How to Tame the Season's Uncivil Liberties

By Valerie Finholm
Hartford Courant
Monday, December 1, 2008

Was your idiot brother-in-law off on another political rant at Thanksgiving?

Did "sweet" grandmother comment on your weight as she handed you a piece of pumpkin pie?

And did someone steal your parking space at the mall?

It seems everyone might need some mannerly advice, especially as Phase 2 of the holiday season approaches. For guidance, we talked to P.M. Forni, author of "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude." The Johns Hopkins University professor of Italian literature is also the author of "Choosing Civility" and founder of the Civility Initiative.

The holidays seem to be rife with rudeness. How come?

Because we are stressed. We have expectations of the season that very often don't pan out. This year at family unions there may be the added stress agent of the economy and the elections.

How do you respond to rude people, especially if they're family members?

The key is to prepare for a situation. Prepare your response. If your uncle says, "Here we have our resident liberal whose candidate won the election," your response might be: "I wonder how you determined how I voted. I don't remember disclosing that with you." Be assertive -- otherwise they will repeat that behavior -- but not aggressive. Handle it with as much detachment as possible.

Do rude people know they're rude?

About 75 percent to 85 percent of Americans think that Americans are rude. But when you ask one American, "Do you think you're rude?" in 99 percent of cases they will say, "No, I'm not rude." Very rarely do we see ourselves as part of the problem.

You write that when rudeness can't be prevented, civility is your best choice. That's hard, especially if someone has just given you a vulgar gesture. How do you keep from responding in kind?

Whenever you are at the wheel, expect the infamous finger may appear at some point. Picture the scene in your mind: There you are, calm and collected, even after the slight. Anticipating and visualizing make you feel in control and prepare you to deal at your best with the real thing.

I was in a store recently where there was a sale on jewelry. A customer was hovering over the sale box at the counter, and when I tried to look into it, she swatted me away with her hand. I was stunned. What could I have said?

"Ma'am, if I inadvertently got too close, you could have told me instead of pushing me back." That is being assertive, not aggressive.

And what should I say to the guy who steals my parking space?

"I had been waiting for that spot with my turn signal on for quite some time. I would appreciate it if you let me have it." If the driver responds dismissively or aggressively, just say, "I am sorry you are not choosing to do the right thing. I just hope you think about it so the next time you will," and walk away.

Are parents culpable for failing to teach children manners?

As a society, we have been very successful over the last two generations in instilling self-esteem in our children. We have not been as successful in instilling self-restraint.

It's so hard not to respond to rude people rudely.

If you believe in civility, you don't respond to rudeness with rudeness. Accept that it has happened just like you accept that it's Monday and it's raining. It's part of life.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company