Shame on you.
July 16, 2010 8:54 AM   Subscribe

What are some tricks that classy people use to make others feel ashamed of themselves after they've treated someone badly?

I'm looking for some smooth, cool-headed maneuvers one could use to get someone to realize that they've just been a real asshat? I want to provoke shame, my thinking being that this is the best revenge. The basic pattern should be like this:

Clueless, rude person: (says or does mean, inappropriate thing)
Me: __ ? ___
Clueless, rude person: (blushes, goes silent)
Me: (smiles and walks away)

While subtlety won't always do it, the more subtle, the better.

(I'm asking because I'm dealing with a bully at work, not because I feel like going on superiority power trip and teaching everyone around me a lesson).
posted by kitcat to Human Relations (44 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
It might be satisfying to tool them, but I feel the classy thing to do is be assertive and explain to them what you think is wrong.

Even if they're not a very nice person, from a practical point of view if you tool them you'll have someone at work that hates you for all time.
posted by Not Supplied at 8:57 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think it's really unwise to escalate the passive aggression levels in your workplace. There are more effective ways to rout bullying that will also keep the general emotional tone of the office healthier for everyone.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:03 AM on July 16, 2010

In my experience, this sort of thing rarely works in real life, but only in books and movies.

Your best bet is to calmly explain to the bully why what they're doing is cruel, and leave it at that, and not attempt to humiliate him or her with a zinger, since that sort of thing often backfires (and if you deliver your line awkwardly, as most of us would, makes you look bad too). Bullies do what they do because they are not easily intimidated or cowed by others' disapproval.
posted by aught at 9:03 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

You could play dumb and ask them to explain themselves after they say something offensive or rude. Usually they're relying on the witty one-liner, and having to actually explain what they mean might be embarassing. I guess it depends on how the other people around them treat them, and how much or how little they care about other's opinions. Tim Wise has the right idea, although his is related to dealing with casual racism...

I'm pretty sure it's in White Like Me, but I can't find the quote right now. Lifehacker has similar advice, though:
My recommendation? Play dumb. Put on a bewildered expression, act as if you don't understand the joke, and ask your co-worker to explain it to you. He will not be able to explain why the joke is funny without evoking a racist stereotype. You can then question the veracity of this stereotype, thus pointing out the racism of the joke, without being confrontational and without humiliating your co-worker. Racist jokes rely on an unspoken, shared knowledge of racist stereotypes. Without the stereotypes, there is no humor.
posted by codacorolla at 9:04 AM on July 16, 2010 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Whenever I witness someone humiliate someone in public, like perhaps at the grocery store when someone in line loudly comments about the person if front of them using too many coupons or paying with pennies* or something, I'll just ask them if it felt good to do that and if they feel better about themselves.

Yes, I suppose I too am publicly shaming that person and two wrongs don't make a right but, ya know, fuck it. Mean people suck.

*which, admittedly, can be annoying but having to spend an extra thirty seconds in line is no reason to publicly shame someone.
posted by bondcliff at 9:08 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Whoa, folks. I want this to apply equally to the loser who didn't offer to give up his seat to the blind guy on the bus this morning.

But as for the office bully, for instance, I don't want to have a conversation with him after he's humiliated me. I don't want to engage with him any further. I'm not looking for other ways of solving this; I know what they are.
posted by kitcat at 9:09 AM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: I prefer to allow people to come to their own conclusions by withdrawing slightly.

This is as much communicated by body language and inflection as anything else. Utter the words, "I see," plainly. Now, do it again, only pause, lean back slightly, frame a poker face, and say, coolly, "I see." Then simply breathe and go forward.

Translated, that means, "How vicious of you. I noticed you put forth the effort."
posted by adipocere at 9:11 AM on July 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I make no claims to being classy, but my answer to your question was one of my first AskMe questions:
I just had an odd chat while playing a board game online. I was asked for my "asl plz" and told the guy to shut up and play (not too classy on my part, I admit.) he responded with "mada shod." I googled the phrase and got a general idea that it could be like calling someone a 'jerk,' but if anyone knows what the appropriate English translation is, I would appreciate knowing.

anyway, I skimmed the google results during the game and decided to try responding with "bey sharam" just for kicks. my opponent promptly apologized and we played on.
Apparently it's a matter of saying 'For shame!' in a way that's most effective given your audience. My opponent in the above exchange was rude in another language, and by responding (literally, with 'for shame!') in that same language they were instantly deflated...and defeated!

