How to react when stranger is indignant over something accidental?
June 6, 2013 3:38 PM   Subscribe

What's the best response when you accidentally knock into someone in public and they are excessively rude about it?

This has happened to me a few times, and I never know how to react. I live in a large city and take busy public transportation quite often. An example would be, I was sitting on the bus, and put on my scarf. I don't think I did it in any excessive manner, but it must have touched the person next to me. She taps my shoulder and hisses, "Excuse you! Your damn scarf just hit me across my face!" I appologized, and of course, if I had known it happened, I would have appologized beforehand. I don't know why she was so angry about it. It kind of left me fuming because I don't think I deserved to be spoken to like that, but what else can I say?

What would be a good response when something like this happens? Especially when people like to say, "Excuse you!" and act indignant when it was an honest accident?
posted by lacedcoffee to Human Relations (70 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'd let it slide. But if it happens a lot, it's possible you need to develop better peripheral awareness; crowded cities mean you're much closer to folks than in "normal life," so small movements are enough to shove your backpack or elbow into your neighbor. These folks probably aren't so annoyed by the accident per se, but by your slowness in developing this Urban Survival Skill. (It's similar to the way people are impatient with people who dawdle two-abreast on a sidewalk full of fast-moving commuters. Periscope up, people!)
posted by acm at 3:42 PM on June 6, 2013 [28 favorites]

You don't think you deserve to be spoken to in that matter, and she doesn't think she deserves to have some stranger's scarf smack her in the face. The best response is to humbly apologize again, and if this happens to you fairly often, you might pay more attention to your range of movement in public. Even if it's an "honest" accident, as opposed to a carefully planned maneuver of personal aggression, an innocent bus passenger still got your scarf in her face, and who knows? Maybe you interrupted her train of thought, and now we'll never have a cure for cancer. Apologize.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:43 PM on June 6, 2013 [9 favorites]

When this has happened in the past I usually just apologize and then go about my business. But if it happens to you enough to ponder it, I think maybe you should start being more careful.
posted by grouse at 3:45 PM on June 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Apologize once, then ignore them. Try not to fume; it helps to have compassion for them rather than take it personally. I remind myself that if a person is so quick to anger and speak harshly, they're probably living in that terrible headspace all the time.
posted by Specklet at 3:45 PM on June 6, 2013 [62 favorites]

people mostly overreact to such things because they have pent up anger about something else unrelated. just realize it's not you that did anything wrong but they who have issues they need to deal with.

as for what to say to them - my response is typically a snarky "you'll live" and walk away. not worth your time or energy to get involved anymore than that.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 3:46 PM on June 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

Some people spend their lives just itching for a fight. That's a recipe for a miserable life, but that's their problem, not yours.
posted by deadmessenger at 3:48 PM on June 6, 2013 [20 favorites]

When people overreact like that, I like to overreact right back. "Oh my god, I am so, so sorry. Are you okay? Are you bleeding? Do you need to sit down? I'm so sorry, this must be terrible for you. I'll just never forgive myself for doing this to you. Please, I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me for being so incredibly terrible."

It makes me laugh and confuses them, which gives me time to get away from the crazy person.
posted by punchtothehead at 3:49 PM on June 6, 2013 [42 favorites]

Well, you just hit them in the face, why wouldn't they be pissed? Apologize sincerely, and start paying attention.
posted by florencetnoa at 3:51 PM on June 6, 2013 [19 favorites]

The overly angry people are raring for an excuse and opportunity to escalate the situation in to an actual confrontation.

Don't give it to them.

You are correct that their reaction is disproportionate. Your scarf brushed in to them, you didn't elbow them in the face or something. This isn't some "well you did X and then did Y so it's a balanced interaction" thing, they are being dickbags.

Regardless, just apologize and move on. You did your "civic duty" so to speak there, if they want to keep fuming and yelling at you just fucking ignore them. Walk away and leave the area if at all possible.
posted by emptythought at 3:53 PM on June 6, 2013

I would say be responsible for yourself and your own reactions, and allow people the space to be responsible for theirs, without feeling as if you have some stake in their response. If you are looking for a zinger or something to put them in their place for a perceived fault of overreaction, you've left your side of the equation too much, and in that way lies much frustration. And I speak as someone who pretty much only gets irritated when it seems like people get unduly irritated with me.

It seems like you have the first part down, as you gave a genuine apology. And then that's that, really. If you perceive an overreaction, you don't have to respond. Or you could say something like, "Oh gee, I really am sorry." But I wouldn't be overly critical of them, either, as people need to work out their emotional stuff, and sometimes it isn't always comfortable. The trick is to not internalize someone else's off-the-cuff emotional response as if it necessarily has anything to do with you. It's not worth the emotional energy to stew over. If you can internalize that that part is "their thing" and not yours (yours is simply to make a good faith effort to watch out where you are going and to apologize if necessary), life becomes much more manageable and enjoyable on a number of levels.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:54 PM on June 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

If I realize I've done it before they say something, I say, "Whoops, sorry!"

If someone has to point it out to me, I might be a little more deferential, like, "Oh, I'm so sorry!"

In either case, I do it as nicely and self-deprecatingly as possible. I do it once, and then I let it go. I think that's really all you need to do, and all that a reasonable person would expect you to do. Someone who gets really shirty about the fact that you bumped into them has more going on with them than the fact that you bumped into them. You can blow them off comfortable in the knowledge that you have upheld your end of the social contract.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 3:56 PM on June 6, 2013

I can understand why someone would flip out. I don't want people fucking with me. How would I know if you accidentally hit me in the face or are fucking with me? Certainly, if I am in a crowded area I would be very mindful about where and how I move my scarf. So, I am going to assume that you are either fucking with me or need a nice conditioned response to be more aware and considerate.

I would be a bit rude to you and your perceived rudeness. Sorry. But if you aren't a jerk back to me and don't hit me any further I will leave you alone.
posted by munchingzombie at 3:57 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, she said I smacked her across the face. I doubt I could ever put on a scarf with that much force, and think it's an overstatement. It was my fault, and I am sorry for the incident, but I don't think I deserve to be spoken to like that. Of course I'm careful in public spaces, but sometimes, accidents happen. I've gotten people's asses in my face, or hair flipped at me, etc etc, and though I might point it out, I would never act rudely towards someone else when it was an accident.
posted by lacedcoffee at 4:00 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

If they are still ranting after you have apologized, you could say, "It was an accident."
posted by soelo at 4:01 PM on June 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

I once accidentally cut a line. It was one of those zig-zag lines and what I thought was the end was just where it snaked around. And some woman went off on me. And I think I just said "Sorry" and walked to the end, but what I came up with later that I should have said was, "Oh I'm sorry. I didn't do it on purpose...though apparently you would."

Though I really like "You'll live" above, and that's shorter.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:01 PM on June 6, 2013

Wow, tough room today. I'm assuming that this is referencing more the hey - mass transit sucks and occasionally we collide in life. I do my best to be polite and courteous. Some days I'm off and some days other folks are. On days where people have to say "Excuse You!" chances are that's a day when they are off - not you.

For the most part I'll agree with the genera consensus to apologize and be more careful; however, if they are just a raging a-hole and I have actually apologized sufficiently, apologies are over. If need be, I'll let them know that. At the point where they aren't satisfied by reasonable courtesy - they are no longer worth my time, my worries, my feelings of guilt, or the original apology.

Caveat: If I've just done it to a pregnant lady though, she can say whatever she likes to me. I'll shut up and take it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:01 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Give the warmest, most sincere apology you can muster. Not an over-the-top, drawn-out sarcastic apology, just a simple, "I am so sorry. I didn't mean to be so careless." delivered humbly and sincerely.

The goal is to make them feel like an asshole for getting so indignant at such a nice person about such a small issue.
posted by payoto at 4:01 PM on June 6, 2013 [44 favorites]

Apologize, but not too profusely, and skedaddle when you can. You can't de-escalate.

Shit like this happens to all of us regularly; brushing someone with a scarf might be your fault, but getting bent out of shape about it is their fault.

And it's never a bad idea to work on spatial awareness in crowds and on public transportation.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:04 PM on June 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know how you feel, the other day I was coming out of a restaurant with no windows and a solid door that opened outwards, and as I opened the door some women outside started screaming as if a ghost was coming out. I didn't even hit them with the door or open it forcefully, and apologized profusely as I exited, and they still felt the need to lecture me. Just say sorry and put it out of mind; there's really nothing else you can do.
posted by pravit at 4:04 PM on June 6, 2013

I say "sorry" once.

If the person persists, I look them in the face and say "Ok, dude," as in "our interaction is over now." Then I ignore them completely. This is as a man dealing with other men, so your mileage may vary.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:08 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Oh, I'm sorry." Smile pleasantly. If they smile back or otherwise deescalate, then you know it's basically a no-harm/no-foul moment of life in the big city. Everyone carries on.

If they stay grumpy or try to escalate, feel free to chalk it up to them being unhappy or angry or otherwise predisposed to negativity in a way that has nothing to do with you. You can apologize again (or not) and either walk away or ignore them. Everyone still carries on.
posted by scody at 4:11 PM on June 6, 2013

There's always the temptation to have the perfect scything comeback when someone is an ass (I like 'I'm sorry your life has made you bitter') but it's almost never a good idea. They're already punishing themselves for having a shitty life - if you have more contact with them than necessary you may get skidmarks yourself.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:17 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think I deserve to be spoken to like that.

Wee-eell, in the grand scheme of things, this lady didn't swear at you, used polite framing, albeit vehemently, and was not physical or anything. These incidents can and do go a lot worse than that - I don't think "deserve" really come into it one way or another; we rarely get what we deserve in life, after all.

I don't sweat it when something like this happens to me. It's just one of those things you deal with in urban life. Tomorrow it might be my face in the scarf. Maybe the lady was having a terrible day, maybe she has a phobia about things touching her face, maybe someone fondled her moments before and she was in a shitty mood. It doesn't really matter, in ten minutes or less, both of you should have forgotten all about it.

To speed this process up, the best thing to do is apologise sincerely. I dunno, I tend to care a lot more about the feelings of people I see and intereact with every day; some rando on the train I'll never see again is not high on my priority list. I try to be decent to them, but that's that.
posted by smoke at 4:17 PM on June 6, 2013 [12 favorites]

Best answer: The best thing about going to college in New York city is that I mastered "city face." It is super, super useful. I like to talk to strangers and I lean towards over-apologizing, but as soon as anyone starts getting weird: wham. CITY FACE. It's an eyes-somewhere-in-middle-distance, I-have-earphones-in-and-I-can't-hear-you, vague-small-smile expression that can actually be maintained even if you are technically still talking, "Mmmhmmm,mmmmhmmm,yes..uhuhhhhh..." and then you become invisible and kind of melt into the crowd. City Face, maintained properly, is not an insult to the other person, exactly, but it makes it very clear that it's the other person who is overreacting and out of line for continuing the conversation. It works like Teflon for street harassment, drunk harassment, and rude people - people might keep talking -at- you for a while, but it really does slide right off you and they usually move on pretty fast. It takes practice, but it's 100% worth it to develop. CITY FACE.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:27 PM on June 6, 2013 [111 favorites]

There's no point in engaging with someone who is like this. Arguing back at them or delivering a snarky comeback won't put them in their place and make them feel like an asshole. They'll just feel even more justified for snapping at you. Simply repeat that you're sorry, you didn't mean to do [the thing that offended them], and move on with your dignity intact.
posted by keep it under cover at 4:30 PM on June 6, 2013

Damn, City Face. I was about to write out almost exactly that, so instead I will say, one sincere apology, then, City Face. Good phrase. Maybe it would help if you think to yourself "Time for CF!"
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:31 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Occasionally I encounter a stranger who's just inappropriately angry. Someone yelling at me vehemently for parking in what they thought was a handicapped space. Someone pissed off because I didn't notice that they had only 2 items and they were behind me in the supermarket check-out (and I didn't offer to let them go first.) They're mistaken, they're loudly angry, and the anger is directed at me.

It's hard not to take it personally -- but I try very, very hard. I also try to believe that they're having a terrible day. Afterward, it still stings when I think about it, so I have to remind myself that I was kind because I wanted to feel good about myself.

I have some anxiety issues, so it's really important for me not to get agitated about things like this. But someone saying "let it go" doesn't help when I'm bothered. It takes practice, but if you hold the goal of making things better for yourself and the innocent by-standers, it can become easier over time. Refusing to engage becomes a positive thing you can do; you're not wimping out or letting the other person win. That's why I don't mind apologizing.
posted by wryly at 4:36 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll also add that I'm a daily transit commuter, have been one for many many years, and I've never had anyone say anything to me. You may need to try a bit harder to be aware of your movements and orientation relative to other people. You may not think your movements are excessive, but items of your clothing shouldn't be coming into contact with people's faces. Don't give other people a reason to get angry with you.
posted by keep it under cover at 4:40 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

To clarify, she said I smacked her across the face. I doubt I could ever put on a scarf with that much force, and think it's an overstatement. It was my fault, and I am sorry for the incident, but I don't think I deserve to be spoken to like that. Of course I'm careful in public spaces, but sometimes, accidents happen. I've gotten people's asses in my face, or hair flipped at me, etc etc, and though I might point it out, I would never act rudely towards someone else when it was an accident.

Here's the thing: I totally agree with you. You do not deserve an unjust response towards you, at any time. And sometimes unjust emotional responses feels like aggression, and they make us feel weaker and ganged up on. We want to respond and push it off. It can be tiring. But, it happens. And it happens often and regularly, and even by people who are supposed to be safe in our lives, because we are all working on our emotional stuff (and there are billions of people in the world). The math bears out that people will disappoint us emotionally.

There are two possible responses, I think. First, we can try to make sure everyone knows when they treat us unjustly in life (including overreactions to being grazed by a soft scarf), which requires from us a lot of energy and attempted fixing of people and staying up late at night studying witty comebacks on the internet. I think of this as making our life into a Game of Thrones scenario; fun to watch and perhaps play at times, but it doesn't always end in a secure place that leave us feeling good in the long run. Or, we can learn to internalize the idea that if we get riled up by someone else's emotional issues, they, in a sense, win, regardless of how witty we are in our comebacks. The only way to win is not to play the game, in other words, and to not be baited into playing.

I'm not perfect at it, but I'm finding it much more satisfying when I see myself slowly losing the need for people to be perfect or put in place in their emotional responses to me, as if there's some big injustice that needs to be told what's up. As I'm able to do this more, I find that this feels so much more like winning (in a good sense) than trying to put people in their place. Because I like myself better in that kind of response, and to be honest, it deflates overly emotional people of all their power over you. (I don't know this for sure, but I'm going to guess that people's unjust responses feel like they are ganging up on you over time, and you feel weaker in those moments.) In a sense, then, you start to feel like you become part of a club where you are now in the know, where you sort of look sideways and go huh at people that don't have their emotional stuff together in public, and you are a little bit embarrassed for them, but perhaps still desire their best interest on some level, too.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:45 PM on June 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

Clearly, we need to call for a ban on assault scarves.

