How do I deal with contemptuous people?
July 22, 2015 5:17 PM   Subscribe

Without going into too much detail, I'd love to know the most effective way to combat contempt amongst coworkers, bosses, and fellow members of social circles. I have attempted "killing them with kindness," but it seems to have little impact on diffusing situations where I am treated with disgust. Any help would be much appreciated.
posted by aristotlefangirl to Human Relations (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I think the solution is different in the different types of relationships. Might you be willing to be into a bit more detail in each situation?
posted by smorgasbord at 5:21 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Among coworkers and bosses - are you 100% sure that you are performing at your best? I ask because in my experience many (not most, certainly not all, but many) people who complain about how they are treated at work are underperformers who are loathed by a good number of their colleagues.

If you're confident that your performance is not even a bit of the problem, then just ignore these people. When you must interact with them, do so cordially and calmly, then move on.

With "fellow members of social circles," just get new friends. People that treat you with contempt don't deserve your friendship.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:26 PM on July 22, 2015 [8 favorites]

We have a saying here in Maine: you think you're a hot shit on a silver platter, but you're only a cold fart in a Dixie cup. Perhaps you could envision that?

Otherwise, we used to do a thing called, "Thank you very much!" which meant, "Fuck you very much!" with us girls in the office.

I did have my defenders at work, so if a real asshole came up to me, he would get slapped down, because I was amongst some very high caliber people and they were always very nice to me and if anyone treated me badly, woe unto them.

If people are treating you with contempt, that's on them. And you are in the wrong workplace. Whenever I talked to my Dad, he used to say, "If a job ever effects your self-esteem, you should leave. Hopefully you will have a new job before that, but I've quit jobs before when I had to."

My Dad was the mildest guy in the world. And I am very sensitive, like him. And I put up with a lot of malarky at jobs for a long time, which I shouldn't have put up with, owners having affairs with the ad agency lady and I was doing the ads (what?), etc.

So I'm going to tell you: if it's affecting your self esteem, you should leave. Try to get a new job before it, but don't stay at any job that brings you down so much.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:42 PM on July 22, 2015 [14 favorites]

I agree that we probably need more information before we can come up with a useful strategy. That said, in many situations in which people are behaving abominably, I find it useful to cock my head, as though I haven't quite heard them right, and say, "I'm sorry?" - giving them a chance to reflect on how bad what they're saying sounds - and then, if they continue to act badly, just sort of nod with my eyebrows raised a little and say, "All right. If you say so." And then immediately leave the conversation. Basically, treat aggressively rude people like you'd treat a drunk who just took a poo in his hand and is offering it to you - you don't want to engage with their yuckiness; you just want to back away slowly, while getting as little of it as possible on you.

Also sometimes when my little cousin is being a brat I just roll my eyes and say, "Rude!" and then change the subject. That works, too.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:19 PM on July 22, 2015 [14 favorites]

You asked how to combat a tone which in and of itself should be suspect. People often aren't thinking or reacting to you in the way you think they are if you're in a really negative headspace.

That said, and I know this sounds dumb, but the only person who can actually make you upset is you. When someone is being a jerk or I sense a tone, I mentally step back and depending on my mood do one of two things:
1. Wow, it must suck for that person to be such an angry/selfish/oblivious person. Good thing I'm not like that. --- I'm not upset anymore and I can just detach from the situation.
2. Is this really about me? I wonder if something else is going on or this person is having a really bad day. Maybe I can defuse this and change their life with this one interaction. --- boom, I feel great and I hopefully make their day less miserable

So really, life is what you make of it. Reading the tone and dwelling on people's actions and words will often only take you to a bad place.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:11 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

If it's true contempt, it's one of those things that is much harder to "solve" than to mitigate. Contempt is one of those variables that is often used to accurately predict relationships that won't survive long term. When it enters the equation, it's predictably toxic.

Mitigation strategies certainly exist for situations in which you have no control, but I would think that it's hard to keep absorbing that negativity constantly. So, a change of environment is often best (as it's hard to change people who exhibit true contempt; I'm not sure that witty comebacks work in the long run), but if that's not negotiable, certainly surrounding yourself elsewhere with like-minded people who can affirm you for your inherent value despite what naysayers might be spewing creates some life-balance.

Also, one thing that I've found helpful is that over time is that I've stopped giving emotional weight to those who are unkind to others, including to myself. It used to have weight when their opinions mattered, but as I met really quality people in life who were gracious and kind, I started having either detached disinterest or pity towards those who couldn't exemplify those virtues. It's still hard to listen to contemptuous statements, but by changing the lens from one of first-person internalization to one of third-person observational disinterest or pity, it helps deflect some of the emotional impact.

Good luck, and I hope you find some peace in your life situations.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:28 PM on July 22, 2015 [7 favorites]

Are you sure people are treating you with disgust? Unless you're behaving very badly, I'm skeptical.

You could have contempt for yourself and therefore believe that others dislike you.

If many people have a genuine dislike for you, examining your behavior is a good idea. Other than that, I would advise not doing anything at all. Allow people to think as they will, live your life and mind your business.
posted by Fairchild at 7:30 PM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

I agree that it would be helpful if you gave examples. I'm actually having trouble of thinking of any times when I've ever felt truly treated with contempt in my whole life--and it's absolutely not something I deal with on a regular basis, nor is it something that I've seen happen to those around me. Maybe we define "contempt" differently. But if you see it the same way I see it, I think there's something more going on, either in your perceptions or your behavior. I don't think your reactions should be your main focus. In general, though, I think the best reaction to contempt might be to calmly, assertively tell the person that you feel hurt by what they've said.
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:37 PM on July 22, 2015

I think you probably mean belittling or snobbishness more than genuine outright contempt. Or just general dickishness.

