Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Speaking Up to a Stranger

Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently had a run in with another mom while I was dropping my daughter off at dance class. She honked at me while I was walking my daughter to the dance school and motioned for me to get out of the way. I am not big on confrontations, but with my adrenalin pumping, I asked why she honked at me.

She said I was walking in the middle of the road, but I was actually walking through the spot where she wanted to park because it was the only way to the dance studio. She could have waited two seconds and I would have been out of her way. We continued this argument as we walked into the dance studio. Luckily, she went upstairs and we went downstairs, and the confrontation did not escalate.

How should I respond to a stranger’s rude and impatient behavior? Should I forgive and forget?

Faint of Heart

Dear Faint,

Allow me to start with a story. Thirty years ago, I set out on a line of research that has informed my writing throughout my career and just might shed light on your situation. When I first started studying human interactions, I was particularly curious about how people handle everyday interactions of little consequence. Were typical citizens skilled at dealing with minor social infractions (such as inappropriate honking)? When others annoyed or inconvenienced them, would they blow up? Would they clam up? Exactly how would they respond?

To observe real people in action, I asked a group of graduate students to cut in line at movie theaters. Since we were in a rather sleepy mountain community, we hypothesized people would be bothered by line cutters, but not enough to actually say anything. And we were correct. Of the fifty lines we cut, nobody said a word. Not one living soul.

We next examined what would happen if we demonstrated how to speak to a line cutter. To do so, we cut lines again, but this time, we cut in front of a research associate who was pretending to wait in line. The research associate would respond to the line cutter in one of two ways. Either he abruptly and harshly told the person to get to the end of the line or he politely said, “I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for half an hour.” In both cases, our line cutter apologized and moved to the end of the line.

We then waited a few minutes and cut in front of the person who was standing just behind our research associate who spoke up. Would the subjects take their cue from the person who said something? Would they be harsh when exposed to a harsh model or polite after seeing a polite example?

Of those who observed someone behave rudely, not one said a word. Apparently, even though the abrupt technique worked—the line-cutter did go to the end of the line—the observer didn’t want to be rude and remained quiet. Of those who observed the polite confrontation (“I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware . . .”) 85 percent of the observers said the exact same thing when one of our colleagues cut in front of them.

Demonstrating a simple, polite, and apparently effective script provided observers with the motive to step up to a problem they normally would have avoided. Individuals who would normally have said nothing, once exposed to a positive example now spoke their minds.

And now to your question. Should you, a real person, confront another real (and moderately rude) person—say, the woman who honked and then proceeded to argue with you? Or should you ignore a stranger’s rude behavior?

The original fifty subjects we studied—the ones who weren’t exposed to a positive model and didn’t say a word—told us that they believed it was better to stay quiet. They figured it wasn’t worth the risk to speak their mind. Sure, the person might apologize and go to the end of the line—saving our subjects maybe thirty seconds to a minute—but what if the cutter became upset, caused a scene, or maybe even became violent? The odds of the interaction turning into a fight were low, but carried potentially disastrous consequences, whereas the likelihood of having to wait a half-minute longer was a sure thing, but of minimal impact.

So, how should you (a person skilled at crucial conversations) respond to the horn honker? You don’t know the other person, so you aren’t going to gain much if you do say something. If you’re really good at dealing with the situation, perhaps the other person will apologize. Maybe she will think twice about honking at another person and you’ll save others some grief. Then again, maybe she’ll punch you in the nose.

In either case, my recommendation is not to forgive and forget, but to do even better. Assume the best of others. The person honking at you has been moderately miffed. Maybe they have cause. Maybe they’re not upset at all but are just letting you know they’re waiting (even though the sound of a horn feels more like an assault than a gentle “Hi there!”). And besides, who knows what mood they’re in or what events may have transpired in their life that day to cause them to behave impatiently.

I suggest you let it go. Avoid the risk, dodge the debate, and duck the anguish of thinking the worst of others and working yourself into a frenzy. You won’t need to forgive and forget if you assume the best of others, move along, and enjoy peace in the moment.

