Countering Incivility Without Being a Jerk

“Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” (Marcel Proust)

Attribution: donna CameronRecently, I was honored that Elephant Journal published an article I had written about countering the epidemic of incivility in our political discourse. A key point was that politicians and pundits are not going to change unless we stop fueling them. It’s up to us (remember that quaint notion of “we, the people”?) to repair what’s broken and restore civility. We do that by making it clear that we will not tolerate bad behavior.

Because the article included a link to my website, I’ve received a few very thoughtful comments and questions. One particularly struck me. A woman named Sophia asked me how, when we see someone behaving rudely or unkindly, can we confront them without coming across ourselves as condescending or ugly?

This is such an important question and it’s why—even understanding the benefits and importance of kindness—we sometimes still struggle to be kind.

Kindness is hard. It asks us to take a risk, one being that we might appear smug, patronizing, or judgmental. That doesn’t help advance kindness, and it may make us wary of stepping up when we encounter incivility.

So, how do we step up in a constructive way?

Even after studying and focusing on kindness for nearly four years, I don’t feel like I have a perfect answer. But I have thoughts and I bet you do, too. I’d love to hear them. Perhaps together we’ll identify some solutions to this important question.

I don’t think there’s a single “right” way to respond to rudeness or unkindness. A lot will depend on the situation and the individual we are dealing with. To someone being rude to us, saying something like, “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day; I hope it gets better,” might be enough to make that person stop and think about what they’re saying and how they must look to others. If we can say it softly and with no judgment, it may give them a way to get their emotions under control without feeling like they are being challenged or demeaned.

If we see someone being rude or abusive to another person, a gentle comment to the offender is likely to have little effect. It’s more effective to go and stand next to the victim and just say something like, “Hi, can I help?” With rudeness, that might be all it takes to restore some civility. If the comments are truly hateful and bigoted, adding something like, “Please be careful what you say; your words are hurtful and inappropriate,” may be worth a try. But, frankly, I doubt that would really deter a bully. It would, however, give us an opportunity to turn to the person being abused and ask, “Are you all right? Can I help?” and maybe walk away with them.

The strategy should be to confront the behavior, not the person. Saying “You’re a [jerk, bigot, a**hole, whatever] just incites anger and makes the *whatever* feel more justified in his behavior. Better to say, “When people talk that way, all I hear is the hate and fear behind their words.”

If the situation is such that you’re concerned for your safety or that of the victim, your best strategy is to try to help the victim get away and seek help immediately if that might put anyone in danger.

Unfortunately, there are some people who are simply not interested in civil discourse—they want to foment hate and it fuels them when people argue or try to change their minds. The best strategy for dealing with such people is not to. Walk away, don’t engage, don’t fuel their intolerance.

To others who express bigoted views, but perhaps do so out of ignorance or misinformation (there’s no lack of that these days), there might be occasions where we can have an actual conversation and ask them why they believe what they believe and then share, “That has not been my experience. Here’s how I see it….”  If they’re not open to a civil conversation, simply look that person in the eye and say, as kindly as possible, “My friend, you’re wrong.” And then prove it by how we live our lives.

In recent days, I’ve seen several articles musing on whether the climate of incivility that now surrounds us is our “new normal.” Whether having opened a floodgate of name-calling, deceit, blaming and shaming, it will remain permanently open. Or whether once the anomaly of Donald Trump is finally and blessedly behind us (and perhaps behind something else), we will return to a level of civility that may not have been perfect but at least did not entirely discredit us as humans and Americans. It’s up to us to determine the answer to this crucial question.

When it comes to bad behavior in politicians and their surrogates, as individuals we have little influence on their conduct, but if together we say, “These behaviors are unacceptable—as long as you’re engaging in them, you won’t get my time, my money, my vote, or my attention,” maybe that will get their notice. And then we need to support with our time/money/votes/attention the candidates who behave civilly. It’s going to be an uphill climb, but the alternative is to surrender to incivility.

I find it really helpful to remind myself that I don’t want somebody else’s bad behavior to trigger similar behaviors in myself. It also helps to remember that responding back in kind or putting someone down for their bad behavior rarely (if ever!) motivates them to change.

There are people who equate kindness with weakness. But the strongest among us are those who can be kind in the face of unkindness, who can maintain their values when aggressively challenged or attacked. It’s a strength unkind people don’t have and it threatens them. As more people choose kindness and model it—especially where kids can see it—the numbers will grow.

Lastly, it takes practice. It takes practice not to yell back when being yelled at, or not to name-call, or not to voice that perfect sarcastic put-down. A good way to practice is to imagine a situation that might arise and then imagine, as vividly as possible, how you would respond: how your voice will sound, what you will say, even how you might stand. Knowing in advance how you want to respond makes it a whole lot easier to actually respond that way.

What would you tell Sophia? What are the best strategies for confronting someone who’s behaving badly without being contemptuous or unkind?

