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When Rude Co-Workers Attack

It’s unavoidable. If you interact with other human beings, eventually you’ll be on the receiving end of massive amounts of rudeness. Someone will nag you to get married, improve your health or dress differently. When you encounter rude people in the wild, you have loads of options. You can be rude right back to them, you can make sure you never see them again, or just avoid them as much as possible.

But when a colleague is rude, you’ll be seeing them every weekday seemingly until the end of time, and telling them to eff off will get you a visit to Human Resources.

Let’s use an incident that involved a a friend of mine who we’ll call Elle.

Elle saw a co-worker wearing a stylish purple leather jacket and complimented her on it. Co-worker’s response?

“You can have it if you lose some weight.”

They are then joined in the elevator with a male co-worker who Elle describes as her arch enemy (we all have one of those, don’t we?). Arch Enemy comments on the purple jacket. Co-worker’s response to this?

“Oh, I told Elle she could have it if she loses weight to fit into it.”

So, Elle had a side order of public humiliation with her morning coffee.

The first thing to do in a situation like this is to make sure that you don’t internalize the rude person’s words. You may value a co-worker’s opinions in many situations, but when they’re expressed rudely, go out of your way to ignore them. You can’t set boundaries, if you don’t first set them in your own head. I understand that this country is the middle of an epidemic of hysteria about obesity that makes people believe that other people’s excess adipose tissue is their business. But it is not. Other people’s bodies are their own and their health is between them and their doctors. (The same thing goes for personal choices, such as deliberately remaining single or childless.)

And yet Elle’s reaction was to defend herself to her co-worker by explaining about her new diet and exercise plan. Because she felt it was necessary to justify herself to someone who delivered her insults in a tone of motherly concern. (I’ve had this same reaction. In similar situations, I’ve boasted about a regime I’d been on for months, or I’ve explained about injuries that had been keeping me from exercising, as if someone I only see in weekly staff meetings is entitled to know my entire medical history.)

The second thing to do in these situations is to have prepared comebacks. Maybe a certain person you know always harps on one thing about everybody. Maybe you’re overweight or you smoke and you’re used to friends and strangers alike nagging you, allegedly for your own good. So if you know these things are going to happen, you can have your responses ready.

Elle could have asked her co-worker why she was so eager to give away her jacket, sidestepping the entire issue of weight loss. Or she could’ve asked her colleague why she was so invested in Elle’s weight that she was willing to give the clothes off her back to change it. She could’ve said that her doctor thinks her health is fine, even if that isn’t true, since it would calm her colleague’s concerns. I don’t recommend responding with, “Oh, you think I’m fat?” even though it might be fun to play head games. People make these sorts of comments because they think you don’t know that you’re overweight, or that smoking is bad for your health. Playing dumb may just inspire them to keep trying.

How do you handle rude co-workers? And what rudeness have you been subjected to?

By freelance writer and Work Her Way contributor Jennifer Anderson