Now, let me be clear. When the person you’re dealing with annoys you over and over again until you think you’ll explode, well, this is another matter. This is now a high-stakes conversation—it’s driving you nuts and it won’t go away until you say something. This is often the case with coworkers, neighbors, and family members who won’t be going away like the honking stranger. Under these circumstances, you need to hold a crucial conversation and you’ll want to bring your best crucial conversations skills into play.

But when dealing with absolute strangers, minor or even questionable infractions, and small consequences, think good thoughts, smile politely, and move along.

I know, there’s a chance that by not speaking your mind you won’t win. In fact, you might be treated slightly unfairly, justice won’t be served, the broader philosophical questions of right and wrong won’t be answered, and you may even be played the fool. All of this is true. But despite these facts, I’m holding my ground. I myself am tired of becoming angry over symbolic rather than substantive issues. I’m tired of having absolute strangers push my buttons. Instead, I’ve decided to become the master of my own ship and guide it through more peaceful waters.

But that’s just me.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

42 thoughts on “Speaking Up to a Stranger”

  1. Shirley LaVergne

    I love this guy!

  2. Shirley LaVergne

    You need a SHARE button on your page!

  3. Dr. Dan

    Great advice. Dale Carnegie said, “the only way to get the best of an argument, is to avoid it.”

  4. Warren Miller

    I disagree with your telling the mother to not say anything. You let driver know its ok to be rude, the daughter sees her mother allow bad manners happen, and the mother not taking a stand.

    Your personality may be to let things slide, others have to learn to stand for right.

  5. Catherine Hoang

    I love what he wrote… ” I’ve decided to be the master of my own ship and guide it through more peaceful waters.”

  6. grizzly bear mom

    I ride the train and DC subway daily, or travel on MASH transit. One time I sat on the train, plopped my canvas brief case on muy lap and the woman sitting next to me exclaimed “You hit me!” Well, yes as consequence of “beating” myself with my briefcase I did “hit” her with it. I couldn’t think of anything to say so I didn’t say anything. Another time I inserted my ticket into the machine to make the doors open for me to pass. A woman said not too nicely “I guess you didn’t see me standing here”, meaning I had stepped in front of her. I replied “I am blind in my left eye. My “stepping in front of you” wasted 30 seconds of your time. How much more of your time did this conversation waste?” waited for a response, and walked away. Some people are looking to be offended. The audacity of your mere existance will supply their need. They are unreasonable, why waste your time on them?

    1. Mike Mounier

      > Some people are looking to be offended. The audacity
      > of your mere existance will supply their need.

      Very, very, VERY well put. Damn, how I wish I’d said that. I really wish I’d said that ; it was VERY well put. Did I mention how I wish I’d said it ? And how well put it was ?

  7. 'Gene Visco

    Proposed “solution” reminds me of an observation I make when teaching the AARP Safe Driving Class to older folks (teaching them how to adjust to aging to reduce the chances of having accidents). One of the strategies is called the “3-second following rule”, to allow for a safe distance between the car being driven and the car in frount. Often, if enough open space is left, other cars will cut in front of the senior’s car. My advice: so what! Are we in that much of a hurry that a few seconds delay makes an important difference?

  8. Melanie Campbell

    I love this answer! De-escalating an unnecessary and irrelevant confrontation before it ever happens, and doing it by believing in the greater good, and your own power, is so positive and empowering! I am a firm believer in creating your own energy environment – positivity breeds positivity. Not everyone will be working towards the same energy goal, but that doesn’t mean their agenda has to take precedence over your own. And this attitude doesn’t mean “be a victim” either – just allows you to let the small things wash away, like water off of a duck’s back. Thanks for your thoughtful insights – I love getting this newsletter!

  9. firebelly

    I have a daughter who has a hard time speaking up for herself in most circumstances and I really think Kerry’s research project has some clues that might help her. She doesn’t confront because she doesn’t know how to do so politely. I recently read Cheryl Richardson’s book “Extreme Self-Care” and she takes you through an exercise of how to politely say “no” to requests. She points out that often we agree to do things for other people because we don’t know how to say “no” politely.

    Grizzly bear mom – sounds like you justify your rudeness by labelling other people as unreasonable.

