Strategies for Understanding and Responding to Perceived Rudeness

Published On: 11 April 2023

Reading time: 5 minutes

We all have things that ‘push our buttons’. One common challenge for many of us is when it feels like an individual we are supporting is being deliberately rude. When the behaviours we see feel personal, it’s easy for us to react to them, rather than respond. Perceived rudeness is something we all can face, although what’s seen as ‘rude’ may vary widely between us, and can look very different depending on the age and needs of the individual concerned. People can appear to be rude without realising it and what one person thinks is rude may differ from another. Sometimes honesty can feel very rude, particularly if it’s about something like our personal appearance.

Rudeness is not always unintentional. Some individuals may say or do things to get a reaction from us. Instead of thinking of this as “attention seeking” we can reframe this as “connection seeking”. It can also become a habitual response, driven by experiences and feelings. It can be hard to remember that this behaviour is still a form of communication if we’re feeling upset, angry, or embarrassed by what’s been said.

Behind the behaviour, an individual may be feeling anxious, angry, or attempting to deflect us away from something else. Whatever the feelings that are driving the behaviour, how we respond to it can help diffuse or further escalate the situation.

What does “being rude” actually mean?

What one person thinks of as rude behaviour might not faze another person. It’s also very much dependent on the setting we work in and the needs of the individuals we support. So, let’s think about what we might consider rude behaviour. 

It could be:

  • Intentionally not listening to someone or acting as if they can’t hear or see them
  • Choosing not to follow instructions, rather than not understanding them or being unable to follow them
  • Swearing and offensive language
  • Spitting
  • Making someone feel uncomfortable by discussing taboo subjects, such as sex, someone’s weight or appearance
  • Turning their back on someone or moving away from them
  • Gestures, such as showing a middle finger
  • Mocking and laughing at someone

We should all be guided by the policies in our settings that will govern whether we need to record or report an incident, and who we should inform about it. A puzzle-solving approach to behaviour often means that seemingly insignificant events can form a bigger picture when we bring them together. We can think about who might need to know what has happened to help support this individual.

Never take behaviour or rudeness personally

We know it’s easy to say, but hard to do in reality when you’re feeling stressed, upset, or angry. Try not to take this as a reflection on you and focus instead on the reasons behind the behaviour you’re seeing.

Sometimes we can be seen as a role rather than a person. Frustrations with systems and organisations can be directed towards us. We also don’t always know what kind of day someone is having. We all have complex emotional lives, with unpredictable ups and downs. Behaviour is a means of communication and while we might prefer to see a different behaviour, it is being driven by feelings and experiences. We can try to be empathetic, even when the behaviours we are seeing frustrate or upset us, so we can seek to understand why this is happening.

Stay calm and composed

The only thing we can fully control in a difficult situation is ourselves and how we respond. Yes, it can be difficult to stay calm and think about what to do next, but making a conscious effort to pause before reacting buys us time to regulate ourselves and choose a response that will help to de-escalate the situation.

Emotions are contagious. A calm approach will usually help to de-escalate the situation. Think about your body language, tone of voice; say less and speak more slowly to help diffuse the conflict.

We are not machines; we have emotions too and they drive our behaviours. A change of face can be particularly useful if you need space away from an individual to regulate yourself. Sometimes, we may need to move away for a few moments, while ensuring the individual is safe, to concentrate on our breathing, have a drink of water, just stop for a few moments until we feel under control again. 

There may need to be a discussion about what has happened and a process to restore relationships, but this is not the time to do it. Our first efforts should be to support the individual’s needs and calm the situation down. 

Practice responses for such situations

We can’t think clearly when we feel distressed, so practising a list of go-to phrases we can use means we can respond almost automatically to the individual we are supporting. They can really help when we are tired, upset, or taken by surprise.

Remember that most of our communication is non-verbal. We need to think about tone of voice and body language to convey that we are calm and ready to support.

We might say:

  • “I can see that something is wrong.”
  • “I am sorry you feel that way.”
  • “I wonder if…”
  • “How can I help?”

“How can I help?” Those four words can completely transform the tone of the exchange and, indeed, the situation. Isn’t that what working with people is all about, after all? Helping them to succeed in life. A positive response can be disarming, even surprising, and encourage an individual to share how they’re feeling so we can help them find a solution.

We can use planned phrases while we self-regulate, but we do need to make sure we really mean them. These should be honest and not just the set phrases we say without actually caring about the response we get.

Discussing “rude” behaviour

When is the right time to talk about an incident? While it will vary considerably for each individual, restorative conversations always need to happen when everyone is feeling calm and able to reflect. We can allow frustration or anger to pass, using positive behavioural supports to meet the needs of the individual. Then we have the opportunity to use the Listening and Learning process to reflect and rebuild relationships.

It’s important we use our professional judgement when deciding what best to do next after an incident. It’s impossible to use a one-size-fits-all approach when we’re trying to meet very different needs. If the individual has unknowingly been rude, it’s up to us to make the decision whether this is something that we need to highlight to them and explain, or whether we need to think about our own reactions and what we may need to do differently next time.

We can reflect on what we want to achieve from discussions. Are we seeking to understand the reasons behind the behaviour? Are we showing and encouraging empathy? Are we helping the individual develop new responses instead of habitual behaviours?

Final thoughts

It’s easy when thinking about the behaviour to focus solely on the individuals we support, and forget about ourselves and our own behaviours. Modelling behaviour is something we can all do all day, every day, not just as a response to distressed behaviours.