“Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” (Marcel Proust)
The first thing to ask when we encounter such people is whether “offensive” is their default setting, or if maybe they are—like Judith Viorst’s Alexander—having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
If it appears that the latter is the case, the kind response might be to offer some empathy. “It looks like you’re having a tough day. Can I help?” Or even just silently give them the benefit of the doubt—she must be struggling with some challenges right now. I know this isn’t who she really is. Sometimes these acknowledgements—offered without responding in the same tone or attitude of the offender—will give them the opportunity to pause and look at their behavior, and sometimes even alter it or apologize for it.
But if you’ve had similar encounters with this person before and know them to be perpetually unpleasant, angry, and aggressive, giving them a pass is less than satisfying. Sometimes it feels like we’re letting mean win. So, what’s the best strategy for those inevitable encounters with thoroughly odious people?
First, recognize that you’re not going to change them. The odds of our response changing an entrenched bully or disagreeable person are approximately 3,492,771 to 1.
This really isn’t about them. It’s about us. That’s where we should be focusing our attention.
If we can limit our interactions or avoid them entirely, that’s a great self-care strategy. Just as we do our best to avoid toxic chemicals or dangerous gases, limiting our exposure to toxic people is both healthy and wise.
Sometimes we can’t, though. The villain is someone we work with, the spouse of a friend, or even a family member.
The key thing to remember when dealing with these mean, rude, and unpleasant people is that we have a choice in how we will respond. If we let their bad behavior trigger our own, then mean does win. Sometimes they are so unhappy or so twisted that they delight in bringing others down to their level. If their malice fuels ours, it further reinforces their belief that people are all basically pond scum. Don’t let them think they can manipulate you. If they see that they can’t, maybe they’ll stop trying and move on to easier targets.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. Most of us have a well-established habit of responding instantly to a perceived insult or threat. Perhaps it’s a holdover from our caveman ancestors’ instinctive “fight or flight” response. But we don’t have to answer insult with further insult. We don’t have to call somebody a name if they call us one, or raise our voice back at someone who yells at us.
The best thing to do is to pause. And then to ask not “Who is this person and why are they such a jerk?” but “Who am I and what do I want to be?”
If we’ve thought about this in advance, we have our answer: I’m a basically kind human being and I choose kindness over unkindness.
There are those who will think this is a weak response, or perhaps a faint-hearted one, or maybe they’ll think it’s spineless and insubstantial. I invite them to try it next time they’re faced with incivility. It’s hard. It takes strength and courage to respond to bad behavior with courtesy and kindness. It’s a courage and strength many people don’t have and can’t yet understand. Cultivating it may take a lifetime, but each time we do it, we get better. After a while, it can become our default setting.
We’re not aiming for perfection. Just for improvement, and for becoming people who do our best to live our values.
Think now about how you hope to respond the next time an unkind person pushes your buttons. It will prepare you for the inevitable. You may surprise yourself by your response. You will certainly surprise Mr. or Ms. Nasty.
“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)