  10. Josh

    This is advice from a wimp. Just lay down, bury your head, pretend it doesn’t happen.
    If someone honks at you because your daughter is walking too slowly you get loud and stand your ground. Embarrassment is still a pretty powerful motivator. Let the honker know that it is not OK to be entitled in this world. That other mom will think twice about honking at a child next time.

  11. Dave

    Good article and, as always, good advice. Another approach is to wave and smile at the honker, then go about your business, being mindful to clear the area promptly. The honker’s first reaction might be more anger, but there might be a delayed response of some combination of sheepishness, relief, and/or insight. Yet another approach is to ask why the honking and then say, “thank you” and go on your way. No matter what, feeding the troll only gives him or her more energy and you less.

  12. Marilyn

    Bravo! Our ships may pass in those peaceful waters. : )

  13. Greg Moore

    @Warren Miller

    I absolutely agree Mr. Miller. As a parent, it is our responsibility to teach our children the difference between right and wrong. If your child doesn’t see you respond to a person who is rude, what kind of message are you sending your child? Rude behavior is ok? Show your child that you will not tolerate abuse.

  14. Christine

    The advice you give is by far the right advice but I am still torn. Years ago when I worked in the restaurant service industry, I started in a very high end restaurant.The Maitre D was mentoring me and explained that not everyone knows what to do you with all the cutlery and glasses on the table and it is our job to help guide them (without saying educate them) on the proper etiquette. My approach was always to be helpful and respectful and I applied this when bartending my way through college.People didn’t always know what was appropriate behaviour and what was not.I think that if you approach it as: “I’m sorry I didn’t realize I was blocking the road but with my child, it was the easiest path to take” , you are heard, you are polite and respectful but you also do not let bad behaviour go unnoticed.
    If we continuously let people ‘get away’ with bad behavior, it will become the norm at some point and we are already privy to a LOT of bad behavior.Frankly, I’m tired of people’s bad manners, effrontery, and disrespect.I see this as an opportunity to talk to someone and let them know how they are perceived. If they still choose to blow a fuse, then you can walk away.At least you didn’t let them get away with it. What they choose to do with that information belongs to them.

  15. grizzly bear mom

    Firebelly, I pondered your comment before responding. On the train we normally bump into people, step on feet, and apologize, and say that’s metro manners, because we know we can’t help it for the train’s sway. I’ve also been punched in the face by accident to the point that I held an icepack to it. It was an ACCIDENT so I know no one intended to disrespect or hurt me. On the other hand when I receive even an accidental jab to my breast, a very tender part my body that I presume 100% of women and 99% of men can recognize even by elbow touch, without apology I am offended. What I documented earlier was racists looking to be offended.

  16. Linda Freeman

    I agree wholeheartedly with Kerry about letting small or petty annoyances go—life has enough instances that do require us to take a stand, hopefully in a respectful manner. I often have wondered about the motivations of people that exhibit impatient, rude, or aggressive behavior: are they just having a ‘bad’ day? Or is something more ominous going on: do they feel powerless in most of their life situations, so acting out gives them an outlet for being what they perceive as ‘powerful’? I have observed a dearly loved family member behave disrespectfully and impatiently to store clerks, waitresses, other drivers, etc. It is very hurtful just to watch this behavior, and yet I know that in her personal family life she is verbally abused and rarely if ever given affection or affirmation. My hope is that the clerk, waitress or driver can somehow give my family member the benefit of the doubt and focus on the “peaceful waters” as Kerry suggests.

  17. Steve W

    I just had to chime in with a pet peeve! I found out a couple of years ago that my suspicions have been verified by scientific evidence. A team of researchers measured how long it takes people from the time they arrive at their car after shopping until they pull out of the parking space. First of all, they found that women take longer. They seemed to feel that this is related to certain routines and woman with a purse and items they are carrying might go through versus a male.

    But the shocking revelation was that women on average took even longer to pull out of the parking space if there was somebody waiting behind them to take their space.

    I will leave that up to you as to how to interpret it. But I most definitely have noticed that I can wait an eternity for a woman to leave a parking space. But I did not honk my horn!

