Dealing with rudeness at work 

We’ve all encountered rudeness in the workplace. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s loud and obnoxious. However I’ve found most of the advice for dealing with rude people at work is one-note or focused on bullying and intimidation. What about those situations that don’t cross the line into bullying, but make your work life less enjoyable and your workplace less pleasant? 

Get curious

When someone is rude to you there are a few questions you need to ask. First: How frequently does this behaviour occur? Is this person usually lovely and sunny, but has suddenly snapped at you? Everyone has bad days from time to time. If the behaviour is out of character it is almost guaranteed to have nothing to do with you. Make the choice to forgive and move on—or perhaps even ask if they are okay. 

If rudeness is a more regular occurrence, then ask: What impact is this behaviour having on me? Is the level of rudeness mild or extreme? After interacting with them, do you feel a little prickled, or do you feel angry, hurt or shaken? Think about giving a score from 1-10 in terms of a rudeness “pain scale”. How disruptive is it to your ability to get back to work? 

Now turn your thoughts towards the rude person. Ask: What level of self-awareness does this person have? Consider their general approach to the world. Do they seem fully aware of how their attitudes and behaviours affect others, or are they tone deaf to their impact? How have you seen them behaving towards others? Is this a pattern? Give this a 1-10 score, ranging from completely oblivious at 1, through to a 10 for someone you have seen adjust their behaviour in response to feedback.  

Four options 

Using your two scores, plot your findings on the following chart: 

There are four quadrants your score could land in: 

Mild impact/low self-awareness 

The strategy here is tolerance and forgiveness. It’s unlikely anything you say will change their behaviour. The best option is to try to change the impact their behaviour is having on you by changing your inner dialogue. Consider approaching the situation with compassion instead of blame: instead of “XX is such a pain!” make it “Poor XX, s/he’s obviously having another really bad day.” 

Extreme impact/low self-awareness 

These are the trickiest situations. It’s very unlikely you can do anything to change the way this person behaves, and your best bet is to avoid them. Try to mediate communication through electronic channels if it helps you skip face-to-face unpleasantness. Find allies who are also victims of this person’s behaviour to reassure you that you’re not alone (although avoid bitching and gossiping—that only keeps you focused on the unpleasantness rather than helping you to move on). These situations can easily tip over into bullying if it becomes unrelenting—you may need to seek personalised advice from a professional. 

Mild impact/high self-awareness 

There’s a chance this person isn’t aware of how their behaviour is coming across and, if made aware of it, they’d want to change that. The trick is finding a suitable way to broach the subject. No one ever had a positive interaction by being shamed for their behaviour, so think about how you’d want to be told something like this if it was you. Approach the conversation with a common goal: working together more effectively. Use the old trick of “I feel…” statements rather than accusatory “You…”.   

High impact/high self-awareness 

As above, there’s a chance to change this situation by letting the other person know how their behaviour impacts you. However, if your interactions with this person can be extremely uncomfortable it’s likely that even thinking about having this kind of conversation is making you nervous! Extreme or aggressive rudeness needs to be called out in the moment. Start with a mindful breath to steady yourself and acknowledge your turmoil. State how you feel (you might want to practice this in advance). Be clear about your boundaries—what you will and won’t accept. Try to understand their underlying motivation—maybe you’re both worried, or excited, or passionate about the topic, they’re just not good at moderating themselves. 

I’ll dive into more detail on how to manage conversations in each of these four quadrants in future articles. 

Be kind—to them and to yourself 

There are about a billion self-help books and podcasts out there that will tell you this, but basing your happiness on the behaviour of others is a sure-fire route to misery. Ultimately, the only person you can change is yourself. One of my favourite quotes is from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” 

Try to adopt an attitude of compassion towards this person. What must be happening in their life to make them so miserable and rude? Imagine what it must be like going through life treating other people badly all the time. Maybe they’re only mirroring behaviour that is directed towards them? Being kind towards them isn’t going to do any harm. And it might just make you feel better too. 

Don’t forget to direct some kindness towards yourself (self-compassion). Research shows that people who practice self-compassion are far more resilient and experience lower levels of stress and trauma. They’re also nicer to be around, so it means there’s less chance that someone is reading this article and thinking of you!