But really, a simply apology and moving on is all that's needed. If the other person wants to get in a big fuss about it, that's their problem. If that was the worst thing the average New Yorker had to come into contact with on the subway/bus/train everyday, I think we'd be a lot happier. A scarf in the face sure beats getting puked on, you know? (and yes, that's happened to me.)
posted by blaneyphoto at 5:06 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had something similar happen and after I apologised and he kept going on and on, I gave him a confused look and said "It wasn't intentional and I already apologised" and walked away.
posted by latch24 at 5:16 PM on June 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

i would just apologize and move on either physically or emotionally. it's good to be the bigger person and respond to unkindness with kindness rather than sarcasm. this video by david foster wallace is so apropos: this is water. of course, watching the video i thought how these are first world developed world problems and it's good to get some perspective. also, try to be aware of personal space in public and adjust your range of movements accordingly.
posted by wildflower at 5:16 PM on June 6, 2013

You: "Oh, geez, I'm sorry. Are you okay?"


You: "..."


You: "..."

Them: "DAG...nabbit... Erm..."

You: "..."

(alternately, if they don't realize they're being a little crazy, and they escalate further)


You: "I never understood how tennis got to be a sport."

Them: "UM... WHAT?!?"

You: "I mean, I understand, like, football. You want to get over there. They want to stop you. But tennis? Someone actually thought, 'Hey, let's hit a ball at each other with sticks, except not sticks, more like paddles, but with string. Oh, and we're going to need something in the middle, like a wall.' It just doesn't make sense, you know?"

Them: "I... I NEVER... I never thought about that."

You: "It's weird. Anyway, this is my stop. Have a nice day."

Them: "You... too?"

Alternately, you sing old TV theme songs at them.

Start by not escalating. If that doesn't work, just do something random. The other person will either think you're bugnuts and should not be messed with, or they will be thrown off their mental track long enough for you to make a graceful exit. Just don't mention the reason they got mad at you in the first place (like, "Sorry again about the scarf") as you leave.
posted by Etrigan at 5:30 PM on June 6, 2013 [10 favorites]

A good response would be to apologize again and then move on.

BUT ALSO, check yourself. Some people are just wound too tight, sure. But did you just do something (by "accident," of course) that displayed a breathtaking lack of give-a-shit for what and who might be around you? I mean, sure, there's accidentally hitting someone with your scarf. But then there's flamboyantly flinging your scarf around in a confined space without regard to anyone else.

People bump into me on the street (by accident) all the time. No sweat. But then there's people that are so engrossed in their conversation or their fucking phone that they manage to bump into me EVEN THOUGH I'm the only other person on the god damned sidewalk AND I'm trying to evade them. You'd better believe that makes me much more pissed off than usual.

Some people just don't have any awareness. I don't consider it an "accident" when someone's fundamental self-absorption and lack of common courtesy and self awareness inconveniences me. And some days, I might feel like it would help to provide a little negative feedback.

Probably that doesn't apply to you, though. Just something to think about.
posted by ctmf at 5:34 PM on June 6, 2013 [17 favorites]

Crowded public transportation triggers my anxiety, and people hitting or touching or bumping into me with optional accessories tends to be a flashpoint for me.

You don't need to put your scarf on in the middle of a crowd on a bus or subway. Nor does anyone need to keep their backpack on, read a newspaper fully extended, or stand with their hands on their hips. To me, this assumption of space in a space-poor environment comes across as rudely entitled, and I'm likely to fight back against it (usually fairly passively aggressively).

I'm sure you didn't take up any more room putting on your scarf than you usually would, and you probably took up less room than you would have had you been alone in a field, but the act itself can come across as oblivious. I think this is what people mean when they're telling you that you may need to develop spatial awareness, or a more restrictive etiquette for crowded spaces.

(I commuted exclusively by public transit in three major US cities, usually during rush hour, for ten years, and I never had anyone get upset with me for invading their space, or even politely point out that I was invading their space. I really do think that if this is happened to you "a few times," and you're not someone who's needlessly verbally escalating situations (which it sounds like you're not), then you're probably irritating people with how you physically take up space and you may need to reconsider it. I will also note that people are generally way more forgiving of men taking up public space than women, and because of that I hate to tell women to take up less public space, but... you may need to start taking up less public space on crowded transportation.)
posted by jaguar at 5:41 PM on June 6, 2013 [14 favorites]

Maybe look at them a little surprised and say, "Whoa dude." (?)
posted by mermily at 5:55 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't escalate, it's not worth it.

