Defending against offense

From drunken diners in the next booth to movie theater texters, here’s how to tactfully handle irritating situations

Special to The TribuneMay 25, 2012 

A woman recently spoke to me about a disconcerting incident in a restaurant. She and her young children were dining in a pizza parlor. A nearby group of tipsy 20-somethings was talking loudly and using excessive profanity. “They were saying f ing this and f---ing that. Iwouldn’t take my kids to an R-rated movie. I didn’t want them exposed to those words.”

When we are in public venues, such as on sidewalks, in camping sites, in doctors’ offices or at airports, we expect to be free of offensive intrusions.

We don’t want to hear others’ intimate cellphone conversations or inhale the fumes from their cigarettes. We don’t like stepping over bags of unclaimed dog poop. We don’t want to see the glow from a texter’s smartphone during a movie.

Of course, the definition of offensive can vary widely from person to person. Such factors as age, political affiliation and religious beliefs influence how we think and respond.

Current standards change. A gay couple doting over their adopted toddler is far less likely to raise eyebrows than it was a generation ago. A mother discreetly breastfeeding her baby on a park bench is a nonissue in most circles.

And some actions that don’t normally pass muster are more than acceptable at the right place and time. (Think smoking a joint at a Willie Nelson concert.)

Still, certain behaviors are considered unacceptable regardless of the milieu. They tend to make folks uncomfortable, or they infringe on their personal space.

Our mothers used to tell us, “Nice people don’t do that.”

That advice still rings true. If you wouldn’t do it in front of your new girlfriend’s parents, you shouldn’t do it in public, either.

The problem lies in informing total strangers that you feel they’ve crossed the line of decency. You’re pitting your norms against theirs.

Some may appreciate your feedback, not realizing they’d overstepped. Others may resent your intrusion or completely disagree. Still others may respond with hostility.

Whatever the scenario, it’s a sticky wicket that requires tact and civility to succeed.

TIPS FOR COPING WITH INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR

How best to handle another’s inappropriate actions? Try these strategies:

• Ignore them. Everybody commits a social faux pas now and again. You don’t want to assume the role of communal police. Sure, you may disagree with your brother-in-law’s racist jokes. But you’re not going to change him and you don’t want to ruin family gatherings. Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut and let the misbehavior run its course.

• Politely mention your concerns. It’s always best to be cordial when pointing out another’s misdeeds; for example, “Could you please turn your music down? My baby is trying to nap.” Often a gentle touch will do the trick. Some folks honestly don’t know they’re being irksome. They’re more than happy to step back into line.

• Use your discretion. Assess the situation. You may quickly determine that a polite reminder won’t be nearly enough. In fact, your interference may make things worse or put you in danger. If that’s the case, keep your mouth shut. There’s no use getting involved if it won’t help.

• Elicit help from authorities. Call the sheriff. Notify mall security. Tell the manager of the restaurant. Do whatever it takes to get the situation under control. Don’t attempt to do it on your own.

• Keep your temper. Going ballistic fans the fire and invites confrontation from the offenders. It also drags you into the inappropriate muck alongside them. Stay calm. Do what you can to rectify things. If you can’t do anything without control, then don’t.

• Leave the area. If all else fails, go away. You can’t change what those social oafs are doing. You can decide how you’ll act. Rise above their boorish antics and quietly exit the scene.

• Tune it out. Sometimes you’re trapped. You’re on a long flight seated next to a man with horrible B.O. Rather than getting agitated, close your eyes and calm your mind. Listen to soothing music. Relax your shoulders and your hands. This isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Smile. Keep it in perspective. Know that it will end.

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