Rude is in the eye of the beholder

Quite a while back, Scott (aka @nametagscott) tweeted the following words of wisdom: It’s not the traffic that stresses you out, it is your reaction to traffic that stresses you out. I’d like to modify that just a bit and say:

It’s not rudeness of others that stresses you out, it is your reaction to what you think is rudeness that stresses you out.

Are you a presenter who gets stressed out – or pissed off – when you see people paying more attention to their electronic gadgets than to what you are saying?  Olivia Mitchell provides some insight to this in her article How to Handle a Texting Audience with an answer to the question, “Is it rude?”

Rude is in the mind of the beholder. Rude to you, not rude to them. To label a behavior as rude is to make a negative judgement about it, and that judgement will seep through in the way that you come across.

Your audience are adults. If their behavior is not distracting or annoying other people in the audience it’s up to them whether they pay attention or not, and how they pay attention.

Her advice: “If you want their attention, be more interesting than their cellphones.” It’s you, not them, that makes the difference.

As the parent of an autistic son, I’ve found myself in more than one situation where someone has become stressed about my son’s “rude” behavior. Of course, he’s not being rude, he’s just being himself. But people expect certain things from other people, and when they don’t get it they get upset.

In his new book Linchpin, Seth Godin addresses the question in a couple of short sections. In the one titled Teaching Fire a Lesson, Seth writes:

Fire is hot. That’s what it does. If you get burned by fire, you can be annoyed at yourself, but being angry at the fire doesn’t do you much good. And trying to teach the fire a lesson so it won’t be hot next time is certainly not time well spent.

Our inclination is to give fire a pass, because it’s not human. But human beings are similar, in that they’re not going to change any time soon either.

And yet, many (most?) people in organizations handle their interactions as though they are in charge of teaching people a lesson. We make policies and are vindictive and focus on the past because we worry that if we don’t, someone will get away with it.

It doesn’t do any good to get mad at fire, and it’s not any more useful to get mad at autistics, or anyone, who annoys you. As Seth writes in the section Annoyed at Intent:

If you accept that human beings are difficult to change, and embrace (rather than curse) the uniqueness that everyone brings to the table, you’ll navigate the world with more bliss and effectiveness. And make better decisions, too.

I have been as guilty of all of these things as anyone else through the years, and I’m working to improve (though I still get way too annoyed in traffic). Whenever I start to find myself getting annoyed, I take a deep breath and step back from the situation for just a moment to figure out what it is that is really bothering me.

Try it. You’ll be amazed at how much it helps.

6 thoughts on “Rude is in the eye of the beholder

  1. Great post! Another thing I do is to look at the process of getting angry itself — look at my reaction, rather than the thing I am reacting too. With slow things like traffic, it works well.


  2. Ah but, were there no traffic there would not be anything to react to in order to stress out anyway 🙂

    I could chose not to be stressed by traffic, but I would rather chose for there to be none in the first place.

    First there is a snarl up then there is a snarl up then there is.


  3. Joe,

    Kind of raises the question of why are we not tolerant in the first place. What is it about someone else being different – or doing something other than what we think they should be doing – that bothers us so much. Why do we feel that we have the right to expect anyone to do something the way we think they should?


  4. Brett,

    I think that despite all of our bluster about being “independent and free” in this country, we don’t like to acknowledge our biological selves, which are that we are pack animals, and sometimes even similar to an ant colony.

    In a primitive world with limited resources, only work that directly furthers the survival of the whole pack (or colony) is seen as useful. That energy spent on doing other things is at least useless, and possibly harmful to the group.

    Unfortunately, we have failed to recognize our primitive urges for what they are, and to take the leap to a different way of thinking that can prevail when we live (as we do nowadays) in a land where there can be other priorities than our immediate physical survival.



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