  18. Mary R

    I like this response because, after all, who needs the adrenaline rush from responding in anger? Most people don’t want to be miserable but we all have our moments. We don’t need to take on the “moments” of others. I would say to my child something like, “Well, I guess she is having a bad day. (and, being Canadian, I’d end it with…) eh?”

  19. slccom

    @grizzly bear mom

    I’m sorry that you are blind in your left eye and didn’t see the other person. Nevertheless, you did cut in front of her, which means you were in the wrong. What is wrong with just saying, “I’m blind in my left eye and I didn’t see you. I didn’t mean to cut in front of you, and I’m sorry.”

    Instead, you used the incident to attack a woman who had no way to know that you are blind in your left eye and spoke up assertively.

  20. Becky

    When someone would honk at my dad while he was driving, he’d slow down, look at them with a big smile and wave, pretending that they were honking to say hi. Treating them like old friends made him happier about the situation. I could see that working in the walking-through-the-parking-space situation too. It probably wouldn’t cause them to actually punch you out or damage your car. It might make them even more annoyed, or it might make them laugh, or they might start to wonder whether they actually do know you from somewhere. Either way, I’d recommend not confronting them and letting it go.

  21. Emma

    When I either don’t speak up or speak up aggressively in such a situation, then I ruminate on it for hours later. An incident like this can ruin my day. Often my anger is combined with a bit of guilt – guilt that actually I did get in that person’s way, but I’m trying to feel better about myself by being angry about her.

    However, when I deal with it well, I feel good about a bad situation – and can “move on” more easily in my own mind and forgive her – and myself – for the situation.

    I’ve found it helpful to remind myself (in my own head!) at these situations that “I’m the type of person who handles this with grace”. Sometimes I’ve done well. Once someone told me off in the park for letting my 5-year-old cycle too far ahead of me. I responded with a smile and “Thank you for your concern for my child”. Another occasion someone shouted at me on the bus to “just make that baby shut up”, and I responded with “I’m sorry he’s unsettled, can anyone offer up their seat to me so I can comfort him?” It’s amazing how saying something that assumes the other person is right diffuses it (and if I secretly believe I was right all along, I can smile at the wonderful way I dealt with that situation despite being right and feel all morally smug!).

    Thank you for your comments on the line cutters (what we in the UK – where queue behaviour is so critical, call queue jumpers). That’s a wonderful story!

  22. Louise Macaulay

    I had one of these situations occur yesterday at a boot camp class. I am relatively new to the group and know that it’s best to arrive about 15 minutes early to get set up. I don’t like being close to the front of the class so I asked the person behind the only empty spot if he would change places with me for that reason. This person is my neighbor and I know him well. The lady next to him said “That’s why we get here early” and another lady said “No one’s going to be watching you anyway.” I really didn’t know how to respond–I was 15 minutes early–my friend, the only one really impacted,agreed to change places. While most people in this group have been very friendly and helpful, a few act put out with new comers. When I go to class today, I plan to find a spot on the other side of the room from these two–the friendly side!

  23. Kimberly Steele

    Faint of heart did a great job in speaking up and sincerely asking “why did you honk”. There was nothing wrong with that. She also taught her daughter a good lesson. Being in the habit of always backing down can invite bullies to engage and bullying is a big problem in our schools right now. Bullies prey on those who don’t stand up for themselves.

    Now with that said – I do believe there are good and bad ways to handle situations with strangers because you just don’t know what will happen. I think we all make too many assumptions and that can lead to negative outcomes. Asking questions (if there is opportunity to do so) is a good way to start because one can begin to understand the situation and maybe get a new perspective.

    Keeping anger out of the situation is another good way to handle it. Calmly and authentically say, “I didn’t care for that” or “why did you do that and can you please refrain” can be good to stand up for yourself without being confrontational.

    I respectfully disagree with ‘letting it go’ the majority of the time. In most situations (like in Faint of Heart’s case) one should stand up and ask “Why?”.

  24. Cheryl

    I respectfully disagree as well. Without being mean or rude (then you’re as bad as they are) something needs to be said or the continuous “I’m the only person who matters in the world/rude” decline that we’re currently in will continue at the current rapid pace because everyone is afraid to speak up.

