"The National Jerk Test"

or How to Determine If You Are a Jerk

review by J. E. Brown

I remember what it was that guided me to write on manners. Once upon a time, my 8th-grade humanities teacher gave his students a test. It was not the usual test, on literature or history; not a quiz about some long-gone or distant place and time. There were no questions about other people and what they did and when. Instead the test covered the Here and Now. Us. Me. You.

The test, from a magazine article by Steve Allen, was called "The National Jerk Test." With fifty questions, the test invited us to take a deep and honest look at ourselves. Seemed like a nice diversion.

So my classmates and I enjoyed a half hour away from our studies. The teacher sounded happy to entertain us, but perhaps he had a sly ulterior motive: He knew he had a few jerks in his classroom -- rude, immature, foul-mouthed, uncouth -- why not make them conscious of their problem?

Steve Allen -- comic, Tonight Show host, songwriter, moralist -- builds the Jerk Test on the premise that jerks can be taught to improve. Allen leaves undefined exactly what a "jerk" is, but from reading the test, it's clear that his questions are meant to identify inconsiderate people: Those who interrupt, those who insult, those who embarrass.

Most other rulebreakers, Allen writes, can easily identify themselves:


A murderer, after all, is perfectly aware that he kills people. An arsonist has no doubts about the fact that he sets fire to things. The rapist well knows what his problem is. But when a jerk looks into a shaving mirror in the morning, apparently it never occurs to him that the face looking back is that of a jerk.

What is required, obviously, is some sort of test.

I couldn't agree more. Offensive people have a blind spot to how their actions affect others. What they need is some discreet way of receiving feedback, say, a test that they can read in privacy.

Allen's test is a well made test, the rarest kind, one in which most of the questions measure what the test purports to measure. So, it's a test that even a social scientist might be proud of. On the other hand, it's hard to see why Allen included certain questions of narrow applicability (like 22 & 42). Clearly it was a different day when he wrote his article, and the line between "inconsiderate" and "annoying," the line between righteous indignation and snobbishness, was drawn in a different place. And because the fifty questions are left unexplained, offenders can do little more than wonder, "Yes, I do talk a lot about my car. Why is that so wrong?" So let me encourage the reader in advance not to take certain of the questions too seriously (like questions #13, 15, 37, 38, 41, 44, 46a, & 47, which are more about your level of culture and sense of fashion). But violating the others will (quite rightly) wreck your relationships and friendships.

In all, the test is enlightening, compact, and educational. So run, don't walk, to your local library, and ask for Steve Allen's "The National Jerk Test" in these sources:

P.S.: My thanks to Mr. Logan for giving the test to the class. Er, you weren't aiming it at me, were you? :^)

--J. E. Brown

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