You're not the boss of me...
September 20, 2012 8:44 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with rudeness from people of authority?

How do you interact productively with a person of authority who behaves unprofessionally? For the sake of this question, your relationship to them limits your ability to directly call them out on their rudeness. (Think: the relationship between a police officer and stopped motorist except for some reason you have to deal with this same officer over and over again). Basically, I'm talking about any context when "hey, you are really being very rude" will not fly and could even land you in deeper trouble.

Also assume that

1)the behavior is persistent and very obviously offensive, something like outright mocking or condescension. ("HAHAH well that's just stupid!!" to everything you say complete with eye rolling, exasperated sighs, etc. etc.)

2) the behavior is not sexist, racist, homophobic, violent. Just traditionally rude.

3) Reporting the person's behavior is not an option.

4) The relationship will always be imbalanced such that you need something from them but they never need something from you.

Do you lay on the over-the-top politeness? Answer everything politely but give him/her the evil glare?? Meditate before seeing him or her and go to the boxing gym after? Is there anyway to telegraph to someone that he/she is a total asshole without saying the words?
posted by murfed13 to Human Relations (30 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I would just let it go (and act normally).
posted by insectosaurus at 8:56 PM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

People who act this way enjoy feeding off your reaction, whether they know it or not. I try to take it as a challenge: am I a good enough actor to respond to what just came out of this person's mouth as if it were polite, thoughtful, and sensible? Let me tell you this -- when you pull it off, it confuses the crap out of them.
posted by escabeche at 8:56 PM on September 20, 2012 [41 favorites]

I vote for over the top politeness. I have found that being extremely polite can release some of that energy and frustration for me, without digging myself into a deeper hole. It can be risky, but less so than other alternatives.

Rude is just rude. It's not crossing the line to illegal or reportable, so the best thing to do is to respond however you will best get your needs met from the person, then don't think of them again.
posted by Vaike at 8:56 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Raised eyebrows and pursed lips?
posted by Jubey at 8:58 PM on September 20, 2012

I have someone like that in my life and my coping skill has been to outright laugh at them. I know it drives them crazy that I am always so cheerful and cracking jokes (not jokes at their expense or self-deprecating) while they are blatantly showing me contempt. I view having to work with them as a necessary evil but I don't think about them at all outside of our interactions. I feel sorry for them that they are in a relatively powerful position but still need to be petty due to their insecurity. I do not like spending time with them - but how awful for them that they never get a break from their own negativity.
posted by saucysault at 8:59 PM on September 20, 2012 [12 favorites]

I've heard it suggested that turning the other cheek is the appropriate response in these sorts of situations. The difficulty of the maneuver makes it all the more impressive in the execution, too.
posted by carsonb at 8:59 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

This happens to me a lot because I work in healthcare and there are some ridiculous pockets of embarrassingly uncivil culture in this field amongst us so-called 'professionals.'

I wait for 2-3 beats in polite silence. Not glaring or staring, just enough so they are typically put in a social position to re-address me. At the point I say something like, "Alright, are you ready?"


Pharmacist pages me and I call back, identifying myself.

Rude Pharmacist (not a referendum on all pharmacists, the majority are lovely): You're the one who called in this ridiculous prescription for Baby Doe?

Me: . . . . . . . . . . .

RP: Rumposinc?

Me: Yes, I am here and listening. Are you ready to ask your question?

Repeat as needed. I've, truly, had professional colleagues end these kinds of exchanges with apologies without me ever asking for one or directly confronting the behavior. However, if rude or disrespectful behavior continues, I will, politely, directly address it because those we serve as professionals deserve civil professionals, and life is too short to be routinely treated poorly.


RP: You're the one who called in this ridiculous prescription for Baby Doe?

Me: . . . . . . . . . . .

RP: Rumposinc?

Me: Yes, I am here and listening. Are you ready to ask your question?

RP: Turn your phone up. I'm trying to figure out why you would call in an Rx for Baby Doe that doesn't make any sense, or maybe you have no idea what you're doing.