  25. Elizabeth

    OK to ignore, except when someone makes a bullying/racist/sexist/homophobic comment. Research says by not speaking up, you are an accessory and allow/encourage the behavior to continue. So we have to have the courage for this particular crucial conversation. The $800K question, of course, is knowing how to respond in a sensitive, non-confrontational way that tells the person “what you said is not OK”.

  26. Patty

    I thought the advice was right on. In a world where everyone is stressed out and too busy to see your point of view, its better for your own health to just take a deep breath and least in these low value, no win situations. ‘Master of my own ship’ – i like the sound of that. Happy sailing!

  27. Cheryl Again

    “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” -Edmund Burke (modern language paraphrase).
    Although it is a stretch to call minor instances of inconsideration “evil”, the basic tenet still applies. One may “mind one’s own business” and “master one’s own ship” but what does that do for the greater good?

  28. Pam Wood

    “Allow me to start with a story.” Some of my favorite words when I see Kerry is authoring another article!

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  30. Mark

    Dear Kerry – Please listen to this short story and help if you can. I appreciate your response – it’s of course very wise but I’m in a two day “tears of rage” dilemma here. I was at an airshow with my 8 year old boy, (I’m the dad) I’ve never been in a street fight and am NOT the type to “clock someone”. At the end of the Star Spangled Banner which they played to a skydiver, a guy yells at me from behind, “Hey! Are you and American?” I said yes, with adrenaline starting to pump, and he says this infront of my 8 year old: Well you’re a jerk for not taking off your hat!”! Trying to reason, I said that I had forgotten to, (true – I haven’t listened through the Star Spangled Banner in public in 30 years), but he would have none of it. He just responded again with “you’re not an American” etc. It RUINED MY DAY and even 5 hours later I still had private, tears of rage and wanted to track the guy down and confront him…but my boy was there and didn’t need to see dad acting like a psychopath! Would you recommend again – forgiving and forgetting even in this case? Thank you – Mark Daniels

    1. Just Commenting

      Incidents like this are difficult to hear about. I just want to say, that it seems those who consider themselves to be so “American”, can be the least so in their tone and behavior. It was not even necessary to bring up and in the effort to “prove a point”, he became a lesser being, though ones like this appear to have the belief that they are superior.

      It’s humiliating and cannot blame how the poster felt. (I know this was some time ago, but just to address).

  31. editor

    @Mark If you’d like to be considered for our weekly Q&A column, please submit your question here:

  32. Mark

    Thank you editor – sending now!

    1. Terry

      Hey Mark, I just read your comment and can completely understand how you feel. That person was unnecessarily rude and when those words are said in front of both other people and your son that’s on an even higher level of incivility.

      I think a kind assertiveness would have been a good reaction. Such as “I apologize I forgot to remove my cap; however my Americanness is my own concern so please stop hollering this way.” I think it’s important to recognize his concern but also politely reject him from commenting anymore. It sounds like this guy would likely also try to get the last word, but I’d imagine you should just look back make eye contact in a firm but NOT rude way to assert yourself.

  33. Gopal

    Does walking away from a confrontation carry serious consequences as well?

    Nagging self-doubt in the back of your head that won’t go away? Physical symptoms of anxiety and stress? Short-temperedness that blurts out unexpectedly or perhaps involuntarily towards innocent people?

    It seems like pretending that these types of consequences won’t happen to you after you walk away from a confrontation is just begging for them to happen.

  34. ellagamberi

    “In either case, my recommendation is not to forgive and forget, but to do even better. Assume the best of others. The person honking at you has been moderately miffed. Maybe they have cause. Maybe they’re not upset at all but are just letting you know they’re waiting (even though the sound of a horn feels more like an assault than a gentle “Hi there!”). And besides, who knows what mood they’re in or what events may have transpired in their life that day to cause them to behave impatiently”

    A sane and normal person assumes that random, unprovoked hostility is equal to bad behaviour and is the fault of the author of that hostility.. It is therefore illogical and unreasonable to ask the victim of that hostility to assume best intentions.

  35. Nancy

    Thank you for this, that last paragraph especially.

