We can probably all think of a time when our over-the-top politeness got the better of us. Someone was rude to us, but we were afraid to “make a scene,” hurt their feelings, or insult them. Or maybe someone standing next to us told us to be quiet, and we listened. Or our opinion was dismissed as “wrong,” and we let it be. We walked away and fumed, “You know what I should have said?”
Same thing, only more serious: a few years ago, Isabella, her husband and their two kids, ages 3 and 5, were on vacation in Florida and decided to take a walk on the beach after dinner. It was a beautiful night with a gorgeous sunset, and they were just enjoying being together and watching the kids collect shells and play near the water. Isabella says that the memory of what happened next still scares her.
Two huge brown and black dogs came out of nowhere and ran toward the kids, barking. The owners were nearby, and Isabella’s first (and best) thought was to yell to them, “Do they bite?” but she hesitated because she didn’t want to seem “rude.” Fortunately, she caught herself, and as she and her husband started to run toward the kids to shield them, she screamed, “Do they bite?” “No, it’s okay,” the owners yelled, not giving a moment’s thought to the fact that their enormous dogs had scared the heck out of everyone.
“What if,” Isabella asks herself every time she remembers this story, “my kids were really in danger, and I hesitated to protect them out of politeness? I can’t even imagine being able to live with myself.”
It’s not okay for someone to put us or the people we love in harm’s way, take our ideas, attack us, blame us for things we have nothing to do with, be rude or insensitive to us, ignore or exclude us on purpose, or offend our ethnicity, gender, or religion.
It. Is. Not. Okay. Ever.
And that means that when these types of behaviors come our way, polite-“no problem!”-“feel free to do that again!” tolerance isn’t the best response.
Should have said
We have a range of choices about how to respond when someone is being thoughtless, unfair, or rude to us:
Walking away. On the outside, saying nothing and walking away may look passive, but when we walk away from a combustible situation, not out of politeness or fear of confrontation, but out of strength, we actually show some mega-power.
Our internal conversation goes something like this:
- “This situation is beneath me. I’m not going to involve myself in it.”
- “I have better things to do with my time.”
- “This situation just isn’t worth the energy it would take to resolve it.”
- “I’m not going to explain or defend myself to this person.”
- “I can’t make this a priority in my life right now.”
- “This person isn’t going to change based on what I say right now. Not worth it.”
Speaking up. Sounds like this:
- “That’s not fair.”
- “I don’t agree with that.”
- “That’s really offensive to me.”
- “We were supposed to talk an hour ago. I’m upset about having to wait.”
- “I wasn’t copied on that email. I felt left out.”
- “I was hurt when I wasn’t invited.”
- “You’re really making me uncomfortable.”
Kindness. Wait—this is not a sappy, yes-it’s-okay-to-walk-all-over-me kindness, but a choice that comes from strength and the goal not to escalate a situation, and it can be a good option in a tough situation.
A while ago, I was on a call with someone who was being, let’s say, aggressive. She wanted a favor but was in a hurry and seriously impatient with the questions I needed to ask her. At one point she even ended the call on me.
But no matter how aggressive she was, how impatient, I just kept calmly asking my questions. When she hung up on me, I called her back and kept the conversation going. It was hard! But after a while, she started to change. There was no hostility coming from me so there was nothing for her to push against. In the end, her tone was really different. She even told me how much she appreciated my help and apologized for giving me a hard time.
When we don’t react to aggression with aggression, rudeness with rudeness, insults with insults, even if we’re right and the other person is clearly wrong, a situation can’t get worse. We’re putting our foot on the brake so to speak. So it may be worth taking a breath, not reacting to hostility with more hostility. Then sit back and watch a bad situation lose its steam.