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How to deal with mean people
January 11th, 2012
11:01 AM ET

How to deal with mean people

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

Not that long ago I was crossing the street with my daughter when a speeding car almost plowed us down.

“Hey! This is a crosswalk!” I yelled through the passing car’s open window.

“I don’t care!” The driver shot back.

Mean people, like vermin, have been around forever. But for some reason - maybe it’s the economic trials of these past few years - there seem to be more of them than there used to be. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: A 2010 National Civility Survey found that two out of three Americans believe civility is a major issue, and three in four believe the negative tenor in our country has grown worse over the past few years.

“When we talk about civility and good manners, we are not talking about which forks to use for salad - that’s etiquette,” says Dr. Pier Forni, director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins and author of "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude."

“Civility is about how we treat one another in everyday life and is closely related to ethics. The principle of respect for the person holds that we ought to treat others as an end in themselves, rather than as a means for the satisfaction of our own immediate needs and desires.”

I find myself nodding in agreement with Dr. Forni, but then I try to imagine repeating his words to the dude who almost ran us down in the crosswalk. I’m thinking that guy may not be convinced with an argument about the interplay between ethics and civility.

So why should we be nice if we don’t have to be?

The health benefits, for one. According to Forni, “Science tells us that when we engage in acts of civility and kindness, both the person on the giving end and the one on the receiving end benefit; it’s known as ‘helper’s high.’ Cascades of hormones and neurotransmitters activate when we are giving a token of our civility.”

Indeed, a slew of studies confirm that kinder people tend to live longer and lead healthier lives; volunteers have fewer aches and pains; and compassionate people are more likely to be healthier and successful.

Widespread incivility, on the other hand, can wreak havoc. Mean people, writes Stanford professor Robert Sutton, have “devastating effects, partly because nasty interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions - five times the punch.”

Says Sutton: “You have to overwhelm the negative with so much positive, it’s ridiculous!”

Moreover, due to a process called emotional contagion, the ripple effects of demeaning acts adversely affect coworkers, family members and friends who watch - or even just hear about - ugly incidents.

Sutton has written widely about the economic and social benefits of rooting out jerks from the workplace (except Dr. Sutton doesn’t call them jerks). His bestselling book is called "The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t."

Sutton distinguishes between occasional rudeness - of which everyone is more or less guilty - and certified jerks. His “Dirty Dozen” of common everyday actions that out a certified nasty person include: personal insults, invading one’s personal territory, uninvited physical contact, threats and intimidation (both verbal and nonverbal), sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems, withering email flames, status slaps intended to humiliate their victims, public shaming or status degradation rituals, rude interruptions, two-faced attacks, dirty looks, and treating people as if they are invisible.

Certified jerks display persistent patterns of these bad behaviors and have a long trail of victims. (Sutton has also developed a self-test called the ARSE, but I took it and I’m pretty sure it can be gamed.)

But why are people mean? Forni suggests a handful of root causes that may cover the entire spectrum of uncivilized behavior: lack of restraint; stress, illness or depression; anonymity; insecurity; lack of time; or a sense of entitlement.

“All of these factors can work together,” says Forni. “In traffic, for example, anonymity and stress work together. The first driver cuts off the second driver. Perhaps both are late and therefore anxious. They don’t think they know one another. And so they engage in some finger puppetry. But say one of the drivers suddenly recognizes the other as the pastor of his church. You will have an immediate effort to minimize what happened.”

According to Forni, anonymity also plays into uncivil behavior online: “You have this wonderful technological marvel that can improve our lives and yet it has become a dismal collector of the moral toxins of our society.” (Imagine Forni’s elegant turns of phrase spoken with a fabulous Italian accent.)

Ultimately, civility is about power - and character. “The difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know,” writes Sutton.

Since nasty people are unavoidable in daily life, Sutton offers a few tips how to deal with them - and perhaps rebound more quickly from run-ins:

Stand up or develop indifference.

Sutton says that if you find yourself the victim of bad behavior, do a power analysis: “You can either address the problem directly, or you can exercise the fine art of emotional detachment. Can you take a picture of the jerk’s license plate and report him to the police? Is there a number on the side of his car you can call? If yes, fine. If not, then try to forget the incident as quickly as possible. There are times when things are beyond your control and the best thing for your mental health is not to give a damn. In those circumstances, find ways to engage in short-term denial.”

Reframe and change how you see things.

Attempt to reframe a run-in with a jerk in way that is less upsetting. “This is a kind of mini cognitive therapy,” says Sutton. If you can’t escape a stressor, you can reduce the damage by changing your mind-set about what’s happening.

“Develop a coping mechanism, if you must. Sometimes we are able to find delusions that serve us.”

Sutton offers a reframing example from a recent holiday meal, where a relative did something rude.

"Afterwards I was complaining to my wife and she turned to me and said: ‘I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want the 1% that was bad to ruin the 99% that was good.’ And then she left the room. It was surprisingly effective.”

Sutton cautions, however, that if you’re in a long-term situation that is bad every time, reframing will not make it go away.

Limit your exposure.

Avoid if you need to. For example, if you shop at the same place frequently, go out of your way to avoid the mean clerks. By limiting how often and intensely you face jerks, you create a buffer against their demeaning behavior.

In a work context, Sutton offers additional strategies, like building pockets of safety, support and sanity; and seeking and fighting battles that you have a good chance of winning.

Later, reflecting on Sutton’s strategies - stand your ground, detach, reframe and avoid - I am reminded of the oft-repeated meditation for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

And I add a little prayer of my own: “Please God, next time grant me a baseball bat for the car that almost ran my kid over.”


soundoff (140 Responses)
  1. RoadRunner, Albuquerque, NM

    Workplace incivility has reached epic porportions, and no one dare try to do anything about it! I developed a more concise version of the serenity prayer: ...grant me the courage to change the things I can not accept.

    January 12, 2012 at 22:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bullies

      My previous job was pretty bad. Really bad. One guy heard the lady in our office just screaming at me (she screams at lots of people...you can hear her on any given day screaming at someone. not sure what that is. i thought maybe some prescription drug interaction or something. english is her second language and she seems to trip up on words. we just let her fly off the handle, but one day i went home and puked because of her) and came over and asked how we could stand that. that's pretty bad. feels like abuse. and we got a indian guy that yells at people too. my boss thought maybe he hates women. not a fun place to work.

      February 1, 2012 at 18:44 | Report abuse |
    • Bullies

      I used to run, bike, and swim every day, but eventually i met so many bullies and control freaks that i stopped everything. i didn't think anything could knock me off my path to being healthy, but they're out there. its not safe to be around them. freaks.

      February 1, 2012 at 18:46 | Report abuse |
    • Bullies

      i did all of the reasonable things. i'm just firmly in the isolate and avoid category now.

      February 1, 2012 at 18:49 | Report abuse |
    • Bullies

      its not healthy though. my health declined dramatically. mean people suck. they steal whatever good health we can muster by trying to avoid the complete misinformation about health people.

      February 1, 2012 at 18:51 | Report abuse |
    • Gary

      Report Bullies at Yowzoo....

      January 14, 2013 at 04:45 | Report abuse |
  2. Candi

    I dealt with a mean person today.

    January 13, 2012 at 04:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lori Hall

    I worked with a woman that was mean. Fortunately, I knew her issue was that she was so very insecure. I knew this because cruelty is a sign of weakness. I had more education, work experience, and yet she was compeled to try and tell me what I should do to better myself. This is a woman that didn't get a higher education degree until she was fifty,worked as an aide most of her working career,and supported her live-in. People that worked with her when she was an aide, said she was quiet, didn't cause any attention at all. As a supervisor, she had her favorites that recieved outstanding evaluations, got the easiest jobs. These same favorites talked badly about her and made fun of her, behind her back. They played the game so that they could get what they wanted from her. I look back now and realize what a good experience this was for me. I think most people like her have insecurity issues. The best you can do is try your best to stay away from them.

    January 16, 2012 at 10:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. JColat

    I live with a couple of girls that make me feel invisible all the time, any suggestions on how I should deal?

    January 17, 2012 at 01:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lori Hall

      Get out, they won't change. Try to find others as roomies...their not worth the effort.

      January 17, 2012 at 19:06 | Report abuse |
    • JColat

      Thanks Lori and that's exactly what I want to do, but the lease doesn't end until later in the year. I also don't have time to find another apartment and find a subletter, so suggestions on how I should deal with them in the meantime?

      January 18, 2012 at 00:38 | Report abuse |
    • Terilyne

      Realize, believe and remind yourself often that it is them and not you...who cares what they think or feel...live your life and don't allow their behaviour affect your mood.

      January 21, 2012 at 01:30 | Report abuse |
    • JColat

      Wow thanks. That's pretty good advice. Easier said than done, but worth a try nonetheless! thanks again.

      February 5, 2012 at 15:34 | Report abuse |
  5. Lori Hall

    Then just try not to make things any more uncomfortable for yourself than it already is. Go about your buisness as though you lived there on your own, until you can get out. Don't allow them to make you feel badly or make them think they got to you! That doesn't mean you have to behave rudley or anything, just go about your life and don't feed their drama :)

    January 18, 2012 at 18:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lori Hall

      typo- dont treat them badly or be rude..just do your own thing.

      January 18, 2012 at 21:02 | Report abuse |
  6. William O'field

    The problem is the lack of civic education in our schools... We need to teach ethics and other subjects that we have no more... The issue now is this is not only an issue with adults .. .but with kids...

    January 19, 2012 at 15:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lori Hall

      I agree with you William!

      January 19, 2012 at 22:03 | Report abuse |
    • ethics

      Civic education IN SCHOOLS? How about a little parenting at home? I don't understand why people think it's schools' fault that parents don't teach their children to be decent human beings.

      February 2, 2012 at 21:26 | Report abuse |
    • Jaime

      I agree with both William and ethics. One of the most important things parents can teach their children is tolerance, respect, and kindness. However, it wouldn't hurt to teach it in schools too in order to reinforce it. Especially with all of the news stories of kids being bullied and the schools doing nothing about it.

      February 22, 2012 at 05:10 | Report abuse |
  7. EricIndiana

    Whenever someone does something apparently thoughtless & mean on the road, I try to have empathy for them – maybe they are worried about their child in a hospital – maybe they are worried about losing their job. I even have a license plate that says "EMPATHY" to help me (and maybe others) be more tolerant of bad behavior. 'Cause like you say, a lot of it is from the anonymity of driving and in person people are generally better behaved. Here's a picture of my license and a list I made of other 7-letter ideas for license plates: http://daisybrain.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/seven/

    January 28, 2012 at 10:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jaime

      I think that's a great way to think EricIndiana. Everyone has crappy days where they've just had it up to their eyeballs with stress. It probably keeps you sane too by being so sympathetic.

      February 22, 2012 at 05:13 | Report abuse |
  8. clarke

    I don't bother to deal with mean people. You will never get to them, they have had to much practice in being mean. Also I will not be there victim.

    January 29, 2012 at 08:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jephen

    If you do not like rude people, please stay far away from Seattle, WA. Moved here from Texas and can't wait to move out at the end of my lease.

    January 31, 2012 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Hawaii5-O

    Create your own balloon around yourself. You only let people's emotions in that you want. Bullies, rude, mean and yelling people NEVER penetrate my balloon around myself. The balloon is invisable of course, but what I am saying is you put up that wall.

    You choose either to be moody and stupid or happy. I choose happy.

    Those people who are the contrary have negative vibes in their lives, can't handle, don't do, and just vent. Well sorry buddy but you aren't getting to me. You cannot kill my joy. I refuse to be like you are as much as you choose to be rotten, mean, rude and angry.

    For the yellers, I tell them to either they can do one of two things. Either find a solution or shut the heck up. I don't need to hear you yelling all the time and it's emotionally draining. I don't need to hear you venting. Either take it outside or shut up.

    The guy who almost ran over the lady with the child, anticipate idiots. You see the nut case barreling down the street, actually think, "This idiot will not see us and not stop." That way you anticipate foolish and insane behavior, hence, his words "I don't care." Of course not. Idiots have a brain but it's switched off.

    If someone is mean to you, you are in control of yourself. Nobody can make you angry unless YOU want to. Just smile in their face and tell them to have a nice day. They usually say they are sorry and blah blah blah. Well that's cool, but I don't have to sleep with you or live with you. You are just in my life for a few moments of life and their stupid behavior doesn't matter one bit.

    Once you make it matter, then you have a problem. Just remember this: It's mind over matter. If you don't mind it, it doesn't matter!

    February 2, 2012 at 02:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Caliwoman

    I think being self centered and mean to others is the new attempt at elitism. Insecure people who realize they will never have Mitt Romney's money or Angelina Jolie's looks (truly I do not want either) figure rude is the way to go to feel superior to others. Look at the media examples too, like the ridiculous non-reality shows and news talk shows full of hate. Schools are overcrowded without enough adult role models for kids, mom and dad don't take the time to teach manners, video games certainly don't teach social skills. I didn't hire anyone for an open position this last month, because none of the finalists who interviewed bothered to write a thank you note. We do need to refocus on civility.

    February 3, 2012 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. ...

    find ways to engage in short-term denial?????? um no that makes the problem worse plus it makes u look like ur afraid to face humanity

    February 6, 2012 at 15:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anonymous

      Quit trolling on this site, low-life bottomfeeder! You're obviously the mean one. =D

      April 26, 2012 at 00:05 | Report abuse |
  13. carrie

    call center customer service agents get treated like dirt, people yell, swear, make personal accusations. The names I've been called by perfect strangers over the stupidest things.

