Disrespectful behavior can make you feel inferior, belittled, angry, or unimportant. Unfortunately, most of us run into disrespectful people from time to time in our personal and professional lives. In this article, we’ll look at how you can respond to disrespectful behavior in social situations.
What is disrespectful behavior?
When someone’s words or actions suggest that they don’t see you as a worthy person who deserves to be treated with courtesy, they are probably being disrespectful.
Here are some common types of disrespectful behavior:
- Insults and namecalling
- Hurtful, unnecessary comments about your looks, abilities, relationships, job, or any other aspect of your life.
- Condescending remarks that leave you feeling awkward or belittled, e.g., “You’ve got a great career for someone who grew up in such a poor area.”
- Persistent lateness
- Leaving you out of a conversation
- Excluding you from a social event
- Deliberately ignoring you
- Staring at you or watching you in a way that feels intrusive or intimidating
- Physical aggression
- Ignoring your boundaries, for example, pressuring you to drink alcohol when you’ve already said “No.”
- Refusing to acknowledge your authority, e.g., acting as though they are more qualified or senior than you in the workplace, even if you’re their boss.
- Making you the butt of unkind jokes
- Lying to you
- Gossiping about you
- Making fun of you
Research shows that disrespectful behavior can impact multiple areas of your life. Here are some studies that show why it’s important to recognize and deal with rudeness and disrespect:
- A 2013 study published in the Journal Of Nursing Administration found a link between experiencing disrespectful behavior from colleagues and poor mental health.
- Psychologist John Gottman has found that disrespectful communication, including the silent treatment and criticism, have such a negative impact on a marriage that they are useful predictors of divorce.
- According to a 2014 review published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, experiencing low-level disrespect in the workplace can cause stress, depression, fear, and sadness. People who feel disrespected at work are also at risk of increased conflict at home, possibly because they feel tense and unhappy.
How to respond when someone is disrespectful to you
You don’t have to tolerate disrespect. No one has a right to treat you badly, ignore your basic needs, or take advantage of you. In this section, you’ll learn how to address rude, impolite, or passive-aggressive behavior.
Here’s how to deal with someone who is being disrespectful to you:
1. Avoid jumping to conclusions
Some disrespectful comments and behaviors are obviously rude. For example, if someone insults you, they are clearly being disrespectful. But some situations aren’t so clear-cut. Don’t jump to conclusions; try to give people the benefit of the doubt and look for alternative explanations for their behavior.
When we’re trying to understand someone’s actions, we tend to assume that the underlying cause is their personality rather than their circumstances. In the 1990s, psychologists Gilbert and Malone started using the term “correspondence bias” to describe this mistake.
According to this theory, you might be quick to assume that someone is being disrespectful just because they are a rude person, even though their behavior is caused by external events.
Ask yourself, “Could there be another explanation for this person’s behavior? Is there any chance that I’m overreacting?”
For example, if your neighbor ignores you one morning instead of nodding and smiling as they usually do, it’s possible that they are snubbing you. But it’s also possible that they just have a lot on their mind and aren’t paying much attention to anything or anyone around them.
2. Ask, “What do you mean by that?”
If someone says something that seems offensive, but you aren’t completely sure what they meant, you might be able to avoid confrontation by asking, “What do you mean by that?”
For example, let’s say that for 7 years, you’ve been working an enjoyable but low-paid job in a nonprofit organization. At some point in the conversation, your friend remarks, “You really should be earning more by now.”
This comment might feel disrespectful because you may feel that your friend is insulting your salary or implying that you aren’t ambitious enough. But if you were to ask, “What do you mean by that?” your friend may explain that what they really meant was, “You should be paid more for all the great work you do, especially with all your experience.”
3. Try not to take rudeness from strangers personally
It can be easier to deal with rude, disrespectful behavior from strangers or casual acquaintances if you try not to take it personally. Ask yourself, “Is this person’s behavior really an attack on me, or was I just in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
For example, if a man or woman you don’t know pushes you out of the way on the subway or a colleague you rarely speak to doesn’t acknowledge you in the breakroom, their behavior doesn’t have anything to do with who you are, or what you’ve done.
Remember that impolite behavior from strangers is a normal part of life. In their book, Incivility: The Rude Stranger In Everyday Life, sociologists Philip Smith, Timothy L. Philips, and Ryan D. King map out more than 500 episodes of rude behavior. Their work makes it clear that disrespectful behavior is common.
It can also help to watch how a disrespectful person treats everyone else. If someone is behaving disrespectfully to others or has a reputation for their bad attitude, you can remind yourself that it’s not just you on the receiving end of their unfriendly behavior.
4. Remain calm and polite
When someone disrespects you, it’s easy to become angry and sink to their level. Instead, try to take the high ground. You’ll probably feel better about the situation if you can stay composed. Don’t raise your voice, insult the other person, roll your eyes, or use abusive language.
If you don’t trust yourself to remain calm, it might be best to remove yourself from the situation. You could say, “Excuse me, I need to take a quick break,” or “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I need to go to the bathroom.”
This article on how to be diplomatic and act with tact might be helpful.
5. Try to defuse disrespect with kindness
You don’t have to make excuses for disrespectful people, but it can be easier to stay calm and deal with the situation if you treat a rude person with kindness. Bear in mind that they might be having a bad day and taking their mood out on others.
Unless you have a good reason to think that the other person is being mean to you, try giving them the benefit of the doubt. Try showing them kindness, and give them a chance to share anything that might be bothering them.
For example, if your friend makes an unusually rude comment, you might say, “I’m surprised you said that. It’s very out of character for you. Are you feeling OK?”
6. Avoid taking your annoyance out on other people
Research shows that rudeness is contagious. According to a 2016 article published in The Journal Of Applied Psychology, we can “catch” rudeness from people who are rude to us.
The authors studied 90 students as they practiced negotiation exercises with classmates. The students who reported that their first partner was rude were more likely to be labeled as rude by their next partner. These findings suggest that when someone is rude to you, you pass their rudeness on to other people.
You’ve probably experienced this for yourself. For example, if you have to deal with disrespectful people on the subway on your morning commute, you might arrive at work in a bad mood. Because you already feel irritable, you might be more likely to snap at your coworkers.
When someone is disrespectful towards you, try to break the cycle of rudeness. Tell yourself, “I’m not going to let myself be affected by someone else’s bad mood.” Try to be a positive role model instead.
7. Use humor to highlight disrespectful behavior
If you know the other person well and they can take a joke, you could try using gentle humor to call them out on their disrespectful behavior.
For example, let’s say you’re having lunch with your colleague Sarah. You’re supposed to be talking about a project you’re both working on, but Sarah keeps looking at her phone instead of listening to you. It’s clear that she isn’t paying attention, which makes you feel annoyed.
Instead of making a comment about how disrespected you feel, you could take out your own phone and send her a short message to catch her attention, like, “Hey, I’ve arrived for the meeting!”
Be careful when you use humor. If someone is feeling angry or upset, making a joke could make the situation worse. Make sure you don’t come across as passive-aggressive; you want to use a light-hearted tone of voice to avoid sounding too sarcastic.
8. Decide whether it’s worth confronting the person
Sometimes, calling someone out on their disrespectful behavior is the smartest thing to do. But in other situations, it might be best to ignore the behavior and move on.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re deciding whether to confront a disrespectful person:
- Is this incident really a big deal?
It can help to ask yourself, “Will this matter to me a week from now?” If the answer is “No,” it might not be worth confronting the other person. You don’t want to risk starting an argument or damaging your relationship over a minor issue.
- Is this person’s behavior out of character, or are they often rude to me?
We all make mistakes and offend others from time to time, often without realizing that we’ve upset them. Unless they have done something very rude or disrespectful, it’s usually best to overlook occasional disrespect. But if the person’s disrespectful behavior has become a pattern, confronting them could be the best way to stop it.
- Does the relationship I have with this person matter to me?
For example, if a stranger disrespects you, it’s probably not worth the hassle of confronting them. But if a coworker often undermines you with rude comments, it’s worth tackling the issue because you have to see and work with them regularly.
- Does it feel safe to confront this person?