In general it's a matter of discerning the level of discourse and, not exactly lowering yourself to it, but exploiting it to expose the depths to which that person has sunk. High-flown rebuttals will likely high-fly right over a rude person's head, so aim lower. One common adaptable language-based shaming/dismissal technique is to associate what the rude bully just said/did with a universally reviled character. "Hitler used to bully Jews like that," for an extreme example. "Thanks for your input, Cruella." (Crossing genders when you're doing this is like icing on the cake; if the bully's male then compare them to a horrendous female, and vice-versa.)

If you feel like shaming them with words is too difficult (especially on the fly), you can use body language to diffuse and dismiss their behavior.
- Turn and walk away, without a word.
- Pointedly and insistently change the topic to something totally pedestrian. (This one has a great analogue on!)
- Use body language to exclude the rude person from further interaction. If you can turn your back on them, or wedge them out of a discussion circle, or, to be really super blatant, hold up the flat 'stop' 'talk-to-the-hand' move, it sends a strong signal that their contributions are not appreciated.
posted by carsonb at 9:11 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

no one's every accused me of being classy but, with time and supposedly wisdom, my basic response to this situation goes something like this:

1. noncommittal acknowledgment that some sort of communication has been attempted but I don't "get it" (ie: like codacorolla just suggested)

2. assertion that high school ended a long, long time ago
posted by philip-random at 9:11 AM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: Tell them you're disappointed in them.
Works like scientific magic.
posted by xbeautychicx at 9:14 AM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: Stolen from Anne Lamott:

"What a rude, rude thing to say."

It's all in the intonation. My best friend has used this line several times and says that its recipients become gobsmacked.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:14 AM on July 16, 2010 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Assuming this person is capable of shame (not necessarily a good assumption to make), return their insult/rudeness with a compliment or pleasantry.

"Hey, this thing is awesome but I'm sure you wouldn't understand it because you're dumb."

"Gosh Bob, I sure do wish I was as smart as you."

Best if you can simultaneously share a knowing look with another person, have a big smile on your face, and use your glossy telephone answering voice.
posted by fontophilic at 9:17 AM on July 16, 2010

As someone who is working on being less passive aggressive, I just want to warn you not to go down that road. It rarely accomplishes anything, and if it's noticed at all will not be taken well. It puts up barriers to communication that not only poison your social environment, but also start to poison you.

Such behavior is not "classy", by the way.

There are two approaches that work for me.

1. Let it roll. People are jerks, and sometimes there's nothing you can do to change that. Don't let it get to you. And, yeah, sometimes this means suffering stoically for a long time, knowing there's nothing you can do in this particular situation but wait it out.

2. Communicate openly and in a controlled manner what, exactly, the problem is, in good faith, so that there is some chance that it can be solved.

Both of the above approaches take work, if you're naturally passive aggressive like I am. But it's a better way to live, trust me.
posted by Sara C. at 9:17 AM on July 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

If it's someone you interact with regularly, and their rudeness/thoughtlessness is becoming wearing, go for the Ding Method. I've tried it, it works.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:22 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and re "the jerk who stole a seat from the blind guy". Some people are assholes. There's nothing you can really do about that, and if you spend all your days fixated on the rude behavior of some stranger, you will go insane.

Though someone did once see me litter on the subway (mea culpa! mea maxima culpa!) and gave me a knowing glance that cut me to the core. I never littered on the subway again. But even if you try something like that, don't really let it get to you.
posted by Sara C. at 9:22 AM on July 16, 2010

I know it's annoying if people don't answer your question and suggest something else, so I won't bang on about it, but I think the reason people are doing this is it will go like this.