    February 7, 2012 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. teresa

    the sad fact is this: LOOK IN THE MIRROR.... WE ARE THE MEAN PEOPLE.... YES, EVERY ONE OF US. Usually, I am 98% the most kindest, helpful person.... But, I can be mean one the wrong day. we have to realize WHO the mean people are. Some are mean 98% of the time, others 2%. Do we make concessions?

    Best thing to do: dont speak at all or as little as possible. We are the mean people. was I being mean in saying that?
    I am sorry if anyone takes that the wrong way ; )

    February 12, 2012 at 11:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jaime

      Teresa, I agree. Everyone has a bad day where they lash out at other people. However, I think there is a difference between the people that do that every once in a while and can apologize for it and the people who are like that on a daily basis because they think its okay to act like that.

      February 22, 2012 at 05:17 | Report abuse |
  15. Jaime

    It never ceases to amaze me how horrible people can be to one another. I worked for a company for seven years, and for the last year I transferred to a location that was closer to my house. I thought the girls and I were all friends. We went to lunch together, spent time together outside work, and never had an argument. One day, I was pulled into the office after work with the owner and the girls and I was accused of not being a "team player". The girls were calling me names and just being horrible! It took me by such surprise that I burst into tears. No one would speak to me after that day and they would go out of their way to torture me during the day at work. One day, the owner came to me in the morning and told me that the rest of the employees (including her) had rented a limo and were going to party it up and she expected me to work alone the rest of the evening. Eventually, I was let go. To this day I couldn't tell you what I did to them!

    February 22, 2012 at 05:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. mimi

    I have a mean sister in law. My family and I respect her very well and we're very nice to her. Why can't she just be nice back? She's two faced. She pretends that she's nice and behind our backs she makes up lies to my brother and tells him that we're the ones who are mean to her.

    June 29, 2012 at 16:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • anon.

      I have the same problem. I am put through tears and can't understand why she can't be an adult and grow up. The whole family has to walk around egg shells with her. WHY? We feel like if we do anything to her she won't let us see their kids. She is hateful and mean and talks about people behind their back. You confront her and it's turned around onto you. I'm too sensitive and my feelings hurt easily so I take it. I end up crying and trying to move on. It's just hurts.

      January 21, 2013 at 17:32 | Report abuse |
  17. john

    Just be as mean back and more some. Make them think twice before they act, but do it in a smart way. Maybe ask them if they gained some weight or try to make thme feel stupid, but be mean back, just be more smart about it then they are and never start it. Just like a fight, if someone attacks you then you have the right of self defense. Destroy them! Don't be nice!!!

    July 19, 2012 at 17:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. rozanne

    Don't you get tired of being mean. It's so so boring

    January 3, 2013 at 05:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Dont let their evil behavior hurt you

    I was Called to go look at a cooling unit about 15 miles away. The house is in escrow. Te drive there, then home depot, then back, 3 hours. I then had to go collect. As he paid me he complained. he stated he has 12 units on the roof he would like looked at but not at $60 a pc. I agreed & took a look. It would take a trip to home D, Plus 8 full hours of work. Needing work, i gave him a price of $200.00. Dirt cheap for what i had to do, but was also trying to gain a customer. He agreed. I worked 4 hours & agreed to come back the next day. The next morning he wants to know why its, $200? Now he wants it done for even less. I didnt agree, & went there with the intent of putting it all back together & leaving. I didnt. he acted kind & grateful. But I should of. I went back to the work, & was treated like garbage every time i went back into the office. The words & behavior were, "Your Not Worth it". Tommorrow morning, i am going back. It will take me a couple hours, to put things as they were. When im done, i am walking away, with no explanation, other than, They are as they were. People that abuse others, Dont deserve explanations from people that were not only kind, but went out of their way to help them. I had 1 other client like that, he claimed i wasnt worth it. The property management company that took over, had a maintenance clause in his contract, the management allows her son to repair the properties, last month it cost him $40,000 , the month before, $30,000, He has now taken a second on his home..........He has emailed me trying to get me to give him my Wholesale contacts For Hvac, $3000 units for $750.00 I ignore them. The houses are in shambles, & i wouldve loved the work, but he made his choices & i made mine. The management company is treating him 1000 times worse than he treated me. but the best thing to do , when you know your being Fair, Honest, Forthright, & then get a letter that says, " These Houses Dont Need this Quality of Work ! That you choose to do ! well now he has someone that is 75% & keeps his slumlord properties as he wishes.

    April 16, 2013 at 19:15 | Report abuse | Reply
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