Are there any polite synonyms for asshole-ish behavior? A good synonym would probably have about the same impact and wouldn't send people looking for their dictionaries.
Contemptible behavior or base behavior convey contempt without vulgarity. But I think it will be impossible to quite satisfy your requirement for a word with “about the same impact”. I doubt that vulgarity can be matched for impact by anything but blasphemy – and that only when your audience is religious.
While I don’t use that word myself, like most profanity, its meaning is not very precise. It is used to mean many different things which is only sometimes informed by the context. I’ve seen (or heard) the word used to mean all of the following.
- self-promoting (especially at the expense of others)
- abrupt, forward, or tactless in speech
I would probably use the word intolerable, whose meaning is both clear and precise. Assholes can’t be tolerated.
Other similar options I’d consider would be unspeakable, reprehensible, and abhorrent.
Also, if you feel like basic synonyms for bad/awful lack force, you could always add a strengthening adverb. Calling someone’s behavior truly rotten, while kindergarten-friendly, is a serious accusation if leveled with the proper gravity.
In light of OP’s search for words both more basic and more emotional, I'm adding heartless and soulless to my list.
These alternatives to asshole-ish were made thinking about OP’s example in a comment about the behavior of the financial industry. I wasn’t really thinking about the general “jerk” sentiment.
I think highly objectionable might serve your needs. It communicates that the object of your ire is behaving in a way that you consider unacceptable and probably rude. I think this is a good fit for asshole-ish because calling someone an asshole mostly communicates that you don’t think they are behaving as a mature adult should.
Her behavior at dinner was highly objectionable; she offended just about everyone at the table.
In a comment you wrote
Example: “The financial industry exhibits asshole-ish behaviour.”
If that is the context of your word, one could say:
- The financial industry exhibits predatory behaviour.
- The financial industry exhibits heartless (or cold-hearted) behaviour.
- The financial industry exhibits callous behaviour.
- The financial industry exhibits ruthless behaviour.
Wikipedia defines psychopathy as
a mental disorder characterized primarily by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deceptiveness
Which are all asshole attributes.
Generally, an asshole is a fast driver behind you, who tries to push you to go faster. A moron is a slow driver in front of you who won’t speed up no matter how much you ride their tail.
One who purposely and deliberately (that purpose usually being self-amusement) starts an argument in a manner which attacks others on a forum without in any way listening to the arguments proposed by his or her peers. (Urban Dictionary)
This term seems to be gaining use outside forum environments.