Me: I am ready to pull Baby Doe's file and work together and draw on each other's expertise in Baby Doe's best interest, but this won't be possible if you continue to speak disrespectfully to me. Are you ready?
posted by rumposinc at 9:17 PM on September 20, 2012 [80 favorites]

I often respond to rude stupidity by thanking the originator kindly for their input. If you can manage to actually mean it, it works. Originator dumbfounded - though whatever their reaction it's less important than you being able to dismiss incident and originator from your mind, having responded but not resorted to their hatefulness.
posted by likeso at 9:17 PM on September 20, 2012

Is there anyway to telegraph to someone that he/she is a total asshole without saying the words?

If your aim is to let somebody else know that you think they're an asshole, just using your words is the simplest and most reliable way to do that. As rumposinc illustrates, this can be done without descending into asshole behavior yourself.

Using any kind of subtle telegraphy instead means that the asshole receiving it will either misinterpret the message, which makes it pointless or counterproductive or both, or will understand it perfectly in which case you might just as well have used your words.

If an asymmetrical power relationship is only causing you occasional minor inconvenience, as opposed to actual ongoing harm, I think the healthiest response is to treat its associated behavioral markers as little theatrical show pieces put on purely for your amusement, and rank them on performance quality and believability. Explicit critiques of those who have power over you are best withheld until you have found a way to route them through your local network of power relationships so that they arrives at their destination from above.
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd recommend "Coping with Difficult People" by Bramson (1981). An oldie but goodie!
posted by 99percentfake at 9:33 PM on September 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Depends entirely on the situation. Sometimes people know they're being rude and enjoy it. Sometimes people are rude because they're too busy or distracted to think about being polite. Sometimes it's because they're insecure or troubled in some way. Some people just don't deal well with others. Each requires (and justifies) a different approach.

Once I had to spend some time working with someone more senior who was quite difficult because, I think, of insecurity and just general maladjustment. I just responded with cool cordiality and privately planned an exit, and I think that's all I really could have done.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 9:34 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe you could get away with a "somebody's grumpy today!"
posted by univac at 10:22 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I was good at acting, I'd cry.

Then that would make them feel super awkward and I'd feel better.
posted by inturnaround at 10:27 PM on September 20, 2012

What I usually do is repeat back to them what they said verbatim. If they agree with me after that, I will try and speak to anyone else associated with them and, again, repeat what they said verbatim. If I get no love, I walk away, but usually, everyone around them knows they are an asshole and I make damn sure that they know I think so too. There's not much you can do in this type of situation, but I try and make sure that someone around them knows that I think they suck. It's just a woebegone hope that it will get back to someone with some authority that can ruin their world...somehow. It usually ruins my week, but I try.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:08 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kill 'em with kindness.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:31 PM on September 20, 2012

Be patient, rational and neutral. If something they're doing is objectively getting in the way, point it out in a clear but understated way, with reasonable evidence, but never reflect negative emotion back at people, difficult as that may be. If you have to tell someone they've being aggressive or offensive look for opportunities to describe it objectively, non-critically and not as something between the two of you (saying, eg, you think that if 'we' use some phrase it might come over to other people as x, rather than saying 'you're being really x to me!')

To put it another way, take great care not to give these bastards the least chance to suggest the problem is with you.
posted by Segundus at 12:26 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

rumposinc has it - I'm not at all into this turn the other cheek, kill'em with kindness, quietly congratulate yourself on laying down and taking it stuff. Demonstrate some backbone instead. That lie you hear in school about bullies not going after people that try to ignore them is also a lie in adulthood. Backbone. You're a human being first, an employee second.

Follow the script rumposinc has laid out and if these encounters are happening in person then add some eye contact. I personally find it quite effective to accompany the silence with eye contact, a blank expression and a slight tilt of the head, like you're not quite sure what you're looking at, like his behavior doesn't make sense.
posted by EatTheWeek at 1:02 AM on September 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

take great care not to give these bastards the least chance to suggest the problem is with you.


I've dealt with quite a few of these types in office situations. At first, when it sunk it that, yes indeed, it was persistently offensive and nothing politely roundabout changed it, I naively continued in wanting to change it, and so got assertive, told them to address me respectfully, et cetera.

