Don’t give mean words so much power

“Why can’t people just be nice?”

I’ve heard this a few times this week, in session and from friends. While I can agree with the saying, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” I am also aware that I cannot control anyone, only myself. I simply can’t force anyone to say something nice or even demand anyone to offer their criticism more constructively. The truth of the matter is: people are ultimately going to do whatever they want and are free to do so regardless of how it affects other people.

“But I would NEVER treat someone that way…”

Maybe, and maybe not. I’m not here to condone people being mean. Everyone orbits around their own planet. Each person, even those related to us, have unique experiences and equally unique opinions about their past experiences. I personally don’t think anyone is just mean for the sake of being mean. If someone is mean, judgmental, harsh or rude in circumstances where it doesn’t make sense to be so, it is communicating something about THEM and their beliefs. Remember, everything we do is communicating something. Maybe they feel threatened, inadequate, insecure or backed into a corner. I often pose the question, “What do you do when you get punched?” The answer I anticipate is, “Punch back!” But instead of assuming you’re getting the first punch, could you be receiving the second? If a punch is only thrown when we feel punched, how could the other person be under the impression that THEY are getting punched? I don’t know about you, but I know that regardless of how nice and compassionate I can be, if I feel threatened my demeanor will change dramatically.

Now, I understand that in the heat of an argument or interaction all of this logical thinking and curiosity isn’t going to kick in. Mean words hurt. Plain and simple. However, I am still in control of my actions no matter what. Just like someone is not responsible for my feelings, I am not responsible for theirs. Just because I can’t control someone from being verbally abusive doesn’t mean that I am not in control of how much time I spend listening to that person. Just because I can’t control someone’s words or actions doesn’t mean that I don’t have boundaries or that their mean words are true about me. While it might seem rude to excuse yourself in the middle of a conversation, it is equally rude to be rude.

Here are some options when faced with mean or cruel conversations:

  1. Remain calm – Reacting to mean words is like adding fuel to a fire. Sit tight, keep your tone neutral and see if you can figure out why they’re so upset. Clue them in on what they’re saying, how they’re saying it. Ask them why they’re talking to you that way. They’re still being mean? Try number 2.
  2. Ignore it -Let their words fall off like water off a ducks back. This is especially true if you don’t even know the person saying the rude comments. You don’t know them and they don’t know you so there is no reason to let it carry on any further. You do know this person? Maybe they’re having a bad day and they’ll eventually stop and explain what is really going on. Sometimes silence is enough to show someone exactly how rude he or she is being because no one is fueling it to continue. If they still persist, let’s try 3.
  3. Leave – I know, it sounds too easy or rude. Like I said I don’t condone mean words or actions, I condone being responsible for my words and actions. Think about it. How would you like to be spoken to? If you don’t want to be yelled at, don’t respond until the person is speaking calmly. Yelling back is essentially consenting that you condone this kind of communication. If they continue to be mean you can offer them a warning, “If you continue to talk to me this way I’m going to walk away.” Walk away if necessary and return when they’re calm. Walk away and return as many times as you need to until you’re both able to communicate calmly. Always offer a chance to do it well, constructively. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Let your actions say that you’ll have nothing to do with this conversation when they interact with you in this way, especially after making efforts to be understanding.


For more information on improving communication in your relationships or becoming less rude or mean to those closest to you contact Ashlee Secord, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Thrive Therapy. She provides therapy to couples and families in the south metropolitan suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul.