That’s Rude

What is rudeness? I’ll give you my definition, classify two types of rudeness, and provide some ideas for dealing with it.

Rudeness is violating a social convention in a way that suggests that the perpetrator’s wishes are incorrectly understood to be more important than another person’s or group’s needs or interests. It occurs when what a person or group says or does exceeds the amount of tolerance people should be expected to have in a given situation. So, if you are enjoying a musical performance and a person has to interrupt your listening pleasure by asking you to make room for him or her to pass by, that’s not rude. The individual’s need is assumed to be relatively significant and the accommodation by those seated is minimal. Of course, if the person trying to pass said, “Get the hell out of my way” to the concert viewers who did not object or cause some unwarranted, intentional obstruction, that would definitely be rude. The rude person in that case would be treating the fellow concert-goers as if their wishes were unimportant and would violate the convention that we should speak politely, especially when making a request.

When I worked at a ChickenFest Restaurant (put that on your résumé) one waitress was called “bulldog” by the rest of the waitcrew. Calling her bulldog was a bit rude, but that’s not the example I have in mind. In the backs of restaurant are stations where the waitstaff preps some uncooked foods (like soups and salads) for the guests. Instead of waiting in line to dish out these foods, bulldog would push in front of whoever was working at the waitstation to get what she wanted. She was an older woman, so people tolerated this, but when she pushed in front of the person at the station, it was always a surprise. She never said a word. This was typical, everyday behavior for her. That was rude. Did she know she was being rude, violating the convention we learned in kindergarten that says we have to wait our turn? Well, a few people told her to stop, but she continued to push people aside anyway. I call this intentional rudeness.

I teach classes where, on occasion, a student will bring in an entire meal, like several slices of pizza or a bag of fast food, after class has begun and spread it out in front of him or her right beside neighboring students. If the student is diabetic and must have food, this is reasonable behavior–the individual’s needs outweigh the inconvenience and distractions of the sounds, smells, and sights of someone eating for ten to fifteen minutes. But, if there are no extenuating circumstances, that’s rude. The student incorrectly assumes the classroom has the same norms for eating as occurs in their own dining room. This kind of behavior is unintentional rudeness. I don’t think these student diners ever thought about the impact their actions had on others. Eating a small snack would be a minor distraction that people should tolerate because the person may not have had a chance to eat, but eating a full meal, unless others are eating as well, is inappropriate in the classroom. It’s not like the student is watching TV. Someone eating makes it more difficult for the rest of the class to pay attention and work together.

We tend to remember rudeness. Why? Because rudeness is somewhat insulting in that the rude person is saying “I am better or more important than you.” If intentional, we may be hurt or get angry. Since intentional rudeness also can be an expression of power, we may react not by getting mad, but by becoming deferential. Some rock stars, well-known actors, politicians, and business leaders act rudely all the time. We authorize this behavior because we think the social conventions do not apply to them because of their stature. Wrong. This behavior may be unintentional because they became used to people deferring to their needs, but it’s still rude. When the behavior is unintentional, we may not take it personally, but we will generally remember the transgression. Whether intentional or not, we will remember that the rude person is self-centered and ill-mannered.

How do we deal with rudeness? This question is at the heart of interpersonal communication, which attempts to help us develop skills at getting our own needs satisfied while respecting other people. So, what should we do when others are rude? Well, there’s no easy answer, but our first obligation is to try to see things from the other person’s perspective. What seems rude to us could be the result of many factors. Our perception of rudeness could be a matter of a cultural difference. For example, the symbolic gestures people use in some cultures have a different meaning than the same gesture in America. The lesson is, be careful when you travel abroad for you may not know what you are saying nonverbally. When President George Bush was in Norway, he gave the “hook ’em horns” Texas Longhorn gesture with his fingers, which to him, represented the horns of the bull mascot of the Texas team, but to the people of Norway, this called to mind the horns of Satan. He wasn’t trying to be rude; there was a culturally based miscommunication. Another reason why something may seem rude is because we may not know about some need the “rude” person has. To illustrate this point, think about how some people may react when they see a person park in a handicapped parking spot and walk rapidly into the building with no signs of having a disability. Well, they may get angry, thinking the person is somehow cheating the system. But, if we try to consider their view, we may realize that the person may have a heart condition or other ailment that’s not visible. What seems rude to us may instead reflect some kind of miscommunication or inaccurate perception the rude person has had. I’ve walked to the front of a line when I didn’t know there was a line. I’ve said “rude” things out of ignorance, when I did not understand the circumstances. So, before labeling a behavior as rude, think for a moment about the other person’s perspective. Are they intentionally rude or is their action understandable or unintentional?

Once we understand the causes of the “rudeness,” we have two basic choices if the act really is rude. We can let it go or we can politely point out the transgression. Letting it go, especially when the rude person is a stranger or the problem is minor is often the safest, most rational course of action. I recall a conversation I once had with an extended family member who was injured in a bar fight. I asked him what happened. He indicated that he was playing pool and someone used his team’s quarter for the next game. A brawl ensued. It wasn’t about the money, he said, when I asked why he would get in a fight over a quarter. It was about the principle. Well, there are other principles involved besides don’t let someone cut in line at the bar. Another principle is that you have to let minor insults go or find some sensible way to solve a problem besides hurting others or getting hurt yourself when what’s at stake is waiting ten more minutes to play a game. Try pointing out that your quarter was there first and if that does not succeed, talk to the bartender. Don’t threaten people, hit them, or worse. Rudeness should not be responded to in kind by rudeness. The result of rude for rude behavior is almost always escalation of the conflict. When you argue with someone, for example, and you insult them, defensive communication will provoke a greater insult. As the conversation continues, people will often subsequently say things they don’t mean or believe, but these words can irreconcilably damage a relationship.

If you decide not to let the rudeness pass, you have to figure out how your words or actions can generate a response that will establish common ground. If the message you send is framed in a way that shows you care about the rude person’s needs and feelings, you may get the person to care about your needs in return. Using “I” language may help to get the other person to consider how their behavior has negatively impacted you. For example, when a coworker has taken your stapler without permission, you can say, “When you borrow things without asking, George, I feel hurt because my needs weren’t considered. I know that borrowing a stapler is a minor thing, but I had a report to put together, and I spent half an hour looking for my stapler, which you had. Would you mind asking me first or leaving a note when you borrow something in the future?” Most people would probably apologize when they realize they had unintentionally been rude. The strategy is to get the rude person to think about how their actions affected others. Admittedly, this approach doesn’t always work. It may not be successful when people are intentionally rude. This kind of rudeness may be a means of putting you down. The rudeness is a symptom of an underlying issue. If so, it’s time to evaluate the relationship and see if the basic problem can be uncovered at an appropriate time and place.

So, that’s rudeness, an intentional or unintentional violation of social norms that suggests the person somehow believes that he or she is better than everyone else. When rudeness occurs we should try to understand why the person is acting rudely. There may be a good reason for their behavior. We can ignore it or we can try to stop it. To stop it, when the behavior is unintentional, we need to try to avoid “you” language and instead use “I” language. Saying “you are such a jerk,” will probably provoke an insult in return, and the rude person won’t even understand the nature of the problem. Saying, “I feel sad when you argue with my parents” would get the focus of the ensuing discussion on your feelings and on ways to solve the problem. The feeling of sadness is simply a statement of fact. The other half of the statement is nonjudgemental. It invites the other person to explain why he or she acted rudely so you two can come to a common understanding. If it turns out the rude act was intentional, i.e., was designed to hurt you, it provides the opportunity to start the discussion about why such anger exists in the relationship. Listen well. Respond sympathetically. Be happy.

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