Weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting. There were several people sitting at the table with me. As someone near the front of the room began speaking, more than half of the people at my table began speaking as well. They were loud enough to be distracting to me and everyone around them.
It was rude.
One of the people sitting next to me turned around and flashed this disrespectful mob a look that was meant to say, "Shut the hell up."
The mob continued to talk.
She turned and flashed a similarly dirty look.
The mob continued to talk.
She tried again. No response. This went on for some time, until finally she leaned close to me and said, "Can you believe these people?"
Here is what I explained to her:
There are only two ways to handle this kind of situation, and flashing them dirty looks is not one of them.
In fact, a dirty look is never a good solution. No one in the history of the planet has ever responded favorably to a dirty look.
Give someone a dirty look, and you are instantly transformed into the bad guy, regardless of what the target of your dirty look may be doing, because dirty looks are passive aggressive - which is never good - easily ignored, and often dismissed.
They also make you look ridiculous.
You have two choices in a situation like the one confronting my friend and me:
1. You can ask the disrespectful mob to be quiet in a direct and polite manner, which will shame them into silence and achieve the desired goal. And regardless of how they may feel about your request, there is nothing that they can complain about, since you were both direct and correct.
2. Even better, I explained, do what I am doing. Move your chair (and therefore your body) a foot or two away from the unruly mob. Create physical distance between yourself and them. Then become hyper-focused on the speaker. Establish eye contact. Nod. Smile. Enhance the contrast between yourself and the people acting rudely, and the speaker will notice it and love you for it. You will be perceived as a serious-minded, highly attentive, generous listener."
I do this all the time. When I see people being rude or disrespectful in almost any context, I recognize it as an opportunity to present myself as the exact opposite of their unruly behavior with very little effort. Their rudeness is a contrasting example that I can use to win the hearts and minds of the people around me.
It's funny how so many people don't realize that we are in a constant state of warfare. We are all in an ongoing, ever-present battle for a set of finite resources. These resources vary in import and value, but they are precious nonetheless. They include money, fame, power, attention, affection, admiration, privilege, time, or in this case, a positive perception in the hearts and minds of others.
The people who understand that a war is constantly raging around them are able to take advantage of situations like this. They are able to turn a petty annoyance like disrespectful table mates into an asset that can be exploited.
This may sound cynical, but it's also true.
And it works. A little while later, the person running the meeting singled me out in front of everyone as a person who had been attentive and engaged throughout the entire meeting. She complimented me for my participation and engagement, when in truth, there were many, many moments in the meeting when I had mentally checked out. Turned to something more interesting to me. Disengaged completely from the learning. In fact, I was probably the least engaged person at my table.
But I took advantage of a situation (and others like it throughout the day) to convince the speaker that I was on her side, and in the process, was publicly acknowledged as a person of value.