Etiquetteer’s reader survey last spring yielded a few queries about how to handle cluelessness:
How should I deal with a boring talker?
How best to respond to others' rudeness and/or cluelessness?
When, and how, and if, can one reply to rude behavior on social media? I'm thinking less of angry arguments, and more about proclamations (made by closer friends and family) of taste that insult those that do not share it. My preferred mode is silence, but not addressing it also makes me incredibly stressed and sometimes sad.
Allow Etiquetteer to respond to all these queries as one:
Rumors to the contrary, there was never a Golden Age of Courtesy when everyone behaved with Perfect Propriety. The clueless have always been with us, but excluding them used to be easier (at least in theory). Certainly Victorian-era etiquette books were full of circumstances in which it was appropriate to “cut” someone, to exclude them from your circle, society, even your notice. The 21st century focuses more on inclusivity than exclusivity, but that’s still an uneasy place to be when people aren't aware of the impact their behavior has on others. (Now, if they are aware of how they’re making others feel and simply don’t care, they aren’t clueless. They’re sociopaths.)
Before we start talking about them, let’s talk about you. What’s your real purpose in bringing this up with the clueless? If it’s to express anger, don’t bother. Your anger means nothing, and letting someone know about it isn’t really going to make the situation any better. (This is especially true in Situations of Confinement like traveling by air, subway, car, etc.) You defuse the situation if you approach the clueless from the place of solving a problem, e.g. “I’m not mad at you, Helga, I’m mad at the dirt.”
Boring Talkers, also known as Gasbags or Windbags, show up everywhere.* Being long-winded doesn’t make someone bad, and if possible, their feelings should be spared. At parties, you can excuse yourself with a plea to visit the bar, or a feigned gasp and “There’s Bunbury across the room, and we’ve been working on something urgent. Let’s finish this later.” and then move away immediately. At the table it’s traditionally up to the hostess to direct conversation with a lightly rebuking “Now Reginald, that’s enough on that topic. Let’s talk about something else instead.” This works best when another topic is instantly recommended, and the hostess assigns another person to start talking about it. “But Beaureguard was just at the theatre, and I want to know what you thought about that production.”
For general rudeness/cluelessness, a helpful phrase to start off is “You may not realize this but . . .” and then go on, e.g.:
“ . . . your backpack is blocking people from getting to the back of the train.”
“ . . . the line actually starts back there.”
“ . . . smoking isn’t allowed inside.”
“ . . . everyone in the theatre can hear what you’re saying.”
“ . . . no one in the audience is allowed to film the performance.”
Etiquetteer’s Dear Mother used to say “A word to the wise is sufficient,” but even the wise don’t like to feel called out. Prepare for some of these people to respond rudely, no matter how gently to raise the issue. Don’t escalate the situation. Let the Clueless know that they should know how their behavior is impacting others, and that you thought they’d want to know that.
Calling out Loved Ones on social media can be tricky, because it’s important to avoid making anyone feel Publicly Shamed. Use a private message to share how their post made you feel and why. Explain that you wanted to communicate privately because your Loved One might not be aware of other sides of the issue and you didn’t want them to feel called out. Do this in a way that doesn’t make you sound angry; that makes people defensive. Even if you don’t get the response you want, you will at least not be torturing yourself about not speaking out.
*You should just see the Ferocious Side-eye Etiquetteer is casting over at That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much. He can gas on for centuries!)