Respondents in the passive category suggested the best course of action when confronted with offensive or inappropriate behavior is to let it slide--ignore it, walk away, don’t waste time dealing with it. They expressed concerns about assuming responsibility for policing the behavior of other people, for creating situations that could turn unpleasant or dangerous, and whether they had any legitimate right to judge whether another person’s behavior was offensive.
The passive-aggressive respondents were troubled by inappropriate or offensive behavior but believed it could be uncomfortable or dangerous to directly confront or challenge an offender. They were more comfortable complaining about the offensive behavior to others (or to a public authority) and hoping someone would do something about it. One expressed concern that confronting an offender might be interpreted as offensive behavior by others.
The folks in the aggressive category said they would not hesitate to confront a person, accuse them of behaving poorly, and demand an end to their offensive behavior, even if that behavior had been directed at someone else. These folks didn’t seem concerned that the confrontation might become unpleasant, or escalate into violence—some seemed eager to welcome that possibility. One invoked the film American Sniper, described the three types of people in the world (sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves) and said he was proud to be a sheepdog.
The most comprehensive comments came from folks who said that while they believed it was important to be assertive when confronted by offensive or inappropriate behavior, they thought it was equally important to pick their shots and respect the rights of others while standing up for their own rights. Several of these folks said that focusing intensely and objectively on exactly what was happening, and why, helped them moderate their emotions, determine whether to make an issue of something and appropriately manage their behavioral response. One woman reported on a recent experience in which she used the formula for assertive communication to ask a line cutter to go to the back of the line and much to her surprise he did.
While most of us use all of these response styles at one time or another, is there a best approach? The answer depends entirely on the situation and the person. When we encounter something we don’t like, we have a limited choice of responses (accept it, change it, get away from it) and we choose one based upon our interpretation of the situation. Two people caught in the same unpleasant situation may interpret it differently since they each filter the experience through their own mesh of moral values, ethical beliefs, behavioral tolerances, and social/cultural expectations. They then create a story about what happened and why, and that story triggers their emotional reaction (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, or disgust) which in turn triggers their behavioral response.
Same stimulus, different interpretations, emotional reactions, and behavioral responses. Yet the flow from interpretation to emotion to behavior is neither automatic nor inexorable since humans have the ability to choose how to respond to a stimulus. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl described it this way:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.
So if there’s a best practice for determining how to respond to offensive or inappropriate behavior, it probably involves making the best use of that “space” between stimulus and response. That’s where we have the power to make a simple, personal choice to ignore behavior, or to fume about it, or to get in someone’s face about it, or to calmly and respectfully assert our rights—all based upon our interpretation of the situation, the degree to which it bothers us, and what makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s a uniquely personal, mindful process.
For a colorful, entertaining and salty point of view on how one man makes use of that space, check out Niall Doherty’s first-party rant about his quest to become more stoic and immune to insults. Also, you might enjoy Three Little Tricks to Deal with People Who Offend You by Leo Babauta and How to Deal with Annoying People by Marcia Reynolds.
Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors