Monday, April 27, 2009

Dealing With Rudeness

I cannot guarantee that this story is true, but it is surely instructive.

A New York art dealer was trying to sell a painting to a Japanese collector. Each time she called the collector the latter responded that he wanted to think it over. Finally, the dealer got frustrated by his indecision and blurted out: What's the matter with you? Can't you make up your mind?

Evidently, the dealer did not know that the Japanese consider it rude to say No. When they say that they are thinking it over, that is code for No.

It is roughly equivalent to an American being asked out on a date, and responding: I'm sorry, I have other plans.

In cultures that are designed to ensure harmonious interactions, people avoid statements that might connote rejection and that might provoke angry reactions.

This does not obviate the fact that the dealer's remarks are rude in any culture. They are likely to provoke a hostile reaction.

Your job, if you are on the receiving end of such a provocation, is to avoid hostility.

The dealer is rude because she is trying to relieve the collector of his free will. Her remark demeans him, and attempts to ply him to her will.

But the collector should not overtly take offense and should not throw the remark back at her. There is no virtue in responding to rudeness with rudeness.

I would also advise against a more obvious reply: Now that you mention it, I have made up my mind, and I have decided never again to do business with you.

That too is a threat, and if it provokes contrition there would be no way of knowing whether the contrition is sincere or self-interested.

Besides, you should never sever ties with someone over a single insult. To justify an extreme action, you would need a series of insults followed by insincere apologies.

Of course, the collector might try irony, though admittedly this is difficult in a foreign language. Irony would have him saying: Thank you for your concern.

In some cases that will make the dealer aware of what she has just said and will be offering her an opening where she can apologize.

A good response by the collector will not accuse or attack, but will allow the dealer to take back what she just said.

The collector might signify the same thing by withdrawing from the conversation on an invented pretext. Something like: Excuse me, but I have to make another urgent call.

This would not involve accusing the dealer of being rude, but it will allow him to signify as much, more politely. Then, she can mull it all over at her leisure and make a free choice about whether or not she wants to apologize.

If she chooses not to, then the relationship has been set on the path to permanent rupture.

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