Today, the name “Karen” has rapidly become the catch-all term for unhinged, incredibly rude people. The person who calls the manager on a waiter for messing up an order. The person who screams at a person in the street for menial and unimportant.
And while this terrible behavior may well be on the rise—documented in its ubiquity through smart phones—the reality is that rude people have always been with us.
In Lives of the Stoics, we mentioned the infamous Nero—often referred to as the worst of the Roman Emperors in antiquity. By the end of Nero’s reign, he had ordered the death of his mother, murdered his wife, according to some accounts his second wife as well, and even one of the Stoic pillars, Seneca. Nero was the embodiment of evil. Now, the people we come across on a daily basis may not reach Nero’s level of evil, but they are little tyrants themselves, seeking to control the uncontrollable and bend the world to their own solipsistic worldview.
Is a world without these people possible? Perhaps. Likely? Not in our lifetimes. So the question is…how do we deal with them without compromising our character? Below, we answer that question with 5 Stoic tips for dealing with the worst kind of people.
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Give People The Benefit of the Doubt
“I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius, who theoretically had the power to ban rude people from his presence, kicked off each day instead by preparing for them, reminding himself that his fellow humans were often selfish, rude and annoying. The point was to not let it catch him by surprise, so he would be indignant and shocked by it.
But there’s another part of the exercise—spending a few seconds trying to understand and sympathize with the people who behave this way. As David Foster Wallace would say in his famous “This Is Water” speech, we want to avoid the immediate and unconscious impulse to take people’s rudeness personally. We want to avoid the assumption that they are trying to hurt us, that they mean to act so selfishly.
Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Think of that when you’re stuck in the checkout line today, or when you’re caught in traffic, or when someone does something that really pisses you off that makes you think, “What’s wrong with this person?” You have no idea what their reality is, you have no idea what they’ve been through—and how much more empathetic and patient might you be if you did. Or better, if you gave them every benefit of the doubt.
This is the Best Revenge
“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.” — Marcus Aurelius
We do not want to give you the impression here that a Stoic merely accepts everything in life. The Stoics were not passive weaklings. They just knew how absurd the need to “get even” is. “Best to take the opposite course,” Seneca wrote. “Would anyone think it normal to return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog?” When someone hurts us or pisses us off, that’s exactly what we do.
That’s why when someone insulted Cato, he pretended not to hear it. When someone said something offensive to Epictetus, he told himself that if he got upset, he was as much to blame as they were. He also joked that if they really knew him, they’d be even more critical. When someone attacked Marcus Aurelius’s character, he reminded himself, “the best revenge is not to be like that.”
And that’s what you must remind yourself also. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t have to turn things into bigger things. You don’t have to be like that.
Step Outside of Yourself
“Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.” — Marcus Aurelius
We’ve all fallen victim to “the heat of the moment.” Someone cuts us off on the freeway, or speaks to us rudely, or is simply unpleasant to be around. In these moments, we become so irritated and so emotional that it’s hard to recognize ourselves in the mirror. We become someone else entirely—consumed with the belief that we’ve been wronged in some way. In these situations, it’s helpful to zoom out, to “take the view from above,” as Marcus Aurelius wrote.
The Stoic principle of Sympatheia is our best friend in dealing with unpleasant people. It’s the idea of seeing the bigger picture. In the heat of the moment, when faced with a rude person, there’s this compulsion to get even or to put someone in their place. But this isn’t us talking, it’s our inflated sense of self-importance. And it’s not worth damaging our character.
Strive to be Indifferent
“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.” — Marcus Aurelius
Emotions are powerful. There is a reason why most of us tend to give into them. But the price we pay for stooping down to another person’s level is far greater than if we learn to control ourselves. We always talk about control in Stoicism, and it is almost always in relation to controlling ourselves rather than other people.
In Lives of the Stoics, we told the origin story of Zeno—the founder of the great philosophy we practice today. Zeno began his study of philosophy as a young man, under the famous Cynic Crates. The story goes that after Zeno endured a nearly fatal shipwreck, he wandered through the city of Athens with a great deal of anxiety. He was constantly worried about what others thought of him, and Crates knew just how to fix that. One day, Crates asked Zeno to carry a clay pot full of lentil soup through the busy crowds in the potters district. Zeno was worried about standing out and tried to conceal the pot underneath his cloak. Crates took notice, and promptly walked up to Zeno, smashed the pot of soup with his staff, and watched as it splattered all of Zeno’s cloak and undergarments. “Courage, my little Phoenician” said Crates, “It’s only a little soup.”
Seneca would say that it’s obviously better to be rich than poor, tall than short, but the Stoic was indifferent when fate actually dealt out its hand on the matter. Because the Stoic was strong enough to make good of whatever is thrown their way. This has to be top of mind whenever we deal with people. Expectations that people will always treat us with respect will inevitably lead to disappointment. Instead, we ought to prepare ourselves for reality. We should choose each day, as Marcus once said, to be unharmed.
So long as we remain indifferent to what others say, we can’t be.
Accept That Rude People Are Inescapable
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” — Marcus Aurelius
It’s remarkable to think that even as Emperor, Marcus dealt with rude and arrogant people. It illustrates the most important point of all. That rude people have always existed, and they are everywhere.
So you have to ask yourself, Marcus wrote, Is a world without shameless or stupid or mean or insensitive people possible? No. Of course not. “Then don’t ask the impossible,” he says. “There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole world class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.”
The bottom line is this: we have to accept that there will always be unpleasant people. We have to take the high road and respond to rudeness with indifference and empathy.
How hurt must someone be, to inflict rudeness on another?
How insecure are they, to belittle or insult someone whom they do not know?
This is the mindset we must adopt. Anything else—getting even, getting angry, or getting physical— it only makes the world a worse place. As Stoics, we’re charged with doing the opposite.
What it comes down to is remembering that you have a choice.
“Every event has two handles,” Epictetus said, “one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.”
So know that you know there are always two handles, which one will you choose to grab?
P.S. If rude people consistently cause you to lose your temper, the Stoics have some of the smartest and most applicable insights about getting your anger contained. That’s why we created Taming Your Temper: The 10-Day Stoic Guide to Controlling Anger. 10 days of tried and tested strategies, exercises, video lessons, and bonus tools based on Stoic philosophy and aimed at helping you deal with your anger in a constructive manner. Learn more here!