Think carefully before confronting anyone who could become very angry or abusive. If you need to call them out on their behavior, do whatever you can to stay safe. For example, you could confront them with several other people in the room or talk to them over the phone rather than in person.
9. Try to confront someone one-on-one
Unless you’re worried about your safety, it’s usually best to talk to someone who has disrespected you one-on-one rather than in a group. If you try to have a difficult conversation in front of other people, the person who disrespected you may feel defensive or embarrassed, which could make it hard to have a calm conversation.
10. Use “I” statements to explain how you feel
If you decide to confront someone who has disrespected you, “I” statements can help you express your feelings without starting an argument. Compared with statements that start with “You” (e.g., “You never listen!”), “I” statements often sound less hostile.
Use this formula: “I felt ___ when ___.”
Here are some examples of “I” statements:
- I felt disrespected when you took all the credit for my ideas in the meeting.
- I feel as though you take me for granted when I have to do all the cleaning on the weekend.
- I feel embarrassed when you make jokes about my height, especially when you tease me in front of other people.
Some people don’t realize that their words or actions come across as disrespectful. “I” statements can help someone understand why they have upset you and encourage them to change their behavior.
11. Draw clear boundaries and impose consequences
Firm boundaries help other people understand what you will and won’t accept in your relationships. When other people know that there will be consequences for inappropriate behavior, they might be more likely to treat you with respect.
For example, let’s say that one of your family members often makes disrespectful remarks about your weight.
You might use an “I” statement, like “I feel upset and self-conscious when you make jokes about my weight.” You could then draw a boundary by saying, “I don’t like it when people comment on my size. Please don’t make those types of remarks in the future.”
You could then explain what the consequences will be if they break your boundary. You could say, “If you make an unkind joke about my weight again, I’m going to hang up the phone.”
12. Use brief comments to call out disrespectful behavior
You could try calling someone out with a brief comment or observation. This approach can work well when someone makes an inappropriate, off-the-cuff remark, and you can’t take them aside for a one-on-one chat.
Here are some ways to quickly highlight disrespectful behavior:
- “That was a rude thing to say.”
- “What an insulting comment.”
- “I don’t think that’s funny.”
- “That was an unkind remark.”
- “I’m not sure why you shared that.”
13. Focus on shared goals and values
When you remind a disrespectful person that you have something important in common and can help each other out, they might decide that it’s in their own interests to be civil.
Here are two examples of ways you could remind a disrespectful person of your shared goals or values:
- If you’re dealing with a disrespectful relative over the holidays, you could say, “I think we both want to have a good time over the holidays, right? We should probably try our best to get along and keep the atmosphere nice for everyone.”
- If you’re working on a project with someone who disrespects you, try, “We both want to get this project wrapped up. I think we should both make an effort to stay calm and polite so that we can do a great job.”
14. Report extremely disrespectful behavior
If you’ve tried to deal with someone’s behavior yourself, but nothing’s changed, or it doesn’t feel safe to confront them, consider reporting it to someone in authority.
For example, if one of your colleagues repeatedly takes credit for your work and doesn’t stop after you’ve called them out on their behavior, consider telling your line manager or HR department about the situation. Or, if someone keeps harassing and upsetting you online, you could report their behavior to a moderator.
15. Cut or reduce contact
Some people can’t or won’t change their behavior, even when it’s clear that they have hurt you. If possible, try to reduce the amount of time you spend with someone who is often disrespectful towards you.
For example, if your cousin often puts you down or makes unpleasant remarks, you might decide that you’ll only see them at large family gatherings and avoid meeting up with them in small groups.
16. Say “Thank you” to backhanded compliments
If someone repeatedly gives you backhanded compliments, you could have a one-on-one discussion and ask them to stop. But as a short-term fix, a simple smile and cheerful “Thank you” can work well.
When you pretend to misunderstand a backhanded compliment as sincere praise, the other person has two choices: they can either remain silent or tell you that they were trying to insult you.
If they stay quiet, you can just change the subject and move on. Or, if they choose to insult you, you can tackle their disrespect directly. Depending on the situation, you could handle the situation by asking them to clarify what they meant, draw boundaries, and impose consequences for their behavior.