  36. Amber T

    This article has helpful. I continue to experience rude behavior in public from strangers. It’s just bad luck I have. Whether someone bumps into me on purpose, or doesn’t cover their cough. When I’m out with my young children, I must have quick attitude adjustments.

  37. Just Commenting

    I came looking for a place to post, since I had my own experience that was disturbing.

    When ready to check out at the market, I looked ahead to see what lanes were available, seeing an express lane that had a limit of 15 items. I counted mine to be 11. My friend was with me and went thru first with his couple items. While my purchases were being scanned, I noticed the customer behind me with a few items. I ran my store card through and was preparing to pay, while the checker packed my bags. She had missed an added discount from a rain-check, which she then took care of and handed me some change.

    Sometime during the transaction, I could tell the customer behind me was becoming noticeably antsy, but I did not say anything and was almost done. (It has made me uncomfortable if ever in these lanes, because It seems those with fewer items believe the lane is “just for them” and can appear resentful). I normally don’t use that lane, usually purchasing more than that and have at times had customers go ahead of me, if at the right moment.

    As we concluded and my friend and I got to my car on the side of the building, I suddenly heard a car pulling around behind me, then hearing all sorts of verbal insults spewing from this guy who had been behind me. I was shocked.. I cannot repeat all he was shouting, but was clearly offended that I had “used the Express lane”. ? What he did not realize was there being a 15 item limit and my having less than that, but maybe it wouldn’t have mattered to him, since he was having to wait – maybe 4-5 minutes.

    He circled around again, one insult being an “Effin-moron.. it’s called the express lane, stupid a_____! ” And that I was “the type of person who makes things difficut for everyone in the world!” (Oh, yeah… that’s me). Anyway, he was so hostile that I was glad my male friend was with me.. who knows if he would have otherwise approached me. I just finished and set my cart aside, ignoring him. It did affect me to be addressed in this way and something I am unaccustomed to. This has never occurred in my life and I think most people having public dealings are pleasant, including me. What I cannot believe is how someone can react so severely to something so minor. (Too bad he had not entered the lane before me!)

    Now I feel I will avoid the express lane due to this, even if having 7 items, because if more than one or two.. you never know. Just to say, it seems there are two types of shoppers – those who are buying for meal planning and those who run in for “flowers and wine” for example. Even when they are in unlimited checkout lanes, those with few items appear so disgusted at other shoppers and I will feel apologetic, even if I don’t need to be. (I recall a guy I knew some years ago who expressed his disdain at those writing checks, yet that is how many paid then, explaining that I did too and that women usually make a bigger shopping trip).

    I don’t know, but I am a pretty open and patient person and know we all have to wait at times, waving others ahead in traffic, being courteous — but I suppose some didn’t get the memo.

    1. Yoon

      I just read your story and can’t believe how crazy and irrational some people are in this world. The question is what do we do about it? What’s the best way to handle it? I guess if there is a definite answer a world peace would actually exist.

      I too had an incident today that made me think about it over and over again in my head.

      I was heading to my car in a mall parking lot and decided to push a stroller in between two cars feeling confident I can pass through without bumping into anything. As I was passing all of sudden I heard a lady saying “don’t f**** hit my car!” She was sitting inside the car watching my every move. Of course that lady bothered me but I focused on passing through that narrow path And didn’t touch any cars. All of sudden the lady came out of her car and started yelling. “You could’ve scratched my expensive car!!!” At that time my mom and I were changing my sons diaper in the back of a mini van. We were shocked. My mom got upset and yelled back “anyways we didn’t touch your car!” Then the lady yelled “you guys have a s***ty car that’s why you don’t care…you are rude!” My mom fired back then decided to turn away and the lady watched us drive off making sure we don’t do anything to her car.
      Mom asked me why I didn’t confront the lady with her. It’s not that I don’t know how I just didn’t want to escalate things especially when we are with a baby. But at the same time I didn’t want my mom to think I was a wimp.

      So what’s the right thing to do in this situation? How do I teach my child what to do in those situations? Is silence the only key to all run ins? Why are people so mean and superficial in this world? Might add racist?

  38. Jeanette Topar

    This is truly one of the most helpful advice articles I’ve ever read in my life. Thank you!

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