It would be easy to assume, surveying the national scene, that pettiness is universally regarded as a bad thing. But in other corners of the culture, it’s experiencing a kind of renaissance. On black Twitter, a certain brand of pettiness — the kind that involves gleefully asserting yourself over the smallest points and meticulously cataloging and avenging the tiniest of slights — is celebrated as a virtue and a skill, the comedic equivalent of possessing strong attention to detail. It’s celebrated in display-name puns — Petty Boop, Petty Labelle, Petty Images — and circulated in animated GIFs cut from reality-TV shows. The black entertainment blog Bossip is hot on the petty beat, publishing lists like “The Pettiest Celebrities in the Game” and curating the highlights of #PettyTwitter. The trend has even been converted into product, with Forever 21 selling a satin baseball cap inscribed with the word PETTY.
Here, the truly petty person becomes a kind of superhero: She’s focused, exacting, unwilling to suffer fools (or literally anything else) gladly. She is an everyday person who treats everything that relates to her as incredibly consequential. If you happen to be the president, of course, the smallest events of your life are already of great consequence — as are your pettiest reactions to them. Trump’s impulse to publicly dunk on Time magazine, when aimed at Kim Jong-un, also has the power to nudge the doomsday clock closer to nuclear holocaust. The context of Tillerson’s insult wasn’t a small thing, either: According to NBC News, it came after a situation-room meeting in which the president was said to be so flippant, about such serious geopolitical issues, that one anonymous adviser told a reporter, “Maybe we need to slow down a little and explain the whole world” — to the president of the United States. The value of sweating the small stuff, it turns out, depends quite a lot on how much power you have to affect the big stuff.
Amanda Hess, “Small Talk”, The New York Times Magazine (10 December 2017), 14.