“Be kind to unkind people—they probably need it the most.” (Ashleigh Brilliant)

24 thoughts on “Countering Incivility Without Being a Jerk

  1. Great post Donna. When It happens to me (which feels like all the time), I try to remember to take a pause and breathe before I react. I’m not successful all the time (I’m human) but when I do it — a millisecond is all it takes — I calm right down and think about what I’m going to say/do. I also think it’s important to learn to “read the room.” As you say, some people are just spoiling for a fight — and I just walk away or, if it’s online, I just don’t comment. I end it right there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re right, Fransi–there is so much power in a pause. It gives us the opportunity to think about both who we want to be and what we want to come of the interaction we’re engaged in. Instant, knee-jerk reactions often lead to regret. I like the concept of “reading a room” to know whether civil discourse is welcome. Thanks!

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  2. It all depends on the scenario and the person. In many cases, I’ve found curiosity to help with de-scalation. Sometimes just saying “Having a rough day, huh?” It makes them realize how much of their frustration is showing and has the added bonus of making them feel listened to. In most situations, it seems to help. Where it is stranger on stranger incivility, the approach of being friendly to the person under attack is useful – it tells them they are not alone, it tells the attacker that they are. Sometimes bluntness works (“This approach is not going to solve the problem.”), but again, it depends on the situation.

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    • Curiosity really does seem to have magic properties, Michelle! Like pausing, which Fransi recommended above, it allows us to think about whether there’s something else at play in the situation or something we don’t know. I don’t think it’s possible to be unkind and genuinely curious at the same time. Thanks!


  3. I am the wrong one to ask…I get snarky when someone is obviously rude, or I give them what my family refers to as “the look” which they say is more intimidating than words will ever be. Good post

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  4. I think your suggestions are good ones. And I agree with other comments that how we respond can depend on each individual situation. The only constant is that responding in kind only escalates the situation, so that is to be avoided at all times, I think. Sometimes offering empathy can help, as sometimes those who are being uncivil are simply stressed and at the end of their ropes, and will calm down if they feel someone will actually listen to them. Other times, ignoring is the only answer (online, for instance, where civil arguments just don’t happen). Mostly, I like you idea of focusing on the victim rather than the aggressor. Lots of bullies are simply looking for attention, and the best thing to do is not give it to them. Instead, reach out to the victim and offer support.

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  5. Part of me wants to engage, but the other part understands that it really won’t get me anywhere. No minds will be changed and – most likely – no new information will be offered. As far as seeing someone else being bullied by a stranger, the best response I read about was to go up to the person being bullied as if they were a long-lost friend, or someone who has been waiting for you. Then, completely ignoring the bully, say something like “Julie, there you are! Let’s get going, we’ll be late for our reservations” or something like that, the important thing is to remove the bullied from the bully. I, fortunately, have never found myself in a situation like that but, if I do, I hope that I have the courage to act.

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  6. I love that strategy of acting like you know the person being bullied and you’re both on your way somewhere. Brilliant! I’m going to remember that . . . but still hope I never have to use it. Thanks for sharing that keeper, Janis!

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  7. It really does depend on the situation. I think the strategy of walking up to someone who is being abused to lend support is great. No need to confront the abuser at all, just talk to the victim so they feel supported, and the abuser can see they have support too. This has been used very successfully when someone is being ( for example) racially abused on public transport. A good way to possibly de-escalate the situation.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, and I think more of us are likely to involve ourselves if we think about helping the victim rather than confronting the abuser. It’s not as scary. And the more I think about it, ignoring the abuser to focus on the other person doesn’t give the bully the attention and fuel he is seeking. Thanks, Mick!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have someone in my life who has a default setting of ‘criticize’. It’s exhausting to listen to. I try to gently point out they are spending a huge amount of time and energy on negative thoughts and comments and how that is impacting their health (blood pressure etc). I too hope I’d have the courage to intervene if witnessing abuse, using the tactics above. Some people do seem to live very argumentative lives. Who has the energy for that? I blame soap operas! The British ones always seem to be full of people shouting or being horrible to one another. The Devil’s Advocate in me always tries to look behind the scenes for reasons. It can sometimes help explain someone’s anger and therefore a way to defuse it. Great post. 😊

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    • Thank you! We all probably have one person in our lives who spends his/her time trying to be first to see what’s wrong in every situation. I call it “playing gotcha” with life. All it gets them is a greater capacity to see what’s wrong and miss what’s beautiful and right. And, as you say, they are exhausting to be around. I think these are often the same people who like to believe and prove that they’re the smartest person in the room.

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  9. Very good post! I love the suggestions but, sometimes it’s still challenging. You should read my post entitled “Careful now, your bitterness is showing” and shoot me some pointers! 🤗🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Janae, thanks for your comment! I’m enjoying reading your blog posts. It took me a while to find “Careful now, your bitterness is showing,” but I could certainly relate to it when I did. Jealousy and judgment are pretty prevalent in today’s world and there are people who disparage others to feel better about themselves (but, of course, it doesn’t last). I love that you know your values and your boundaries and hold to them–even when it’s challenging. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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    • It’s true–a lower tolerance for bull seems to be a sign of the times. Maybe that’s a good thing and it protects us from either drowning in it or starting to fling it ourselves. Thanks for your comment and following!

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