How Dare You! The place of ‘Rudeness’ in conflict and its resolution

James Watson Articles

How often do we work with disputes, whether in workplaces, neighbourhoods, or families, in which one party alleges that another has been, or is being, ‘rude’? ‘She spoke to me SO rudely, and in front of the whole office!’, ‘He was rude to my partner, and I’m NOT having it!’, ‘Their kids are just RUDE, and now I know where they get it from!’

A person’s alleged ‘rudeness’ can often be the spark that ignites a rumbling conflict and as dispute resolvers, I think it helps to get a little further inside this important aspect of conflict.

So, what is ‘rude’? Well, the definition varies a lot across context, time, place, and especially culture.

Context: Perceptions of rudeness depend on where you are and who you are with. Would you talk to your family the same way as you would your work colleagues, or would you be as restrained on a boozy night out with close friends as you would be in the works restaurant?

Time: Our definitions of rudeness have changed and will continue to do so. For example, long ago, eye rolling used to mean lust and passion. But since the mid-20th century, the same gesture generally means expressing dismissiveness or contempt. When text and email were becoming popular, writing IN CAPITALS would simply be a means of emphasis, but now tends to mean shouting at someone, and hence something ‘rude’.

Place: Where we choose to have ‘that’ conversation is also significant. At work, addressing another person’s behaviours, or opening a difficult or challenging conversation, would generally be done in private, and not in front of a person’s friends or subordinates. Likewise, having a group conversation that specifically excludes anyone or makes them uncomfortable would generally not be OK.

Culture: When I first began visiting businesses in Japan, I quickly learned the present-giving protocol as something quite different from the British way: keep a gift in your bag (out of sight) in case your host gives you one, wait until the end of the visit before exchanging gifts, always wrap a gift, but subtly (no bows!), and always open a gift in private, avoiding ‘loss of face’. And for me, as someone of Irish culture and heritage, more used to louder and more exuberant conversations where people would tend to talk over the end of one another’s sentences, I learned when coming to the UK that ‘we don’t do that’.

So, as non-judgemental mediators, working across different contexts, times, places and cultures, where does that leave us with regard to rudeness?

I think it is a matter of two factors: what we can reasonably expect to happen in a given setting, and how we experience another’s words and behaviours.

It is hard to have an absolute threshold for ‘rudeness’, a line over which one absolutely must not step. So what can we reasonably expect in our workplaces, families, and neighbourhoods: what would be the generally understood level of politeness and decorum with regard to language, personal habits, being inclusive, showing consideration for others, and respecting personal boundaries? Well, for me personally it is about having an awareness of context, time, place, and culture, then it is about staying within a negotiated norm for mutual respect: avoiding compromising anyone’s dignity, or humiliating or denigrating them in that particular setting. That is what I would expect. Others’ ideas may differ.

With regard to our experiences of others words’ and behaviours, what is important is to have the skills, confidence, and opportunity to let someone know that we have been hurt or compromised by something they have said or done, where they may have deviated from that negotiated norm, and to have the dialogue with them about that. Perhaps our relationship with that person is generally strong enough, or currently healthy enough, to withstand a small offence. Perhaps it is not. We need to let that person know.

And when someone feels quite unable to give voice to their experience of another person as being ‘rude’, this is the time to seek support from someone who can help that conversation to happen: an impartial party with a genuine interest in making a dialogue happen. Not an arbitrator who will re-define the norm or tell us which side of the norm we have now fallen, but a mediator to work on the relationship: the process that happens between two fallible, energetic, normal people.

These fascinating things called relationships often go right but can sometimes go wrong. They can usually tolerate the robust exchanges that need to happen between us, but sometime they cannot. They will often feel polite but may sometimes be experienced as ‘rude’. But one thing is certain, that relationships sometimes need the supportive and enabling re-boot that mediation can provide