What is a word or phrase to describe people who are very practical and shrewd, and more concern about achieving their goals rather than looking at softer sides such as friendships, etc? It is more than just self-centred. It is a kind of character which one who inherits it would not hesitate to do very shallow acts just to emerge as a winner/survive, even if he has to betray his benefactors. It is a very insecure kind of character but on the surface is not obvious to be like so.

For example, Tom befriends with Jane in hope of her help at work. Jane helped Tom. Tom, however, may possibly make Jane his enemy one day, when he knows his boss dislikes Jane, so as to appear standing behind his boss.

So in some way, Tom in this scenario, is a what kind of person? In casual words, he is practical, shrewd, self-centred, etc. But is there a more concise word that encapsulates all these words and brings about the idea of such a character?

  • 1
    an Objectivist? ;) Mar 12, 2012 at 14:15
  • 2
    It's somewhat misleadng to start your idea with 'practical' because that leads in quite a different direction than you intend. 'Practical' by itself has no connotations of interpersonal strategy. But 'shrewd' or 'clever' is enough.
    – Mitch
    Mar 12, 2012 at 14:20
  • 2
    Sarcastic answers would be: manipulative, sociopathic (via cornbread), or, in the other direction, rational.
    – Mitch
    Mar 12, 2012 at 14:21
  • @Mitch What does '(via cornbread)' mean in your comment?
    – Spagirl
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:43
  • @Spagirl Here, 'cornbread' is the start of a user's name.
    – Mitch
    Apr 7, 2017 at 11:54

5 Answers 5


Machiavellian describes someone who manipulates situations to their benefit, using human emotions when suited, and dropping them when not.


An opportunist is "someone who takes advantage of any opportunity to advance his own situation, placing expediency above principle"; ie someone who stoops to almost anything to gain an advantage.

Ruthless means, in part, "not thinking or worrying about any pain caused to others"; for example, She ruthlessly pursued her ambition, letting nothing get in her way.

A selfish person is "concerned with oneself or concerned with one's own interests, especially to the exclusion of others."

Per previous answer, a Machiavellian person tries to achieve goals by cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous methods. If you want to suggest lack of scruples, opportunist and Machiavellian do so. If you don't want to suggest that lack, ruthless and self-serving may be a tiny bit better. (I slightly prefer the term self-serving to self-centered in this context.)


OP tells us approximately what kind of behaviour he's talking about, but the choice of adjective depends very much on the attitude of others to that behaviour.

For example, Tom could be described as pragmatic, focussed, objective, goal-oriented, etc., by someone who either admires him or is simply offering a neutral description. But someone who doesn't approve of the way Tom acts might say he's self-centred, self-obsessed, egotistic, etc.

In the final analysis, all such words are somewhat vague. It might be, for example, that OP specifically wishes to call attention to the fact that Tom's behaviour is often manipulative.


A person who is 'pragmatic' in this way could be described as self-interested.

From the ODO:

Motivated by one’s personal interest or advantage, especially without regard for others.

An example:

Years of observation and introspection have led many to the conclusion that people are self-interested creatures.


Egocentric and manipulating. Machiavellian is too .... well, machiavellian. It embraces too much. Manipulating would be it, nobody manipulates somebody else for the third party benefit. Sorry, didn't see the Machiavellian answer before mine, still, keeping with "manipulating".

  • I think that this is more of a comment than an answer in its own right. Apr 7, 2017 at 9:57
  • Please edit your answer, restricting it to your suggestion of "Manipulating" and quoting a dictionary extract (or the like) in support.
    – David
    Apr 7, 2017 at 12:02

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