It was like tossing raw meat to famished lions. Everyone who's said that this sort does it to get a rise out of others, whether they're aware of it or not, is correct. It took a couple of years, the departure of the all offenders (a couple were in fact fired for their bad behavior, so there was that), for it to stop. I had learned my lesson. Having "change" as a goal was not helpful; instead, a common goal needed to be used, and in an office there's a clear one: getting work done.

Nowadays I turn the other cheek with this type, playing it as if their every word were meant for the good of all. As others have mentioned, it confuses them to heck, in part because it subtly shows that... it's not actually what they want. It also works because working together constructively is what the overall goal should be, and indeed, the one time I got assertive (dude was repeating "you're SO stupid you just don't get it" without saying what "it" even was, so of course I wasn't "getting it", sigh), it was with "this conversation needs to be directed towards a solution," which worked beautifully. Essentially what rumposinc did too. The guy was still pissed off, but since the goal wasn't about him or me, and instead about work, he found himself in a tight spot; his attempt to raise emotions was pointless. And once he finally defined what "it" was, I understood immediately and we agreed to a solution. Then he stomped and harrumphed off for an hour-long coffee break. Heh.

That said, dealing with this sort of person is very wearying, and if it's all the time, with no defined exit, whether on their end or yours, you should probably consider finding one on your own. (That's what I've been doing lately, fwiw. It just grinds you down when there's no other way out.)
posted by fraula at 1:05 AM on September 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

Forget about sarcasm. That road leads to Hell in a handbasket. The key is in point 4. This is a work relationship. You need something from this person, but he doesn't, and never will, need anything from you. I assume that (because of point 3) that this person can cause you to be fired.

My first impulse is to realize that this person is living in his own little box of snakes, and I would be grateful that the only time I have to notice is when he communicates with me. It's creepy to get glimpses into his twisted world, and it makes me ever more glad to be me instead of him.

I say this because when he implies that you are stupid, you actually know that you are not. If you are secure in your ability, then his bullshit is just so much moving air. If you are in the unfortunate position to have him as your direct supervisor, then you may have a more difficult row to hoe, because his opinion of your skills reflects directly on your job performance. If you feel the tension to be abiding and on the increase, then you may decide you have to respond to it. Right now you are pretty much ignoring it, but you aren't at peace with that strategy. If you can't come to grips on that level (rationalizing and then ignoring), then sooner or later you will respond to him. Better to do it on your terms than his. He feeds on this kind of thing, so you won't be happy with what happens if you get into a pissing contest with him. Telling him off may ring a few bells, but in the end you'll come away unsatisified, even if you manage to keep from losing your job over it.

Let's say that you decide to respond to him. First think of yourself as a reasonable person, with a reasonable objective, so speak without snark or sarcasm. If your status has you in an inferior position to him, then conduct yourself accordingly. This is courtesy, not toadyism. Calmly ask him why he did a certain thing. If he engages you in this conversation, you can read back the last thing he said, and ask him if he has an actual problem with (whatever it was) you did. Do this when you are calm, and don't expect anything in particular to happen. This isn't an interaction where somebody wins and somebody loses.

"I noticed you rolled your eyes, and I got the impression that you think I did something wrong." More succinctly, wait for the eye-roll, and say "Was there something wrong with this (whatever)?"

If he called it stupid, then ask "Is there something wrong with it?" or "Stupid? Well, how can I fix it?"

This consversation has to be specific and timely. You should avoid any type of general statement, such as: you always treat me this way, or you are always rude to me. You should offer this as a riposte, immediately upon him uttering one of his gems. This is only about his last utterance, not his tendency. You might look for a way to do this when he doesn't have to react to any other workers.

He may disengage, and, for one example, accuse you of being too easily offended. You can then point out that you weren't offended by him, you were just concerned about the work product under discussion. If he insists, then you can truthfully say that, yes, you find his rude behavior tedious, but hardly offensive, and you try not to let it get in the way of you doing your job.

You may use this tactic from time to time, when he does something particuarly noteworthy. After a while you will have outlevered him. You can smile and hand him another one of your stupid reports. Again, stay away from sarcasm. That's his area of expertise, and when you lie down with that dog, you always get up with fleas.

