Friday, April 24, 2009

Unlearning Rudeness

No one really wants to be rude. Polite is so much easier.

Very few of us get up in the morning and make a list of the people we want to offend that day. When we do insult someone, it is more likely to be inadvertent, based in ignorance, than intentional.

Mostly, we just want to get along. We work hard at it. We cultivate harmonious relationships, more so when rudeness seems to be the order of the day.

In everyday interactions we avoid conflict and confrontation. If someone invites you to lunch and you do not wish to go, you will first drop a series of more or less subtle hints. If he cannot take the hint, you might feel obligated to spell it out, to state your position clearly.

Some would call this being open and honest in expressing yourself; it feels like what the therapy culture prescribes.

Nonetheless, it is rude; it risks creating enmity and drama. It incites the other person to want to retaliate. In everyday social situations you should be straightforward and direct only when you have no other choice.

Let us call that normal human behavior.

In most cases people act rudely because they do not know any better. They may be new in town; they may be inexperienced in the ways of certain segments of the social whirl; they may have suffered a cultural influence that convinced them that being rude is hot or cool.

Rudeness often involves local customs and manners. In some places it is polite to spit tobacco juice into a spittoon. In most places it is not.

In some places good table manners require you to keep one hand on your lap. In other places you must keep both hands on the table, lest anyone start imagining what you are doing with your invisible hand.

Correcting someone else's rudeness poses a significant social challenge. Sometimes people are grateful for the lesson. We have all felt somewhat uneasy for not knowing the rules in a new place and have felt grateful that someone took the time to inform us.

At other times we become defensive. When you are not aware that you are giving offense, when you are feeling that you have a situation under control, you will be taken aback when someone informs you that you are mistaken.

Say you flash someone a gesture that your culture sees as a wish for good luck and prosperity. How would you feel if someone from another culture informed you, however gently, that you had just flipped him the bird?

We hesitate to inform adults that they have abysmal table manners. For an obvious reason. The person who receives the message will feel embarrassed, even humiliated, and will associate the negative emotion with the messenger who incited it.

Most therapists, for example, avoid any attempts to correct behavior. Say a man tells you that his girlfriend broke up with him because he always chews with his mouth open. Would you tell him that she is right and that he ought to learn how to eat in polite company? Many therapists would rather not go there.

Coaches and managers deal with these issues all the time. In coaching situations the person has presumably agreed to try to learn how his behavior is affecting others and how he can change it for the better. He may not like what he hears, but he has signed up to hear it.

When your job involves correcting rude behavior, you must always assume that the person's mistakes are unintentional. They should never be taken as a meaningful expression of an unconscious emotion.

The person who acts rudely by explicitly rejecting an invitation to lunch is not doing it on purpose. His rude behavior does not express his wishes or desires or feelings.

Besides, if you accuse people of being rude on purpose, you will be setting a bad example yourself. Accusing someone of being rude on purpose is, dare I say, rude.

Impugning someone's character and questioning his motives is a sure way to provoke conflict. The recipient of rudeness will often feel a need to retaliate, thus prolonging a drama, or even turning a drama into a feud.

But if you tell someone that he is being rude and he keeps doing it, can we then say that he is being intentionally rude?

Here I would say No again. He might continue to behave as he did because it is a habit. Where he came from it might even be a good habit. Now, he does it automatically, without thinking about it, even if he knows that it is rude.

It takes more than a moment of embarrassment to change a bad habit. But the moment of embarrassment is still a good place to start.

No comments: