The Power of Smug

‘I know it’s a bit mean but I couldn’t resist feeling smug as I drove past the petrol station and saw all the queues’. So spoke the man who came round to fix my roof, as the self-satisfied driver of an electric van. He was rather embarrassed but also, understandably, enjoying the schadenfreude.

He is not alone. Many electric vehicle drivers say the same. In September 2021 the number of electric cars sold that month matched sales for the whole of 2019. Levels of interest have been growing steadily since the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars in 2030 was announced earlier this year. Queues at petrol stations will no doubt provide the final nudge to those contemplating going electric. Autotrader reports a 60% rise in searches for electric cars as the fuel shortage began to bite

For a long while electric car drivers were seen as a bit of an oddity, eccentrics who put up with all the inconveniences of an alternative fuel where range was short and charging points were rare. They stood out from the crowd in all the wrong ways – you had to be brave to drive an electric car, rather than aspirational.

Then along came Elon Musk and the launch of the Tesla. Electric cars started to become cool and electric car drivers found themselves driving a status symbol instead of a quirky niche alternative.

But while the cars themselves had become desirable their power source still raised questions. Other drivers might have been intrigued about how electric car drivers managed the practicalities, but never envied them the effort involved in planning a long distance journey.

Now for the first time those electric car drivers could feel positively superior – and drivers of fossil fuel cars were feeling not just admiration or curiosity but envy as well.

All this has made me think about the appeal of smugness: this pleasurable feeling where the user not only gets to feel good about the benefits they are experiencing but also to bask in the envy experienced by others.

A colleague of mine enjoyed a moment of smugness when another colleague complimented her on her new leather jacket, ‘oh thank you, it’s actually vegan leather, I bought it at M&S.’ Whereupon that colleague, infuriated, replied ‘why is it I never see anything that good when I go there?’. Way to go…a double helping of smugness, both the ability to winkle out something stylish from the brand so often seen as Middle England at its most frumpy and the on-trend decision to abjure animal products (incidentally isn’t the branding of ‘plastic’ as ‘vegan leather’ an example of re-positioning at its finest?)

You can savour the same sense of superiority if your dinner guests praise the wine you have served and you reveal it came from Aldi or a friend oohs and aahs at your designer handbag which you actually discovered in a charity shop. It’s that double whammy, you bask in the sense of your own perfect taste and then, on revealing where you bought that product, you can add savviness to discernment in the long list of your virtues. Irresistible!

However, to get the full benefit of smugness it is crucial to generate envy in others otherwise you’re just virtue-signalling and no-one likes a prig. You might feel you have both taste and savviness but you won’t get half the satisfaction of possessing both those desirable attributes if they go unacknowledged by others.

Is there an opportunity for other products and services to draw on the power of smug?

Or is it an own goal?

The environmental movement has suffered over many years from too much virtue signalling, adopting behaviours (paying a premium for recyclable products, refusing to fly) which rather than generating feelings of envy amongst others makes them feel guilty and resentful. ‘Flight-shaming’ (flygskam in the original Swedish) has never felt to me like a viable mainstream strategy to promote alternative forms of travel even if Greta Thunberg is a fan.

Its twin ‘train-bragging’ (tagsbryt) on the other hand feels like there is much more scope to effect behaviour change. If you want more people to travel by train you can focus on the delights of strolling up to the station and jumping on board without lengthy and intrusive security checks, the ability to stretch your legs and gaze out of the window, the freedom to turn your device to airline mode when you want to and the convenience of arriving in the middle of the city rather than its outskirts.

So far, so good, but if you want to harness the power of smug I think you also need to include a comparison with the frazzled flier cramming all their belongings into Ryanair-regulation hand luggage, getting up crazily early for their airport Uber, decanting all their toiletries into doll-sized bottles and scanning (increasingly desperately) the airport lounge for an available plug socket.

The image of an electric car gliding silently along, its driver gazing out serenely is undeniably cool and aspirational, but I reckon it might need even just a fleeting glimpse of a queue of fuming fossil fuel dependant drivers to complete the picture.

The power of smug, you can’t beat it…