I work with a lot of high-powered strong personalities in law. My personal solution is some combination of:

1. Pretending to be dumb- works surprisingly well, actually helps people pat themselves on the back and move on. Helps you get away with a lot too. Maybe I just let that insult "pass over my head" you know?
2. Being the perfect lady at all times. When I go back and read the emails or whatever, a third party should only see perfect politeness and composure on my part in the face of incredible odds. It may not mean much in the moment but many small battles win the war, and sustaining this long-term will eventually win you respect. At least from independent observers.
3. When they figure out you're not dumb and not going to lose it, do not lord it over them. Let them eat crow and be polite about it.
posted by quincunx at 8:28 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

So many people are dicks these days because they're insecure and get a lot out of treating other people like shit.

I don't 100% know if it works, but killing them with kindness while feeling pity for utterly selfish, needy, unempathetic dicks feels pretty powerful. Works pretty great online too. It's disingenuous to some extent, but some people are pathetic, self centered assholes who care more about themselves and their feelings and being right and you have to humor them. Consider it a public service.
posted by discopolo at 8:32 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like this one (with straight face): "That's strange, why would you say that?"
posted by Toddles at 9:08 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to reassure you that contempt (or snobbishness/belittling behaviour) like this is something I've absolutely been subject to at work in the past - daily and coming from several different people in the organisation. It was especially bad in my first job where I was hired entry level (i.e. worked as the receptionist/general admin person) and people were like LOL YOU MUST BE STUPID! but it was also echoed in other roles where I was doing admin and temping. I'm a pretty proficient worker and just as intelligent as most other people I've worked with (and have done a lot of management in other fields) but there's something about being at the lowest rung that really provokes certain people into treating you like absolute brainless, worthless shit who can be talked at in a series of snippy, demeaning commands delivered in a sneering tone. Yes these people are usually insecure, may have stalled in their career or not have got as far as they'd like so are looking to bring others down as they can't go up, or may be generally nasty individuals who just don't behave with any decency when they aren't explicitly socially forced to.

As far as work goes, I just recommend getting another job. Honestly, you can shrug it off and get on with your work but this kind of thing really does get to you after a while and it can take a long time to remedy the damage to your self-esteem. Concerning social circles, I just don't hang around with people who treat me like this more than once - I know that seems a bit extreme but life really is too short for me to be enduring stuff like that in my me-time. What's the point of hanging around with your friends if they aren't your friends?
posted by everydayanewday at 10:09 PM on July 22, 2015 [11 favorites]

Solution depends on WHY they have contempt for you.

If it's because you have superior skills or work ethics, then f*** them.

If it's because you're of different background, they may come around if you can show you're just one of the guys.

It may or may not be solvable.
posted by kschang at 2:05 AM on July 23, 2015

Among coworkers and bosses - are you 100% sure that you are performing at your best? I ask because in my experience many (not most, certainly not all, but many) people who complain about how they are treated at work are underperformers who are loathed by a good number of their colleagues.

Hmmm. I've been that person. It was a temp assignment, and I was invited back on a second occasion.

The second time, someone had actually taken the time to document the organizations very detailed and specific editorial standards. It was titled "Useful Information on Finding Useful Information". It was handed to me with a sympathetic eyeroll and the remark "I suppose nobody told you." They hadn't. Previously, I'd had no idea they wanted half these things. When I'd started, I'd had no idea they wanted any of these things. So of course I was an underperformer. They'd liked me that way, because they were looking for someone to hold in contempt. It turned out that other temps weren't quite as gracious about eating shit as I was, which is why, in my absence, they'd had to document their standards and, eventually, rehire me.

So what I'm saying is, yes you need to look at ways in which you might not be performing to the required standard, and be constantly trying to improve. However, that doesn't mean the problem is all you. And that hasn't got to matter. If these people are your colleagues and not your friends, the best way to deal with it is emotional detachment and taking what feedback there is in someone's criticism, without taking it to heart. Do this long enough and you will start to see people flailing around looking for something to complain about just to complain.

The demeanour is freezing politeness at all times. Read Miss Manners to get the feel of how to do it. Also, looking for a new work environment as soon as possible.

With friends, the solution is to rule people out as friends the moment they show you signs of contempt. Friends should simply not be treating you like that. Again, freezing politeness and the slow fade are the answer.
posted by tel3path at 4:02 AM on July 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have social acquaintances who are friends of the family, so I can't just not see them (especially when you love one part of a married couple who come as a package deal, for example), but I have become pretty firm about social expressions of contempt.

I once almost shut down a dinner party, where this guy who gets toxic when it comes to certain subjects was mocking me, calling me a liar, rolling his eyes when I talked, etc. I stopped and told him that I could handle people who disagreed with me, but I would not continue to engage with a person who showed me contempt. He made some lame excuses, but I said no, you know perfectly well what you are doing, and it is extremely unkind and I deserve better from you.

There was an awkward silence where no one knew what to say! It was uncomfortable! He was furious! But eventually someone else changed the subject, and we all ate dessert, and it was fine. I'm sure that dude dreads seeing me, but, you know, GOOD.

People get away with this behavior in social environments because no one wants to make a scene, but once you realize "the person being incredibly rude and hurtful and refusing to respect basic social conventions is the one making the scene," it can be pretty great to call them on it.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:08 AM on July 23, 2015 [11 favorites]

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