I agree with Elizabeth Bernstein’s analysis of rude behavior… up to a point.
While she and her battery of experts are willing to cut people some slack when they are cracking their gum, talking too loudly into a phone in public or using their sleeves as a napkin … the more salient point is that these behaviors are grossly disrespectful.
The experts call them social allergens, but when you are having dinner with someone who chews with his mouth open, you are not allergic; he is uncouth.
I am confident that Miss Manners would have some suggestions for witty ways to parry such rudeness. More importantly, Miss Manners teaches how to deal with rudeness without being rude yourself.
Let us be precise. Some behaviors might appear to be rude but are really medical conditions. One thinks of Tourette’s syndrome—if someone without the condition spontaneously shouted obscenities you would shun him. When someone with a neurological condition does it, you ignore it.
In most of the situations Bernstein discusses, people who feel offended have the right feelings. The problem is not to teach them to tolerate intolerable behavior. The problem is how you go about changing the behavior of other people. Evidently, it is a far more difficult task.
Problems of another order arise when the offending parties belong to your family. When dealing with kin you cannot reasonably exclude them.
To be clear about what we are talking about, Bernstein reported some egregious examples used by University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham:
It may be an imperious command ("Bring me some coffee, will you?") instead of a request for a favor. Often, it is a backhanded complaint or criticism: "Are you really going to eat that?" or "You bought a car? I thought you were saving for college." The person may not have meant to make you feel bad, but you do.
To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t matter what the person intended. If someone is treating you like dirt, you should not excuse him on the grounds that it was unintended. A nasty tone of voice and a condescending attitude are just as demoralizing when they are apparently unintentional.
If you become too willing to absorb even minor abuse, you will become depressed.
Of course, there are also behaviors that are not, ipso facto, rude, but that are irritating nonetheless. The man who does not clean up the kitchen counter as his wife would like. She might find it irritating, but there is no important rule of propriety that dictates how you should clean something up. If it ends up being clean, well and good. If it is dirty and attracts unwelcome intruders, the responsible party should correct his error.
Naturally, the first time someone is rude to you, you will, as Bernstein suggest, cut the person some slack. If that doesn’t work, you should point out the bad behavior or offer, a la Miss Manners, a clever comeback. If all else fails, you will be obliged to sever contact with the offending party.
Thus, I disagree with Bernstein and Cunningham when they offer this advice:
In the end, the best approach boils down to tried-and-true relationship advice: Change your own behavior. Don't let yourself become irritated.
This will be easier to do if you choose to see the other person's irritating behavior as uncontrollable.
Maybe your husband bites his nails because he is stressed at work. Or your wife might be habitually late because she is swamped chauffeuring the family around. Maybe your best friend interrupts you repeatedly because she is eager and impulsive. "That is just the way they are," says Dr. Cunningham. "You can decide to let it go."
In some cases this is obviously true. If you wife is late because your son’s choir practice was running late, she is not being rude. If you take it personally you are thin-skinned and hypersensitive.
If your husband sits around the house biting his nails, you should try to find him an effective treatment. Bad habits can be broken. At times they require professional intervention. If the habit annoys you, it is best to retire to a different room.
If your best friend interrupts you constantly, you should find a better best friend. You would never allow someone to slap you around because she was eager and impulsive. You should learn how to choose your friends and you should not choose as best friend someone who is constantly shutting you up.
If you fail to react to rude behavior you are saying that you deserve to be mistreated.