It does sound like she over-reacted, but if I was reading or whatever on the bus and out of nowhere a scarf whacked in the face, I'd react strongly - and I'm a pretty mild public transporter. It's not about actually being hurt and more about the actual violation of being hit in the face. Public transportation involves a lot of being uncomfortably close to other people, but generally you try to stay away from junk and faces.

Apologize and move away.
posted by bunderful at 6:02 PM on June 6, 2013

And by not worth it I mean that crazy comes out on public transportation. People act in ways they would never act in their office or home. De-escalate, disengage.
posted by bunderful at 6:04 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would:

1. Apologize.

However, if the other party continues raging, then:

2. I would say, "In that case, fuck off," or something along those lines.
posted by Lizzle at 6:06 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been both people in this scenario. You didn't mean to hit her, she didn't appreciate getting hit and perhaps overreacted. You apologized. End of story.

C'est la vie.

What would be a good response when something like this happens?

Move on with your life.
posted by duffell at 6:08 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I've already apologized. I've already taken steps to ensure this doesn't happen again.* You'll get no more from me. Good day."

* Alternatively: "I've already made reasonable restitution." This is for when you need to, say, buy them a replacement of something, like a spilled drink.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:14 PM on June 6, 2013

Being hit in the face is a special kind of awful, not the same as just being jostled in some other part of your body. If you hit her in the eye or anywhere, near it you could have scared her. If someone told me I'd hit them in the face, I would not only apologize but be really sorry.
posted by BibiRose at 6:15 PM on June 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

"I am so sorry. I wasn't trying to hit your face. I was covering up an asshole."

Actually, I'd smile like the gentleman I am, apologize. Try some small talk. Apologize again. I'd say, "I hate it when I am sitting on a bus and someone tries to kill me with a scarf! Jeez, I am such a clumsy idiot! I hope the rest of your day is better."

Chance presents itself, of course, I'd push the ho off the platform before the next train.

Actually, I'd stick with the thing in the middle. I'm old and will die soon. Gotta be planning my legacy and legend.
posted by FauxScot at 6:40 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some people just keep pulling your chain hoping excitement will come out. Don't give it to them.

Each yank nets one civilly delivered "I'm sorry" and one step back. Soon enough you are well away.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:40 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by mlis at 6:41 PM on June 6, 2013

Apologize, move away.

And yes - this happens all the time and maybe the lady who flipped out at you had already had it happen three times to her that day. I would treat it as an opportunity to practice empathy for her and considerately apologize, and move on.


I got whacked (decent size whacks on the shoulder) by two people who were getting on a airplane yesterday - I was sitting at a choke point on the airplane where the aisle narrowed, and even though I was on the inside of my seat, and I'm a petite woman, I got whacked. Both definitely noticed they whacked me - the first stopped, turned, made eye contact and said, "I'm so sorry, my bag got away from me." I smiled and waved, said "No worries."

The smile lasted for a few minutes, the annoyance of being whacked was totally overshadowed by the transient feeling of connecting with another friendly traveler.

The second time the women whacked me, glanced over to see what was snagging her bag (my shoulder) and yanked her bag off me and kept moving. She actually hit me less hard than the first lady, but her lack of courtesy really annoyed me.

Be the first lady. Be proactive about courtesy, and ignore the people that overreact. If a third person had whacked me on the plane and not apologized, I very well might have been the angry poke-r.
posted by arnicae at 6:54 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just say 'sorry' and put on your headphones, or give them a blank stare.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:58 PM on June 6, 2013

Definitely apologize briefly. Whatever you do, don't escalate. You never know if someone has a tendency toward violence. That said, I agree you should probably watch your spatial boundaries, especially in crowded areas. It sounds like you're getting some negative feedback about that in public.
posted by dovesandstones at 7:36 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Several years ago I was with a friend at the store and we ran into someone we both knew. I was standing there and I was kind of, standing flat on my left foot, and my right foot, I was standing on my toes so my heel was in the air. As our conversation ended, I did not take a step backwards - my foot did not move back - but I simply lowered my heel. A woman's sandaled foot was under mine and she screamed and went on and on about how badly I hurt her. I apologized, she kept standing there kind of hopping around holding her foot and going on about her pain. I apologized a few more times, and kind of meekly asked "can I get you a clerk?" (remembering when I had worked at this particular store, a customer injury would be called as a code white and management would come over, etc. I thought maybe they could get her a scooter or help her to her car or something.) She didn't answer me, just kept fussing. My friend finally just walked away and though I felt kind of weird about it, I just followed her. There was nothing more I could do for her. At some point, you just have to walk away.

When we were a few aisles away my friend said to me that that lady should not have been so close to me that her foot was under mine. I think she was right, you just. don't. get that close to someone. She had to have been nearly breathing down my neck. I have to wonder if she was trying to pick my pockets or intentionally stuck her foot under mine... although I don't know what kind of scam she would have been trying to pull if she had? Did she want me to offer to pay for an ER trip or something so she could get pain pills? heck if I know. She didn't ask for anything. Not applicable in your case of course.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:37 PM on June 6, 2013

If you're absolutely 100% sure that you did not slap her in the face with your scarf, even gently (hey, it's her face, not yours, that hypothetically got "slapped"), then by all means go off on her. From your narrative, I don't get the impression that you are absolutely 100% sure. In that case, I think the best policy is to apologize profusely and sincerely, just in case. I mean best in terms of your own karma and the sum of happiness in the universe and all. Because you may have just put the cherry on an already crappy day for someone, and you can either let that lie or you can totally turn it around.
posted by bricoleur at 7:57 PM on June 6, 2013

Hey. I get hit in the face a lot on public transit, being short. Not just hit, but -- really -- clocked in the face with men's swinging fists, etc. Also, once, a guy stomped on my sandaled foot with his steel toed boot the day I got a cast taken off of that foot, literally an hour after having the cast taken off, while I was riding home. Needless to say, I cried because it hurt like heck. This guy's reaction? "Jesus, it wasn't that bad."

You never know people's stories. Maybe this woman had a scratched cornea and your scarf aggravated it. Maybe she was just itching to get mad at someone. Don't you find it annoying when people are leaning into your space when you're on transit, or jabbing you in the back with the pointy edges of their bags? If you impinge on a human's space, just apologize and move on.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:04 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

No, you don't deserve to be spoken to like that, but it happened, it's over, and we don't always get what we deserve.

It helped me a lot in public spaces to shift my view that everyone else is just like me. I don't deserve to get yelled at. That guy over there doesn't deserve to be ten minutes late to work because the train was late. The woman sniping at you didn't deserve to burn her breakfast this morning. And on and on.

Life's not fair and sometimes you just have to remember that. "I didn't do anything wrong, I said I was sorry, it's over now." The best you can do is to remember this the next time someone cheeses you off by being too slow in the grocery line or slamming a door in your face or whatever. It's so easy to get mad at everyone living in the city because they're all idiots and jerks... but so are you (the general "you" not you personally).
posted by sonika at 8:10 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I am sorry, and I am sorry you are having a rough day."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:58 PM on June 6, 2013

The eponysterical punchintheface gave my answer up top: when a stranger overreacts to minor accidental contact, I look really concerned and say "I am so sorry. Are you hurt? Do you need help?" and they shut right up.
posted by nicwolff at 9:19 PM on June 6, 2013

I agree that the best course of action is usually to apologize sincerely, and loudly enough that others can hear, along the lines of "I am so sorry, I did not even realize that happened, so sorry." If I can move away and ignore that person, then I do. That is usually enough to make them look and feel like a jerk for making a big deal out of nothing.

If I can't get away, and they keep ranting, I might apologize one more time. The third time I look them in the eye and say , in a very polite but clear, firm tone: "I have already apologized multiple times. Do you really think I did it on purpose?" And then I wait for an answer. At that point, they usually mutter "no," at which point, depending on how rude they have been, I either say "well then" or "thank you" and pointedly ignore them.

Some people are just big pustules of repressed rage looking for an excuse to spray their poison on someone else. It is best to avoid giving them that excuse, so I agree with the advice on being extra careful about how much space you take up, etc.. But, when you run into those unreasonable people, it is quite satisfying to remain polite and make sure their rage reflects badly on them, not you.
posted by rpfields at 1:48 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

...who cares? I mean, obviously it's not nice to get selfrighteously harangued in public.
But nobody else around you is going to care, unless you yourself start arguing with her (or you very obviously smacked her on purpose).

If you apologised and she keeps going on about it, just turn your back to her, get out a book or put in your headphones and let her mutter herself into oblivion. It's the one thing people who complain at you hate most: If you turn your back on them. It makes them feel like their complaint doesn't matter and nobody cares, which is true.

Anyway, that's how I get over things like that.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:48 AM on June 7, 2013

I'm usually going to come down on the side of the person being hit. The number of times walking that someone else will come the other way with a bag or other protruding item and end up smacking me with it despite the fact I'm fully on my side of the pavement.

You may have only done it once to that person but doubtless it has happened before to them and it doesn't hurt to take a bit more care!

Apologise sincerely and tried to take more care in the future!
posted by Wysawyg at 4:52 AM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

The overly angry people are raring for an excuse and opportunity to escalate the situation in to an actual confrontation.

Don't give it to them.

I tend to think public transport/sidewalk negotiation is basically golden-ruley: you are forgiving of other people's unintentional intrusions into your space, and hope for forgiveness of your own. Obviously, not everyone gets that memo, and also sometimes people are tired, or in some physical or spiritual discomfort, or have just broken up with their partner or (d) other, and are not able to process stimuli appropriately.

If you've actually just clocked somebody in the face with a heavy bag, or otherwise materially injured them, a sedulous show of regret is probably appropriate - they may need a few seconds to get past the immediate pain. If you've done lasting damage - knocked a camera out of their hand - that's another matter again. If you just stepped on their toe or jostled them, a quick "sorry, my fault" is appropriate, and then ideally facing away or moving away from them, to make clear that this is the end rather than the start of the encounter.