Clueless, rude person: (says or does mean, inappropriate thing)
Me: Tool attempt
Clueless, rude person: (realises unconsciously that their barb has hit home, reinforcing the behaviour, may or may not feel or pretend to feel shame)
Me: (doesn't feel the expected sense of victory, but left with a sense that all is not well that has to be lived with every day at work)

Make of that what you will, but that's my experience.
posted by Not Supplied at 9:24 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's really no classy way to call people out for rudeness like not giving up their seat on the bus, because doing so is inherently rude on your part. Adults don't correct the behaviour of other adults. Especially if they weren't involved in the situation in the first place.

If someone is being rude to you personally, an often recommended technique is "Why would you ask such a question?" or "Why would you say that?" Let them try to explain their rational for being a jerk.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:25 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

"If you'll forgive me for not answering, I'll forgive you for asking."

"What an interesting point of view."

"How nice for you."

"How unusual."

"Perhaps you are unaware, but the language you just used is a racial slur, and I don't tolerate that sort of language around me, so I'd appreciate it if you'd refrain in the future." "My best friend is religion X, and I don't find that 'joke' amusing at all." "Do you really think it's appropriate to make fun of people's children?" "Mocking others' physical appearance is cruel, uncalled for, and constitutes harassment. Please stop."

Some things just call for directness.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:36 AM on July 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

(I do admit when people use homosexuality as a slur, I've asked them very sympathetically if it's difficult having such a tiny penis, then act surprised when they're all "WHUT??" and said oh, I thought the only people who mocked others' sexuality were people who were sexually inadequate and therefore felt threatened by various expressions normal human sexuality. But that's not workplace-appropriate.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:39 AM on July 16, 2010

I've had some luck by waiting a beat then saying something like, "How awkward. Anyway..." and continuing on.

Example: a couple weeks ago I was out on a Knit Night with some friends. We were sitting around a table at a coffee shop knitting away.

Some RANDOM GUY suddenly lunges up from his seat and bursts into our conversation, talking loudly about how he wished he knew how to knit but he's far too clumsy, and isn't it nice that people still do things like this. All while staring fixedly at the boobs of Friend A.

We let him run his course, mostly for lack of knowing what else to do. Soon he ran out of breath. I gave it a pause then said, "Well. I feel really self-conscious now."

He blushed and flustered and beat a hasty retreat out the front door.
posted by ErikaB at 9:40 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was told long ago that the definition of class is "never making anyone else feel uncomfortable." I like that definition.

If someone does something wretched, you pointing it out probably won't change anything. If the person is the type who regularly does wretched things, your opinion on the matter will likely have no bearing. If the person made a genuine, accidental faux pas, it is likely that he or she is well aware of what happened and is already mortified. Unless you're dealing with a child or a person who is very new to your culture--the only people who are still learning about what is and is not appropriate and the only people who may be a receptive audience to your admonishment--it is likely that the person who does something rude either does not care and will not care, or already cares very much. Speaking up will not help in either situation.
posted by millipede at 9:55 AM on July 16, 2010 [11 favorites]

I gave this advice to my 12 year old son, who frequently gets harassed by other 12 year old boys:

Look at them like they have two heads, and say, "What's WRONG with you?" (emphasis on WRONG, so as not to look as if they are asking the person "what's wrong" in a sympathetic way).

And then walk away shaking head.
posted by mnb64 at 10:01 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just say 'You're a bully' every time they bully. If it's said often enough it becomes a kind of religious fact. It's not passive aggressive, and it's not return bullying. It's just a statement of fact.

To be honest though, bullies never change. I used to think bullies didn't get smacked enough when they were little. I know realise they are mostly born that way. The only guaranteed way to cow them is to dominate them, and you can only do that if you have more power than they do. Shaming them can sometimes ameliorate the situation, but not if they are paranoically delusional, as many bullies are.

But people have to stand up for themselves.
posted by Deor at 10:23 AM on July 16, 2010

Do what you think Mr. Rogers would do. That's unassailable.

