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5 Polite Ways to Disarm Rude People

Emily Post offers timeless wisdom on how to break the vicious cycle of rudeness.

Key points

  • In one study, 75% of respondents reported that they'd been subjected to rudeness in the workplace during the past year.
  • When someone is rude, it's good to first assess whether reacting is worth one's emotional energy.
  • If rudeness becomes bullying or harassment, it's important to alert others. Sometimes, being polite is not an appropriate response to disrespect.
Source: Nasirkhan/Shutterstock

Do you work in a rude or hostile environment? A new study shows that rudeness in the workplace is a contagious behavior that spreads if nothing is done to break the vicious cycle of incivility.

Workplace rudeness is a serious problem. For the recent study, three psychologists at Lund University in Sweden surveyed nearly 6,000 people on the social climate of their workplaces—and 75% of respondents reported that they'd been subjected to rudeness in the past year.

Rudeness often goes under the radar. Although the researchers observed that bullying and harassment in the workplace are often well documented, acts of rudeness that often border on bullying are rarely reported.

The researchers wrote, “Rudeness can refer to petty behavior such as excluding someone from information and cooperation, or "forgetting" to invite someone to a communal event. It can also refer to taking credit for the work of others, spreading rumors, sending malicious emails, or not giving praise to subordinates.”

The December 2015 study, “Models of Workplace Incivility: The Relationships to Instigated Incivility and Negative Outcomes,” was published in the journal BioMed Research International.

In a press release, Eva Torkelson, who is leading the project on rudeness as a social process in organizations said, "It's really about behavior that is not covered by legislation, but which can have considerable consequences and develop into outright bullying if it is allowed to continue."

This groundbreaking research unearthed that the most common catalyst for co-workers acting rudely is imitating the behavior of colleagues. The study found that people who behave rudely often experience a type of "lowest common denominator" social support, which makes them less afraid of negative reactions or repercussions for rude behavior from managers and colleagues. This creates a climate in which rudeness can spiral out of control and contaminate a workplace.

Equanimity Is the Key to Breaking the Cycle of Rudeness

Handling rude people can be tricky. You can’t control someone else’s behavior or explanatory style. I believe the most effective way to break the vicious cycle of rudeness is to keep your cool nd avoid being rude in response.

Equanimity is the key to keeping the ricochet effect of rudeness from snowballing out of control. Equanimity is defined as, “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.”

In 2013, I wrote a post about equanimity which was inspired by baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Before signing Robinson to play for the Dodgers in 1945, general manager Branch Rickey made it very clear that: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey was looking for an individual who was both a great athlete and a "gentleman." He needed someone with the inner strength and restraint to withstand intense hostility and aggression without becoming reactive. Robinson was able to realize that "not fighting back" was the ultimate testament of his courage.

The Timeless Wisdom of Emily Post

My grandmother lived and breathed the etiquette rules of Emily Post. Although my mom is a renegade of sorts, she always kept on hand a copy of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, which her mother had given her, for whenever she needed to reference the rule book of good manners and proper etiquette.

I always assumed that Emily Post was old-fashioned and stuffy. However, after reading the new Swedish study on rudeness in the workplace being contagious, I did some research on what Post had to say about dealing with rude people. I found that many of Post's insights hold timeless wisdom about how people should treat one another.

Emily Post sums up proper etiquette as another form of the Golden Rule in which you simply do unto others as you would have them do unto you: "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” Post boils etiquette down to three components—respect, consideration, and honesty.

5 Polite Ways to Combat Rudeness (Inspired by Emily Post)

  1. Equanimity. When someone’s rudeness upsets you, count to 10, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself, “Is it really worth losing my cool over this?”
  2. Size Up the Grievances. Is it a waste of your emotional energy to let this get under your skin? Or does the rudeness cross the line and need to be addressed face-to-face with equanimity?
  3. Empathize With the Rude Person. Don’t take rudeness personally; maybe the person is just having a bad day and taking it out on the world. Often you can break the cycle of rudeness by empathizing with the root of someone’s cantankerous behavior as a sign that he or she is unhappy, and be kind.
  4. Lead by Example. Rudeness begets rudeness and is contagious—i.e., If you speak rudely to a waiter, don’t be surprised if you get the same treatment in return.
  5. Let It Roll Off Your Back. If you can’t come up with a witty joke or laugh it off... just shrug your shoulders, let it go, and walk away.

Conclusion: Rudeness Is Different than Harassment or Bullying

Obviously, when someone’s rudeness crosses the line and becomes bullying or harassment, you must be a proactive whistleblower and alert others to the details of your hostile work environment. Sometimes being polite is not an appropriate response to disrespectful treatment.

When dealing with rude people, always stay even-keel and use common sense. Trust your gut instincts and intellect when deciding whether to let rudeness roll off your back in an attempt to create an upward spiral of empathy and kindness by "not fighting back.” In some instances, we all need to put our foot down and make it clear, in the spirit of ferocious equanimity, that we won’t tolerate any more rude or insulting behavior anymore.

That said, I rarely escalate conflicts with rude people: Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s more effective to disarm rude people with politeness. Over the years, I’ve found that deflecting rudeness with genuine, Kevlar-coated kindness is the best defense.

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved. The Athlete’s Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.

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