So, in the case above, if the woman hit by the scarf had just found out she had a terrible disease, or had been raked across the eyeball by the tag of your scarf, then it might explain the angry tone more than a simple brush of fabric on skin. Or she might have just been overreacting However, there's nothing you can do to undo that, so, to be honest, being able to end the engagement with an apology and perhaps being relieved that you're not in a place where that sort of mishap causes you serious anger is probably the way forward. Honestly, it seems like it went pretty well - you apologised, she took that, situation ended.

if someone carries on at you, listing the ways in which you could have been more careful, simply ignoring them or moving away from them may well be the best option - the person repeatedly trying to engage an unwilling subject on a subway train is the one who looks worse, there. On the rare occasions it has happened to me, I have if unable to move away eventually said something like "I realise that this happened. I have apologised. What, beyond that, do you actually want me to do? What will resolve this situation to your satisfaction?". On the other hand, I'm male, and pretty large, and that might be something of a luxury...
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:08 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Derren Brown, UK mentalist, has an interesting strategy for dealing with aggressive strangers. It's not a direct parallel to the situation you describe, but is useful anyway. Brown talks about getting people to dump their aggression and adrenaline quickly. So, in the event that a minor inconvenience provokes an inappropriately aggressive response that an apology fails to halt, simply changing tack entirely refocuses the entire conversation away from the aggression.
This is simply about not engaging with your aggressor at the level they expect. I was coming back from a hotel at about 3am one night and there was a guy in the street with his girlfriend. He was really drunk, clearly looking for a fight and he started kicking off at me. I had a routine ready in my head for this sort of situation and it worked a treat on this occasion. He asked me that typical aggressive rhetorical question — “Do you want a fight?” You can’t say “yes” or “no” — you’ll get hit either way. So, I responded with, “The wall outside my house is four-feet high.”

I didn’t engage at the level he was expecting me to, so immediately he was on the back foot. He came back with, “What?” and I repeated my bizarre response. I delivered the line in a completely matter-of-fact tone, as if he was the one who was missing something here. Suddenly, he was confused. All his adrenaline had dropped away, because I’d pulled the rug from under him. It’s the verbal version of a martial-arts technique called an ‘adrenaline dump’, whereby you get the person to relax before you hit them. A punch will have much greater impact if the recipient’s guard is down. I stuck to this surreal conversational thread with my assailant, saying things like, “I lived in Spain for a while and the walls are really huge, but in this country they’re tiny.” After a few of these exchanges, he just went, “Oh f*ck!” and broke down in tears.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:49 AM on June 7, 2013 [14 favorites]

Time to let it go. Sometimes something happens that feels unfair -- then you take a few deep breaths and move on. This is particularly an important survival skill if you live in a big city, I think. Take incidents like this too personally too many times and you end up being that other person who gets bent out of shape about a scarf touching them.
posted by aught at 7:05 AM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Apologize and walk away.
posted by cnc at 10:39 AM on June 7, 2013

People nowadays are quite frustrated with their lives and they have a whole lot of unhappiness inside them which has no outlet. All it takes is one small incident to blow all of this repressed anger within them. The last straw if you will. My observation is that many have been toiling at their lives for so long with very little appreciation and empathy. Also, there are many who feel that they were cheated out of their share in this lifetime. You smacking them, although unintentionally, really brings home that they are pretty much invisible.

I would be polite and empathetic but not overtly nice because in most cases their outburst is due to other issues and others in their life. You just happen to be a convenient outlet for them to rail at. But do not engage in more of a conflict as that really dosen't help anyone.
posted by pakora1 at 1:07 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I try to assume the person has had a horrible day, and the teeny tiny incident was the one little wafer that put them over the edge.

Fuming for the rest of the ride and all the way home just stresses you out and raises your blood pressure. Try meditating for the rest of the ride. If you're religious, praying is a good way to meditate.
posted by theora55 at 1:15 PM on June 7, 2013

If they're still raging after a simple apology, I can pour in my thick southern accent and in a (faked) overabundance of concern, say "Awww, bless your heart!"
posted by cmiller at 1:41 PM on June 7, 2013

People nowadays are quite frustrated with their lives and they have a whole lot of unhappiness inside them which has no outlet. All it takes is one small incident to blow all of this repressed anger within them. The last straw if you will. My observation is that many have been toiling at their lives for so long with very little appreciation and empathy. Also, there are many who feel that they were cheated out of their share in this lifetime. You smacking them, although unintentionally, really brings home that they are pretty much invisible.

I think that this observation is true much of the time. I don't think people react strongly because they are feeling secure in the moment, and something in life has perhaps been causing them some pain. When I realize this is true in my mind, it sometimes re-frames potentially volatile situations a bit differently. Instead of needing to find justice, I ask (in my better moments), what is it that might be hurting that person, and attempt to bridge the gap a bit. I find more satisfaction in taking a somewhat volatile situation and turning it into something with a really human connection.

This reminds me of a video I once saw. It panned through a number of people going through a number of seemingly ordinary life scenarios. What it added, though, was text that described something painful and personal that each person was going through that added a deeper texture to a relatively ordinary event. It was more moving than I anticipated it would be, as it reminded me that we are all going through crap in life. Sometimes that stuff eeks out.

The bigger person can sometimes see through the surface impression of bad behavior to what's perhaps going on under the surface. Now, it isn't always true that people deserve a pass, and we don't need to be everyone's life coach or therapist in the moment (and sometimes people just need to get their stuff together better, and have a moral responsibility to do so). But you know how when you are in a relationship with someone and they are being pretty awful to you, and you have the insight to realize that there's something there under the surface that is going on, and you (wisely and sincerely), instead of getting upset, say, What is it that's bothering you, can I help?

I don't wonder if we could bring some of that insight to our everyday interactions at times in a way that would help inform them, or a least allow us to be more gracious to others as we share in a similar human condition. Not all of us flip out on a train, but we do have emotional "leaks" in our lives that probably make things unpleasant for others. We don't always have to go that deep, but if we assume the best about people that reflects our own real-life experiences, I suspect there would be less fighting and such going on.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:21 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

A good technique I use when I accidentally offend someone or cause them to flip out in any way is to lean forward and say, "I beg your pardon?" As if I misunderstood their complaint. It requires them to repeat their (likely unwarranted) outburst and it gives me time to compose my answer. Which usually is a very sincere, "I humbly and sincerely apologize." The "humbly" lets them know that I'm not brushing them off and the "sincerely" is usually that-sincere.

I live my life in a way that I'm always seeking to resolve conflict. I apologize quite a bit, but I also mend my ways or look for peaceful and mutually beneficial resolutions. MetaFilter has taught me that every situation has multiple aspects to consider, so while I may not be the kind of person who would freak out over a minor offense, I wouldn't see any benefit in being rude in return or being anything by kind and contrite.
posted by ColdChef at 8:50 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not to take this too far on a tangent, but when I visualize this kind of a response, I see it as being connected to a concerted (and perhaps more noble) effort to absorb others' negativity in life, rather than to further perpetuate it. Often, moral actions are seen as being individualistic and couched in a justice/right action and appropriate intentions sort of framework. But what if moral activity is also about not perpetuating negativity, when it's in our power to absorb it? What, if by absorbing the sin (and I use this term loosely) of others, we can add more good to the world, as a corporate effort? Collectively, we can be sponges rather than gasoline. This isn't about saying that we enable others' negative behavior by letting it go, or always allow it to continue without comment. But what if the right sort of response can actually blunt and absorb the impact of particular negative action, rather than encouraging the negativity to continue?

This is sort of how I've justified moving away from a notion of justice in all actions to a more corporate notion of good production in which we sometimes sacrifice our right to be right for the greater good. I'm by no means perfect at it (or perhaps even very good), but I'm trying to move away from this idea that right action in a particular situation is all about weighing intentions and actions on a scale and making sure justice gets meted out in every discrete instance. What if I give people what they don't actually deserve, for their benefit, and for the benefit of society? I suspect this is where notions of forgiveness can have their power. I'm not sure how much this works on a macro scale, but a notion of freely giving up rights for the benefit of others has done cool things for some of my personal relationships.

Aaaaand.... that's perhaps pretty far off the original question. But I think it is still pertinent to the question of responding to unjust and negative responses on the subway.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:18 PM on June 8, 2013

Honestly, I don't think you have the right to tell strangers how upset they are allowed to be. All you can do is apologize (if you actually did something wrong) and be done with it. No need to escalate the situation by getting mad becasue they get mad. That's just crazy-making nonsense. Allow them to react however they need to, and respond only with what's necessary "oh, sorry about that". No attitude, no escalation.
posted by molecicco at 1:38 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If the person is *excessively* rude I generally take that to mean that they are having a really bad day and/or are very volatile right at the moment. I don't think it generally means that they're an evil person or an a**hole. At least, that's how I choose to look at it.
posted by geraldhaven at 12:22 PM on June 10, 2013

Response by poster: I loved how there was a huge MetaTalk thread about this. I stopped reading about 1/4 the way through this thread because I felt people were projecting their own experiences onto the situation (comparing it to being punched in the face?), nor have any idea what it is like to live is an urban area on public transportation. I gave my feelings about the situation, but said nothing about trying to change the other party's feelings. I wanted to know how to handle it in the future. I would've added this on the MetaTalk thread but that was closed.

To answer someone's question: the scarf was made from 100% silk with no tags.

I came back and realized that later on, people actually did have helpful responses, and the general consensus it to not internalize negativity and just apologize (which I did). Maybe I do need to be more conscious of the space I take up, but I am under 100 lbs, and typically squished between two tall people's arm-pits. Or a really large person takes up both her seat and half mine. There's only so much you can do, and it's part of city life, and I take it in stride, but obviously, some people don't. I will not be checking this thread nor the MetaTalk again. There will probably be a pile-on to this follow-up, and like was suggested, I choose to walk away and forgive the negative people who are so easily triggered.
posted by lacedcoffee at 11:30 AM on December 29, 2013

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