HomeEVERYDAY ETIQUETTEHow to respond to rudeness

How to respond to rudeness

Working at Debrett’s means we’re held to high account for our behaviour. People are often surprised to find, when they meet us in person, that we’re not all experts in exiting a vehicle, performing a curtsey, or stirring a cup of tea (making one is a different matter).

In other respects, this level of expectation is positive: it means that we’re constantly checking ourselves, striving to be polite and helpful at work. We hope that we mostly deliver on this intention, although even we have our off-days!

But should manners and politeness really require effort, or should they be instinctive, unconscious?

There are times when being polite isn’t easy, even for the most serene and saintly. You might be tired, stressed or feeling unwell. Or you might encounter a level of rudeness that simply makes your blood boil.

It could be an aggressive phone call, a door released in your face, an ignorant remark on social media, or an elbow shoving you out of the way. Whatever the provocation, the sheer rudeness stokes inner rage and distorts our more rational tendencies.

What do you do in these circumstances? Do you respond in kind? Politely call the individual out on their behaviour? Or ignore and rise above it? We’ve assessed the options:

1. Respond in Kind

You know how it goes: you counter a sarcastic Twitter comment with an even more devastating retort. You rush ahead of someone purely so that you can slam the next door in their face. Fighting fire with fire may be the lowest form of conflict denominator, but it’s certainly satisfying.

As demonstrated by: the numerous celebrities (and world leaders) who have made social media spats into an artform.

Best for: letting off steam

Not advisable when: your opponent is a long-standing colleague: sarcasm or aggression won’t do much for your professional credibility. If someone is a repeat rude offender, take them aside when you’re feeling calmer and speak to them in private. Oh, and best not to take on J K Rowling either.

2. Call them Out

“Excuse me, you appear to have dropped something” or, “There are children here, could you please stop swearing?” – politely or humorously drawing attention to someone’s rudeness can be effective, but it may also make them feel embarrassed and defensive. Deploy this technique with caution.

As demonstrated by: Alice Arnold, who threw a discarded bottle back through a litterbug’s car window, or Andy Murray, correcting an interviewer’s casual sexism.

Best for: feeling superior.

Not advisable when: you feel intimidated or threatened, or risk humiliating someone – by confronting them in front of their colleagues, for example. 

3. Ignore

Once again, the man with the briefcase barges past you to take the last remaining seat in the carriage. Your heart is racing and you’re inwardly seething, but somehow you contain your anger, ignore and move on… Until the next day, when the same thing happens.

As demonstrated by: the Royal Family, who have deployed regal restraint in the face of countless provocations.

Best for: dealing with lone, minor incidents, thoughtlessness or sheer ignorance.

Not advisable when: there’s a genuine long-standing issue to address. The problem will only fester and get worse if you leave it unmentioned, so be assertive, polite (naturally) and initiate that difficult conversation.

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Latest comments
  • I love Number 3.
    One thing to keep in mind with rude people is that they have the problem, not you. This can help you to get your own ego out of the equation and stop taking it personally. While it may seem on the outside that the receiver of the rude behaviour is doing nothing to stop the situation, they are in fact letting the behaviour speak for itself.

  • Hi Lynda, great point: rudeness can feel personal even when it’s not about you. But are we being permissive by letting rudeness go unchallenged?

  • In my experience, rudeness never goes unchallenged: it shows who you are. But we can never oblige people to use kind manners: when I tried doing so with a colleague of mine, asking her to say what she had to without being rude, she answered that when one is angry those are the manners to be used. She revealed how poor she was, not only to me but to those who were able to see that. Only those as rude as her, couldn’t see it, and approved of her, therefore revealing their inner self.
    The real challenge is only with my own self: who am I? Do I hate other people to the point I just can’t do without screaming and shouting when I disagree? Or I am aware of the respect I want to show everybody, always? Nelson Mandela was always incredibly kind to anybody, even to his gaoler. My students, young as they are (11-14), recognize my commitment to always being polite regardless of whom I’m talking to. And they do their best to do the same.
    We must realise we always want to be kind to ourselves; the second step is committing ourselves to be kind to others; the third step is given by the example we give to other people with our behaviour. It’s on them whether to copy it or not.
    I am inevitably permissive at work, not in my private life: there I can choose

  • Like most people, I struggle with the concept of am I condoning the bad behaviour by ignoring it! I always try first to apply an attitude of ‘what you say, or do, is about you – how I react is about me’. If I get annoyed and react in-kind I usually hate myself afterwards for stooping so low, or being over sensitive etc, etc. I find leaving it to karma is the best solution. The only time I feel it’s appropriate to respond to rude behaviour is if a more vunerable third person will suffer due to my lack of response – then one should react!


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