How to deal with rude people

These gentle, yet assertive, ways of standing up to impoliteness will have you walking away with your dignity intact


How to deal with rude people

3 minute read

Everyone is ruder these days – but, then again, we’ve been saying that for centuries, long before Twitter trolls or people shouting into their mobiles. Still, how do we cope? We’re taught as children not to respond to rudeness with more rudeness; on the other hand, simply letting the impolite person have their way feels wrong, too. Fortunately, there are other options. If you’re reading this on public transport, try to ignore the person playing videos without headphones in the seat next to you, and consider these alternatives:

Switch perspective

Psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error: if I do something rude, like failing to say hello in the street, it’s because I’m having a bad day – but if you do it, it’s because you’re obnoxious. It’s worth bearing in mind that an uncouth person probably has their reasons. It’ll make them less irritating, because their behaviour won’t seem so irrationally mean.

Look out for misunderstandings

Certainly, some bad-mannered people are rule-breakers: they know it’s wrong to push ahead in a queue, but do it anyway. But others may have been raised with different rules. Just as in some cultures it’s more polite to sniff than blow your nose in public, the colleague who ‘ignores’ you in the canteen by sitting elsewhere may feel she’s just respecting your privacy. If you suspect a misunderstanding, try making your preferences clear, by inviting them to join you, for example.

Focus on what you can control

As the ancient stoic philosophers observed, we make ourselves miserable by trying to control what we can’t, and failing to control what we can. Faced with rudeness, you can choose to maintain your dignity (by ignoring it), request a change in behaviour (by politely asking them to use headphones) or leave the situation (by moving to another seat). What you probably can’t choose is to make the other person less obnoxious, or eliminate all obnoxious people from your life. Keep the distinction clear, and your stress levels won’t spiral.

Kill it with kindness

Fighting rudeness with rudeness just escalates things – but responding with overwhelming kindness disrupts the pattern, without making you a pushover. Received an uncivil email? Thank the sender for their message, and sign off by wishing them a great weekend. By deciding on this course of action, you’re asserting your authority, rather than surrendering it. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting a brusque person in their place, in a manner so virtuous they know that they can’t fight back.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Image: Getty