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.”

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