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When the Silent Treatment Is a GOOD Thing

 

The next time you have a run-in with a d-bag, don’t automatically go on the defensive. Sure, it’s crazy annoying–there you are, innocently going about your day, when some idiot makes a bonehead comment (“Put on a few pounds?”) or does something obnoxious (textaholic-ing during brunch). Your first impulse may be to react, or lash back. But as it turns out, surprising new research suggests the silent treatment could keep the jerks from ruining your day.

In a study of 120 college students, participants were put in a room with either a nice guy (relaxed, friendly, egalitarian) or a jerk (rude, impatient, bigoted). Half the students were instructed to engage in cordial conversation with him, while the other half were told to ignore him. Afterwards, participants completed a task requiring careful thought and attention. Turns out, the students who had a discussion with the d-bag scored significantly worse than those who froze him out. “Trying to politely engage with someone aversive makes people feel depleted, and as a result they won’t perform as well,” says study coauthor Kristin Sommer, PhD, associate professor at Baruch College. “If you force yourself to behave in a way that goes against your instincts—like being nice to a jerk—it takes a toll on your resources.”

Of course, you can’t always just ignore all the jerks in your life. So we ran a bunch of annoying situations by Rick Brinkman, PhD, speaker, coauthor of Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, and founder of RickBrinkman.com, and asked him when to snub the snot, and when to suck it up and deal with them.

The situation: A woman cuts you in line at Starbucks
Ignore Her. Getting bent out of shape just so you can sip your latte a few minutes faster will probably only worsen your mood. Again, remind yourself that she might be legitimately running late or stressed out and not thinking straight. Still all steamed up? “Try to project how you’ll feel an hour from now,” Brinkman suggests. “Will you regret not standing up to her?” If so, go ahead and call her out on it.

The situation: Your boyfriend leaves his dirty clothes strewn over the floor for the hundredth time
Deal With Him. If it was a one-time infraction, overlooking his carelessness would be your best bet. But since it’s a regular issue, bring it up or it’ll only aggravate you further. “Approach him with a playful, teasing attitude,” Brinkman says. “That keeps him from getting defensive yet still sends a message.” When there’s the slightest improvement on his end, praise him to reinforce it. (It takes a few weeks to establish a new habit though, so be patient.)

The situation: Someone keeps texting in the middle of Side Effects
Deal With Her. Messing with your viewing pleasure of Channing Tatum’s eight-pack? Not cool. If the person is sitting right in front of you, Brinkman suggests quietly saying, “I know that text is important, but the light is distracting.” If they’re a few rows ahead of you, alert a theater employee.

The situation: While you’re walking down the street, a dude hollers, “Hey baby, lookin’ good!”
Ignore Him. Responding will likely egg him on, unfortunately. And while street heckling is annoying and sometimes even a little frightening, trying to figure out how to respond is a waste of your mental energy. Instead, keep your chin up and keep on walking. And, if you can, try to see the bright side of his oafish behavior: Apparently, you’re rocking it today!

The situation: Your slacker coworker asks you to help him finish his quarterly report
Deal With Him. Since you see him almost every day, freezing him out will make things awkward, which sucks for both of you. So how to handle the situation without getting screwed? First, giving him the benefit of the doubt can diminish your annoyance, according to Brinkman. It’s possible he’s not a lazy bastard but is actually overwhelmed by something else (a health problem, a breakup), or is trying his best, and just isn’t as efficient as you. Next, establish a boundary in a polite way. Tell him, “I’d love to help you,” pause for a moment to let that sink in, and continue, “But I also have a huge project due.” Then give him some guidance, like pointing out that if he can’t complete the full report today, he should turn in a bulleted list of highlights so your boss won’t freak. “This approach empowers him and makes you feel good about yourself—your body releases endorphins when you help someone,” Brinkman says.

The situation: A close friend shows up an hour late to your birthday dinner
Deal With Her. Assuming she has a lame excuse (it’s not like her cat died or something), address the issue to prevent resentment from building up. “Decide that you’ll discuss it with her in the next few days,” Brinkman says. “Having that settled in your mind will help you let go in the moment so you can enjoy the party.” When you do talk to her, start by telling her that you care about your friendship and don’t want anything to come between you. Framing the discussion in a positive way will leave a better taste in your mouth and hers.

The situation: During holiday dinner, Uncle Marvin says, “You look really tired.”
Depends. If it’s possible to tune him out and head to the buffet, do so. But if you’re in a situation that requires a reply, Brinkman recommends a brief, sarcastic retort. Try, “Thank you for caring about my health and well-being,” or in a kidding tone, “I sure look better than you!” It lets him know he was out of line without being confrontational or engaging in further conversation. Whatever you do, don’t affirm his comment by saying, “Yeah, I guess I need more sleep.” “Agreeing with the criticism will make you feel worse,” Brinkman maintains.

photo: Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock

More from WH:
How to Deal with Jerky Coworkers
Sidestep Silly Arguments With Your Guy
The Benefits of Stress

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