This also works for a lot of other areas of life.
posted by oreofuchi at 10:29 AM on July 16, 2010 [13 favorites]

Bullies aren't exactly the most empathetic people, so going for "you hurt my feelings" doesn't work too well.

Social approbation--now there's something they dislike. Essentially, you need to enlist people who are neither bullying or being bullied to say "hey, that's not cool".

The cruder form of this is basically anything that makes them look like an asshole. It will piss them off.

Is pissing them off a good idea? Who knows.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:48 AM on July 16, 2010

Gore Vidal (who is openly bisexual) was once asked in an interview whether his first sexual encounter was with a man or a woman. His answer: "I was too polite to ask."

Also, I think NVC (non-violent communication) often works by shaming people into submission.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:52 AM on July 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

"Christ, what an asshole."
posted by rhizome at 10:58 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just verbally shame them. That's what I do. Call them out on it. Race them to the bottom of their bad ideas, and see if they still want to stick to that insane train-of-thought. If they do, then there's no helping them. They are to ignorant to learn. I believe that's what's wrong with America these days. Many many people should be publicly shamed on a daily basis. Just don't let it change your personality, changing you into a bitter, mean, shit yourself.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 11:02 AM on July 16, 2010

Depending on the context, sometimes just staring at the person for a beat and then returning to your work is the best response.
posted by tetralix at 11:08 AM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: The real trick is the cutting look. My mother could literally stop a conversation with hers. The best way I can describe it is:

1. Go very still and silent, and drop expression from your face (except your mouth is held taut, but only barely).

2. Slowly and deliberately turn your face to the rude person, making eye contact and tilting your head just a bit to the side (if you can, raise an eyebrow very, very slightly). Wait a beat.

3. Break eye contact before the offender can say "What?" If the eye contact is too short, she won't get the message. If it's too long, it makes her sure you were deliberately trying to shame her. Just right leaves her feeling uncertain. DO NOT break eye contact by looking down (too deferential) or up (too close to an eye roll). Instead, move your head and your eyes at the same time, towards the side and away from the rude person, as though to say "Moving on, not worth my time." If there's another person involved, turn to her and either totally change the topic of conversation or continue the previous conversation as though the rude person had never even spoken, as though she does not exist at all.

The message sent is, "Fool, please, who do you think you are?" The power is that you don't say a word--you don't have to lower yourself to her level.
posted by sallybrown at 11:26 AM on July 16, 2010 [18 favorites]

The classiest way I have seen to deal with assholes of all sorts comes from the Southern U.S.

Asshole: "So and So is a f*cking idiot......."
You to Asshole: "Bless your heart"

Co-worker: "Asshole boss just made Cynthia cry in the break room"
You: "Bless his heart"

It is hard to explain how to do it, but when said with the right inflection it is a thing of beauty.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:27 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Breakdown of the Bless Your Heart thing
posted by jasondigitized at 11:31 AM on July 16, 2010

With comedy skit to go with it.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:32 AM on July 16, 2010

You can also hire the basement guy from Amelie. He has the wittiest answers ever.

"With a prompter in every cellar window whispering comebacks, shy people would have the last laugh."
posted by Tarumba at 12:00 PM on July 16, 2010

I can understand why people are giving you advice to be honest and explain what you found offensive but I have to wonder if these people live in the real world. In my experience that's a pipe dream - trying to treat jerks with respect and honesty backfires nine times out of ten. I'm a huge fan of the subtle shaming comment in this situation. Works like a charm. Some methods I've employed for passive aggressive gossipy types:

Ask them what they mean. "I'm not sure I understand. Do you mean to say that Cindy's a slut?" You just cock your head and say this completely dispassionately. They almost always backtrack.

Just repeat what they say verbatim and change the subject like you're summing up the conversation: "So you want me to go fuck myself, and I want to get back to work." Repeat this as necessary.

Walk away saying, "Interesting feedback. Nice to have your opinion. I'm glad we talked about it."

The trick is to act completely dispassionate, like you've seen this many a time before and they're being completely unoriginal and boring with their rudeness.
posted by Nixy at 12:22 PM on July 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's all in the tone - you need to avoid sounding like you agree with the thing, but:


And then move onto something completely different - either physically or conversationally.

