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Responding to rudeness can be risky

At a seminar I was giving this week, a participant asked me: "I recently saw a person being rude to a sales clerk. I wanted to march up to him and tell him that what he was doing was wrong. When is it OK to say something to a stranger who is being rude?"

It seems so reasonable. A person is rude. So we say something to him. He sees the light and changes his ways. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. Criticizing a stranger for rude behavior may seem like the right thing to do, but in reality, you take a serious risk of being on the receiving end of a nasty reaction. The fact is you don't know how a stranger might react to being criticized. Instead of being appreciative, the stranger may respond verbally or physically.

This point was driven home by a story in the March 10, 2010 on-line edition of the Los Angeles Times. It's really hard to imagine how a person attending the movies or a show could think it is appropriate to use a cell phone during the performance. Audiences are repeatedly warned not to use a cell phone before the show starts. Yet, there were three people sitting together and talking on the cell phone during the movie. Apparently, a person sitting nearby complained to them about their cell phone use during the movie. The complaint seemed to work as the three people got up and left the theater. Problem solved.

Not so fast. A few minutes later two of the people returned to the theater and stabbed the complainer in the neck with a meat thermometer. The theater was dark so it was difficult to recognize or provide a description of the assailants. The headline told the story: "Moviegoer is stabbed after complaining about cell phone user." The story asked the public for help in identifying the assailants.

I don't think the complainer thought he would be attacked, but attacked he was. You simply never know how a stranger is going to respond to your unsolicited criticism no matter how accurate you might be. What alternative did he have? He could have talked to someone in charge—an usher or the manager—and asked them to deal with the cell phone users. Once the theater has established a rule, it is the management's job to enforce the rule. So let the people in charge be responsible for dealing with the rude behavior. It sounds like a cop-out to hand the problem over to a person in authority, but it's not. It's a matter of your own safety.

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