If he truly doesn't get it, or becomes truculent, then measure your own responses, don't react to him. Remain polite, and tell him you regret that you weren't able to see eye to eye, and disengage by returning to your concerns about the work product.

At this point you are done. What happens after that depends on whether he's the boss. If you are called upon to explain yourself to the boss, then tell him what you did and why. You were dealing with veiled criticisms, and you were not as much concerned about the rudeness as you were about he work, which you thought was satisfactory. This last paragraph may seem a little disengenuous, but it rests on my assumptions that these interactions center around a work product. If he's the boss, then you probably are screwed, but after you've had your little talk you can still retain the moral high ground on the way to your next job interview.

Oh, yeah. Integrity is expensive, but it'll keep you warm on cold nights.
posted by mule98J at 1:09 AM on September 21, 2012 [11 favorites]

You can smile and hand him another one of your stupid reports.

ah....I didn't mean literally that your reports were stupid. Sorry. Bad edit.
posted by mule98J at 1:14 AM on September 21, 2012

If this person is your direct supervisor, the thing to do is find another job and get references from someone other than him.

In general, there are ways to lessen the impact of bullies but if you have no authority over them the only way to stop them from bullying you is to kill them. I'm not willing to do that, so the next best thing is to get them out of my life. All the people who have actually *stopped* bullying me are either dead, or not in contact with me any more.

If they're not you direct supervisor you can handle them like a rude pharmacist as suggested above. That works for short interactions.
posted by tel3path at 1:23 AM on September 21, 2012

I am occasionally curt. (Because busy, whatever.)

I work with a woman, junior to me, who will occasionally call me ma'am when I am being curt. That pulls me up short. Other things that work with me: pauses before answering. And expressions of (sincere or feigned or pointed) sympathy: "are you having a crappy day. I'm sorry."

Stuff like that is usually enough to knock me out of my own head into paying attention to the people around me and how I'm treating them. I don't know if it would help with someone who is being deliberately, persistently offensive, but it might help with milder cases.
posted by Susan PG at 1:38 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm afraid that I dont think there is a direct solution to your problem.

You are obviously frustrated by this and want to change the other persons behaviour. I'm sorry but that requires you to have some power over them. However, from what you describe, you are powerless and will remain their victim.

You need to look very carefully at what leverage you do have; formal authority is obviously lacking but, from the sound of things, there are professional obligations and, with any interaction there are social expectations. Both these points can be exploited.

rimposinc's solution is great; that approach uses professional obligation to exploit social expectation. I dont know your exact cultural context; this varies hugely even within Scotland never mind UK/US, but, for me, the direct approach would be less effective than a longer game of implicit expectation.

If this is a long term relationship and this person has a professional obligation to help you then you can try to make it quite clear that their attitude is contradictory to your shared objectives. Take the moral high ground; dont be upset by their (conscious or not) needling of you, just be a litte disappointed. This can be remarkeable effective, particularly if you can engineer one-on-one interactions; in this context their authority has equal weight to your disapproval of them. Dont give in to your frustration and impatience; be impeccably polite and, though you may never have the satisfaction of a cutting come-back, you can at least empower yourself.
posted by BadMiker at 2:37 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I often deal with people I'd like to tell to go fuck themselves with a rusty chainsaw. But I can't because they're paying customers. So I keep a bright smile on my face and turn up the chipperness about 500 percent. I answer questions like "RAWR WHY IS THIS THING THIS WAY GRAAAAAARRRR?!?!?!?!" with "I'm sorry, what is your question?" (the rumposinc method above is awesome).

Three things I keep in mind:

1. These people are just assholes or mentally ill and their tendency to freak out has nothing to do with my competence.

2. I feel sorry for them that they can't control themselves from flying off the handle when things don't go their way and feel good about myself that I'm able to deal with them in a mature manner and not lose my cool.

3. These people are just a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things. They don't get to take up any more of my time than I spend with them. If I feel myself thinking about a run-in with someone during off-work hours, I remind myself that this is MY time and they don't get to have any of it.
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:37 AM on September 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

If they are just a stressed out person, then compassion and reason. Politeness and being the best that you can be. They often don't realise how insulting they are being and are actually quite decent people (just not generally at work).