It's as if the thing is so not cool that it's completely not even registered on your radar, with a hint of disapproval.

posted by djgh at 1:58 PM on July 16, 2010

Classy people don't try to put shame on others. They simply lead by example.
posted by gjc at 5:32 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

The classiest way I have seen to deal with assholes of all sorts comes from the Southern U.S.

This is an excellent suggestion, although its effect may be weakened when it's used outside of the south or around non-southerners. Another somewhat-southern super-polite retort that I like to use: "I beg your pardon?" Add gently furrowed eyebrows and a quizzical smile and there you are.

Really, though, I'm not clever at all when I speak, and am even less so in stressful situations. I cannot use witty barbs to save my life. Perhaps you are like me, since you are asking this question? So, throughout my years of working in retail, and two particularly awful years with a nightmare bully of a boss, I honed my politeness and patience instead of my wit. I strive to maintain kindness and an even keel even when confronted with bullies. It's a little bit of zen and a little bit of keeping in mind how miserable that bully must be to treat others that way.

My bully had alienated all of her family, had no friends at work, and just seemed terribly unhappy. I was able to feel pity for her instead of anger when she treated me poorly. When I had to engage with her, I tried to be as straightforward and patient as possible. When she said "No, no, no, that's all wrong, how could you do something so stupid?" I would make my face blank, or smile politely and say, "Gosh, I'm sorry, what would be the best way to improve this?" Don't respond to the negative emotion at all. Just focus on what needs to get done. If you don't have to interact with this person to get any work done, then don't interact at all.

The other people you work with probably realize that this person is a bully, and so you'll be best served if you don't sink to his/her level. You may even gain some respect if you're able to keep calm and carry on, as they say. Dealing with difficult people in a mature fashion is a tough skill to master and it will come in handy throughout life. There will always be someone like this at every job. Good luck!
posted by Fui Non Sum at 5:36 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

During unsolicited gossip/racist jokes a pause (a really long pause where you hold an expression on our face that says "Really?") works well.

And hold this pause until they start blathering on to explain themselves or walk away. I mean, add nothing verbally from that point on.
posted by marimeko at 6:39 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: Ask them sympathetically, "Are you having a bad day?" (You need to be genuinely sympathetic or at least neutral, not sarcastic, for this to work.) Chances are excellent that they actually are. At the very least they realize that they're making someone else's day pretty awful. My sister used to use this all the time when she was a front-desk clerk at a pricey hotel and it worked like a charm.
posted by corey flood at 6:58 PM on July 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

I find that asking the jerk "So, why? Why'd you say that?" makes him/her conscious of what he/she just did.
posted by wolfr at 8:52 AM on July 17, 2010

Ask yourself what motivates this particular bully. It is probably that he/she feels a sense of power to put someone down. So (from experience) what really gets to them is seeing that they are not getting to you. To pull this off successfully (from experience) be extra nice to everyone else around, but ignore them. When you pass them in the hall, you can say "hello." and then move one. Speak in such a way that only smallest amount of talking possible (as business like as possible, with robot face only, then move on. They will see how you are nice to everyone else, that you are a human being with others. NO ONE likes to be ignored x 1000 with bullies. It will really get to them over time and there is no defense against this. No comment or action can derail it. And you will feel better instantly because you are enacting a long term plan as of now.

BTW, most of the people here who are telling you to say something or to give them a real verbgal zinger, may have forgotten that bullies feed off of that kind of thing. It is probably what the bully is going for and when you lose control and say any of the various things written above this comment, it will be like a success to a bully. "Yes! I made them lose control!" Just keep your cool. Give them the obvious silent treatment and it will kill them (from experience). Good luck!
posted by boots77 at 5:24 AM on July 19, 2010

The classiest thing to do is to be the exact opposite of passive aggressive. "What a rude thing to say" (as recommended above) or its cousin "What an ignorant thing to say" are effective. Additionally, "Your comments / behavior are making me / those around us uncomfortable, please stop".
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:17 PM on July 20, 2010

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