You’ve been waiting in line for half an hour at a theme park when a group of girlfriends cuts in line in front of you, taking advantage of a boy who seems flattered by their attention.
Or you’re at the grocery checkout with your toddler, who is tired and cranky and acting out because of it, and someone walks up to you and says, “Aren’t you going to do something about your kid? I’d smack her if she were mine!”
Dealing with mean people is hard enough when you’ve got a fresh supply of energy for the day. When your energy is low, it gets harder not to say or do the things that come to mind.
And those things usually make the situation worse.
So, how do you respond to rude people? And what makes them that way?
Why Are People So Mean?
It’s not always easy to pinpoint the reason why someone is being rude or aggressively mean — though if you know the person, you might at least have some idea.
When it comes to people you don’t know, it’s too easy to assume they’re just jerks or unpleasant people (or something worse).
But there are a variety of reasons why someone might act rudely or disrespectfully toward you. The most common reasons fit into the five following categories.
1. Low Self-Esteem
It’s often the case that disrespectful people have years of experience on the receiving end of others’ rudeness or lack of respect. If someone is convinced that they don’t deserve kindness or respect, why should they assume you do?
Low self-esteem is often at the root of meanness or rude behavior. People who are hurting and who think little of themselves often do and say hurtful things to others as a kind of revenge for the way they’ve been made to feel.
If they have to suffer, why shouldn’t everyone else? If they can’t be happy, they have a right to take happy people down a notch or two, if they get a chance.
So, if you seem happier than they — or if you seem like an easy target (as they often feel they are) — don’t be surprised if they vent their anger and self-loathing in your direction.
2. Overwhelm and Emotional Baggage
Low self-esteem isn’t the only thing that can drag people down and cause them to lash out at others. Mean people are usually dealing with a truckload of emotional baggage and might feel overwhelmed by it and by the weight of their personal problems, whatever they may be:
- Trouble at work
- Financial problems (debt, poverty, gambling, etc.)
- Conflict or abuse at home
- Inability to trust or invest in others
- Discontent with where they are
If they have a habit of using drugs to cope with their personal problems, they might be acting rudely because of the effects of the drug they’re using — or because of withdrawal symptoms.
3. Personality Disorders or Mental Illness
Whether because of childhood trauma or neglect or because of a chemical imbalance or physical injury, a personality disorder may be at the root of someone’s disrespectful or mean behavior.
Some habitually rude people are suffering from a mental illness such as extreme anxiety or paranoia. Those with Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder are generally unable to empathize with others.
If you confront a sociopath for his rudeness or cruel words, chances are he’ll have no qualms about doing or saying something worse — either to punish you or just to get a reaction.
4. Cultural Differences
What you might consider rude behavior someone else might consider normal, because that’s what they grew up with or because their culture rewards brash or aggressive behavior.
So, it’s not personal; it’s just what they’re used to.
Of course, this doesn’t excuse their mistreatment of you and others unfortunate enough to catch their attention. None of these possible explanations qualify as excuses or erase the consequences of cruel words and thuggish behavior. But they do help us see beyond the rude behavior of the moment to its fuller context.
5. Emotional Immaturity or Poor Social Skills
Some people don’t realize they’re being rude or disrespectful because they’ve yet to learn the social skills needed to make friends and influence people. It may not be their fault, either.
What you perceive as rude or at least thoughtless is, to them, behavior that they don’t think much about, probably because their minds are on other things.
People on the autism spectrum sometimes behave in socially inappropriate ways, which others might perceive as rudeness or a lack of respect for others.
There’s no malice or even passive aggression in their behavior, though. And they may not understand why others are offended by what they’ve said or done.
It’s not personal; it’s just that they honestly don’t know what’s expected of them. They have difficulty picking up on social cues, and they don’t perceive their own behavior as rude, let alone mean.
Or they’ve gotten tired of people jumping to conclusions about them, and they no longer care. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, but it doesn’t hurt to give them the benefit of the doubt.
How to Deal with Mean and Rude People
Now that you can see beyond the rudeness of someone’s behavior in the moment, let’s go over some steps for dealing with it. The goal here is to respond in a way that’s most likely to benefit you both.