If they are a bully or sociopath - try to have as little to do with them as humanly possible. Meditate and hit the gym. They'll tear you down for sport and anything you do - ignore them, show humanity, be kickarse, whatever - will result in them trying to break you. If this is a boss - get your exit plan in place, and do it now.
posted by heyjude at 3:59 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you really can't call them out on it in any manner, I would try not to react at all. Behave normally. And work on an exit plan.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:45 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

My handling of it would depend a great deal on why I thought it was happening, a detail you haven't addressed.

Some people are just not socially smooth, which is generally the easiest possibility to work with. You just have to focus on effective communication - on the substance of what needs to be conveyed, not the style - and try to model better behavior. Some people have a personal issue, like insecurity. In that specific case (insecurity), focusing on something about them you genuinenly respect, like technical expertise, can help. When they feel less insecure around you, they will likely tone it down.

There are a lot of good answers above. Which one is the best fit depends in part on your personality but also in part on why this person does this.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 6:48 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I get very task oriented with people like this. I'm pretty hell-bent on being competent anyway, and my own self-image won't let me give people like this LESS than my A-game, but don't fall into the trap of being hyper-prepared or vigilant, or more apologetic in the hopes of avoiding the beatdown. Assholes are going to be assholes, and the more you can acknowledge that nothing you can reasonably do is going to satisfy them, and that the problem is not within you but within them, the better off you're going to be.

If you're honest with yourself, you'll remember that you've been that asshole to some person in a customer service position at least once in your life. If you haven't, please PM me with what meds you're taking, because I will ask my doctor about them. Remember how some particularly competent person might have dealt with you when you were being out of control because you couldn't get that replacement phone today, or whatever? Be that person. Polite, emotionally flat, business-like, helpful where possible, but completely, utterly beyond giving a flying shit what the psycho on the other side of the counter thinks of them. Maybe you go off someplace later and scream and throw things, but don't give them the satisfaction. I do think statements like "I can't help you if you don't state the problem clearly," or "I'm not going to listen to you swearing," have their place, but they have to be delivered completely dispassionately. Just task-oriented, transactional, how-can-I-get-you-squared-away 100%.

Also, one small thing you can do is just never, ever, ever, do them the slightest favor or bend the situation in their interest ever. Do everything for them completely by the book. Nothing they can complain of, but if they have the smallest scrap of honesty, they'll realize they're not doing themselves any favors.

Doing all this really does throw them off their game.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:56 AM on September 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh, and - required reading.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:58 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find it very satisfying to not let slide the rude remark, but to question it in a non-confrontational manner. Treat it as a misunderstanding, and genuinely attempt to get at the root of the misunderstanding.

murfed13 (OP) example, "HAHAH well that's just stupid!!"
reply: I can see why it might seem stupid, but why do you think it's stupid?

rumpsinc's example:
Rude Pharmacist: You're the one who called in this ridiculous prescription for Baby Doe?
reply: Why does that prescription seem ridiculous to you?

They'll either ignore your question and get on with the business at hand, follow you into this semantic debate, or lay on more rudeness. If they ignore you, then you've stood up to them, if they follow you (unlikely in my experience), then you're not peers debating a business, and if they lay on the rudeness, then repeat at necessary. You must remain unflappable!!

Unemotional, disengaged, professional. Even when they're not. Especially when they're not.

Scenario: you've been working 36 hrs straight tying balloons to the backs of chairs. Bigwig walks in with coffee in hand, "what? who designed this trainwreck? let's lose these stupid balloons."
reply: Why does this seem to you like a trainwreck? Did you not request 5,346 balloons on the back's of chairs? (and while you wait for the reply, remind yourself that you're getting paid regardless of whether there are balloons, and count to 10 while unclenching your fists).
bigwig: balloons on the backs of chairs are stupid.
reply: you know, that's what i thought, but when you said... I had to decide.... and what's how we wound up with balloons. At this point we can delay the event 2 hrs, or keep the balloons. What do you want to do? Or.... you could incorporate this into your event where each guest releases (or pops, depending...) their balloon!

Regardless of where that ends up, you've stood up to them, with your dignity intact.
posted by at at 5:52 AM on September 22, 2012

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