No matter how polite, kind, and inoffensive you try to be, sooner or later you will have to deal with rude and aggressive people. Unfortunately, many, especially those who are by nature gentle and well-mannered, are so shocked that they can think of nothing to say.
First, it is important to understand why someone is behaving in such an unpleasant manner. Some resent this idea and argue that there are no excuses and that they will not tolerate rudeness under any circumstances. But understanding why someone is being so horrible will help you keep your temper and react in a more effective way.
A hypothetical example may help. Imagine you are selling things door to door. You knock at a house and are confronted by an irate lady who screams and swears at you and then slams the door in your face. You knock again and say in a calm, clear voice "was it really necessary to speak to me in that way? I was perfectly polite. Had you simply said you were not interested I would have left. I am not here to cheat or steal. I'm simply trying to earn a living like anyone else." She stares at you for a minute, then bursts into tears, apologizes, and tells you that a year ago today her husband was killed in a car crash.
Understanding should not be confused with weakness or softness of course. But there is usually a reason for the way someone behaves. Aggression and rudeness is often a defence or mask. Shy, anxious, frightened people go on the attack to hide their own fear and self-doubt. People who have been bullied and hurt also do this – just as someone who has suffered lots of physical violence may be quick to resort to violence himself. Try responding in a calm, gentle manner and you may be surprised by the results.
Be aware of your own behavior. Are you kind and polite? Always make a point of being so. If you are, you will have a clean conscience and, crucially, can expect decent treatment in return. Again, this must not be confused with passivity or an eagerness to please. Those who try too hard often irritate others and provoke exactly the kind of rudeness and contempt they wished to avoid.
But the knowledge that you are always gentle and well-mannered will give you strength. And the anger you feel when someone behaves badly will be a righteous anger. At a deep, subconscious level you will know you deserve better.
First, you must be careful how you present yourself. How you say something can be just as important as what you say. Even the way you stand and the expression on your face can make a difference.
If someone speaks to you in an obnoxious and aggressive manner, be conscious of your body language. There is mounting evidence that a firm, positive stance can influence your thoughts and emotions. So do not stare at the ground and hunch your shoulders. Instead, put your shoulders back and push out your chest. Keep your chin up and look them straight in the eyes. This does not mean you should be aggressive by the way. You can look someone in the eyes without provoking a fight! And you should not move towards the other person. In fact, try not to move at all.
Next, be careful how you speak. Keep your voice calm and clear but firm and assertive. There is no need to shout. But do not rush to get the words out either. Say what you want to say at the speed you want to say it. By doing so, you are taking back control – moving at a speed that suits you, not them. And do not worry about the impression you seem to be making. Whether they are sneering, rolling their eyes, or even laughing makes no difference – you are saying what you want to say.
Assertiveness coaches often make a distinction between passivity, assertiveness and aggression. The only way to deal with rude and aggressive people is by being assertive. Unfortunately, many people believe they are being assertive when they are in fact being aggressive.
When confronted by an obnoxious bully, aggressive people will go on the attack, insulting and accusing him. Assertive people, however, focus on how the bully's actions are affecting them. For example, imagine a young man plays his music loudly at night and keeps everyone in the apartment block awake. Next morning, an aggressive neighbor confronts him and says "you are such a selfish, ignorant pig. You just don't care about anyone else, do you, so long as you are having a good time." Obviously, this is going to provoke a hostile response. The assertive neighbor, on the other hand, says "your music kept me awake all night. I wasn't able to sleep at all. Now I have to go and do a full day's work without having had any rest." In other words, he focusses on how the loud music affected him and avoids personal insults altogether.
Finally, do not add anything. It can be pitiful to see someone who is naturally meek trying to stand up for themselves. First, they will say their piece. But they will then follow this with endless apologies, excuses, and self-justifications. If anything, this is likely to irritate the other person. Just say what you need to say and nothing more. If the other person stares at you in silence, so be it. It is not your job to please them.
These three techniques, taught by most assertiveness coaches, can be very useful. First, there are the 'consequence statements'. A consequence statement informs the other person that their actions or words have hurt you in some way and that there may be consequences. However, they should never involve threats of any kind. So, for example, imagine you are told by your manager that you must move your desk. Reply in a calm, mellow voice, "well, that is going to make it harder for me to do my job. OK, I will move it for now, but I am going to have to speak to my union about this."
Through the 'holding statement' you essentially cut the conversation dead by telling the other person that you are afraid you are going to lose your temper and say something you will regret. So, imagine your neighbor suddenly leans over the garden fence, shouting and threatening because your dog has got into his garden. You apologize, but he keeps yelling. Say "right, we are going to have to stop this conversation. I have apologized to you. I can't do any more. If we keep going I am going to lose my temper." Then go inside, without waiting for a reply.
Finally, there is the 'broken record technique'. As the name suggests, this involves repeating the same thing over and over again. Aggressive bullies often refuse to take no for an answer and will keep asking the same question, or making the same assertions, until they get what they want. Say what you want to say and no more. If the other person will not back down, simply re-state it, beginning with the words "as I just said". So let's say someone asks you to work late. You reply that you cannot as your child is ill. They ask again, in a loud, bullying tone. You reply, calmly, "as I just said, I can't – my son is ill."
Make no mistake, standing your ground against rude, obnoxious people can be difficult. Some people are so intimidating that their presence alone can unnerve you. But the more you practise, the better you will get. Eventually, standing up for yourself will become second nature.