish”, then? Is it even a meaningful term? And if so, how do we make it less subjective? Can that even be done?

I turn it over to you, readers. What do you think?


  1. chigau (違う) says

    Bill could have picked up a case of beer and set up the TV instead of going to the pub.
    That way he and Bob could have watched for a bit before Bob nodded-off.
    I agree that accusing others of selfishness is almost always about how you feel.
    We are social animals, so when we (generic) train children to fit in, a major portion of time is spent making them take turns and play by the rules and do what everyone else is doing. To want to do something else, even just being alone, can be seen as defective.

  2. ledasmom says

    Setting up the tv sounds more like a physical task, so I think it is selfish to ask for help from the person who’s physically hurting. On the other hand, Bill said it under his breath, not out loud to Bob, and did in fact set up the tv, which he was probably looking forward to as a reward for what sounds like a horrible day. As long as nobody picks a fight about it the next day, which I hope they both have off, I think they’re good.
    Also, it doesn’t sound like the tv was as big a deal for Bob, maybe because he goes out more. On the one hand, probably more of the effort should be made by the person to whom it is a big deal; on the other hand, that logic leads to one person doing all the cleaning; on yet another hand, if Bob cares about his roommate, he should make allowances and help Bill wiht the stuff Bill cares about, and vice versa.
    In summary, I wouldn’t call anyone selfish based on their reasonably restrained behavior after a Black Friday at work.

  3. witm says

    Neither. Asking for help is not selfish, it may just as well be an invitation to a social experience and enjoying the proceeds of the activity. Also, going to bed is not selfish, because ensuring you are human the next day is of benefit to everyone and not being able to provide either good company or reasonable assistance in a fatigued state would be rude so you are being helpful by absenting yourself. The interaction is just an interaction.

    I guess that makes selfish and eye of the beholder issue, but I think there are some clear delineations when unnecessary actions of little benefit to you personally cause tangible harm. Littering comes to mind as a really simple example. Your simple convenience vs. long term damage. All tragedy of the commons game theory examples etc. Lack of empathy, such as not knowing when to shut down a conversation or when to not bother a friend with your trivial personal needs could be similar. In the end I just don’t actually think the example is terribly good.

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