And I know it’s easier said than done — especially when your energy is low, and someone else’s rudeness pushes your last button (the big red one).
But the more you learn to calm yourself in the midst of a storm, the better able you are to defuse a potentially explosive situation and restore peace (or as much of it as possible).
1. Look beyond the rudeness — to the struggling person behind it.
This is where you look for that “fuller context.” This is harder to do if you don’t know the person being rude or disrespectful toward you, but it may yet be possible to discern the real reason for their behavior toward you.
It may be that they’re still feeling raw from a disappointment or from someone else’s unkind treatment of them. Or it may be that they’re processing some painful news or difficult emotions and are unable to respond to anyone without agitation or anger.
Whatever the reason, take a moment to consider the person behind the unpleasantness.
2. Don’t take it personally.
Someone else’s rudeness probably has little or nothing to do with you personally. It’s more likely to be about the rude person’s own personal issues. Take the time to consider this when someone acts rudely or disrespectfully toward you.
It doesn’t follow, though, that because it’s “not personal,” you have no right to be offended or hurt by someone’s rudeness or cruelty.
Our aim here is not to say, ‘Well, it’s not personal, so it shouldn’t bother you.” It’s to help you see the behavior in its fuller context and to respond in a way that is least likely to make the situation worse.
3. Consider differences in culture or background (learned behavior).
You don’t have to give anyone a blank check to be rude or disrespectful toward you because of their cultural or family background — or what you suspect they picked up from it — but it helps to realize that someone else’s nasty behavior has more to do with them than with you.
If someone’s background has trained him to be aggressive and inconsiderate, you’re not going to reform him by telling him off if he doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s doing — and if he sees a lack of aggression as weakness.
If he holds to what his upbringing has taught him, he’s not likely to respond well to a scolding by someone he considers weaker than himself. So, unless you can demonstrate superior strength in a language he understands, it’s better to walk away.
4. Defuse rather than escalate.
Once you let your anger dictate how you respond, you’ve lost control of the situation and of yourself. Instead, remain calm — looking past the other’s behavior to the struggling soul behind it — and respond with kindness.
If your kindness seems forced, the other will likely pick up on it and resent the implied condescension. You need to feel genuine forgiveness and kindness toward the other person in order to effectively defuse the situation.
Empathy plays a role, here. If you can put yourself in the other’s shoes, it’s easier to feel compassion and to forgive the other person from your heart.
Forgiveness and genuine good will — even if they don’t change the other person’s immediate behavior — restore your power over yourself and help you grow in spite of temptations to get even. They also demonstrate love to the other person, who may not have much experience with it.
5. Walk away.
Sometimes, all you can do is walk away and keep your distance from the people behaving rudely or disrespectfully. Maybe they just need time to cool off, or maybe there’s nothing else you can do without putting yourself or people you care about in harm’s way.
It’s not always easy — especially when you’re tempted to think this person needs to be taught a lesson — but walking away is generally easier to survive than confronting someone who doesn’t seem to care how his actions affect other people.
Choosing not to confront someone or not to accept their challenge doesn’t make you a coward; not every battle is worth jumping into.
It starts with you.
It may be that the rude person has gotten so used to being on the defensive and having to fight to get his share that he doesn’t see his behavior as strange or inappropriate.
He may not have much experience with people who treat him with unconditional kindness and respect.
As someone more conscious of what’s going on behind the rude behavior or vicious words, you have the opportunity to respond in a way that could change someone’s life for the better.
In his book, Zero Limits, Joe Vitale shares the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono prayer for healing, which requires only that you think of someone and repeat the words, “I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you,” over and over again.
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You don’t have to say these words to a rude person’s face (which, let’s face it, would be awkward). You don’t even have to be in the same room with that person. You do have to mean what you say, though. And you have to say those words with a sincere desire for healing and forgiveness.
Because in healing yourself, you also bring healing to others — particularly to those whom you forgive from the heart. If you can forgive yourself, you can forgive and show compassion to others, too. And if you consider yourself worth healing, you’ll also see that in others – even those who have hurt you.
Let the healing and the forgiveness begin with you, so you can bring the same to others, including those who have offended or mistreated you today.
And may your kindness and compassion influence everything you do.