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Don’t be a Jerk, Take the High Road

JW Way Fundamental #16: Don’t be a jerk – always take the high road.“Maintain professionalism at all times. Keep emotions under control. Advocating forcefully for the interests of our clients does not require bullying, condescension, foul language, or temper tantrums. This applies to co-workers, opposing counsel, and vendors. Always be a mensch.”

Don’t be a jerk. Sounds easy, right? After all, we are all taught to “treat others as you’d have them treat you,” or some similarly worded saying with the same general meaning. But what about when someone else acts like a jerk to you first? Then, we usually resort to the other childhood saying: “He/she started it!” Even as kids, we tend think that if someone is rude to us first, this somehow gives us license to be rude back. But, while we may feel validated in acting rude back, it is much better for your personal and professional reputation to take the high road and respond professionally.

As you read this you might think that “of course, we all know that we should not be baited into acting like a jerk back.” But, in the heat of the moment, it is not so easy to remember that being rude back to the perceived instigator will only serve to escalate things and make it all worse. Or, even if you do remember that, you still may get carried away by your emotions and tempted to respond in a similarly rude or snarky manner because perhaps you get some satisfaction out of getting back at the perceived instigator. Note I use the word “perceived.” We will revisit that in a moment.

But first, let us think about this situation where someone is rude. Let us assume that the written or spoken statement was intended to be rude. So, now you are offended or feeling generally heated because, well, how dare he or she treat you that way! But stop and think, what good is it going to do you (or your client, for that matter) to be rude or snarky back to this person? Nothing. There is not a single good thing that can come from being rude back. Even that feeling of satisfaction from getting back at the other person is short lived. Indeed, it usually turns into more anger because now things have escalated, and that dialogue has continued to be a time and energy suck taking you away from more productive activities and ruining your mood for a good part of the day. If you are engaging in a dialogue via email (as many of us these days are doing), you also now have a written record of your not so professional behavior.

So, what do you do? Pause. Take a deep breath and let cooler minds prevail. If it is an email exchange, wait to respond. No one is forcing you to write back immediately. So, even if take 20 or 30 minutes, wait to respond so that you can calm yourself, take the high road and write a response that serves to de-escalate the situation or is at least neutral enough not to escalate it. I personally find that if I go do some other task and then come back to responding to that email, I have had sufficient time to cool off, assess what the actual purpose of the email is, and I can then respond appropriately and in a professional manner. Another approach is to write what you really want to say, save the draft, and then come back to it later and take out the heated and emotionally charged tone and re-write it in a professional manner.

Admittedly, if you are in a face-to-face or phone conversation, you don’t have the luxury of time to cool off. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t pause and take a breath before responding. Indeed, sometimes an exaggerated moment of silence gives the other side a chance to reflect on what they just said and maybe even apologize before you have to say anything. Assuming that is not the case, taking a deep breath will still serve you well. According to the American Institute of Stress, “Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.” So, that deep breath should help to calm your mind and help you respond in a calmer and more professional manner.

Finally, remember I said we would come back to talking about the word “perceived”? Well, perceived rudeness is a huge problem in a tech driven world. There are times when one receives a message and infers a rude or angry tone when that is not how the writer intended it to sound. Why? Because a written communication lacks vocal tone and expressions that often accompany an in-person conversation. Furthermore, the reader is influenced by his or her own present state of mind. So, if you are stressed, and then you receive an email that is adding another “to do” to your already stressful day, perhaps you might imply a tone of anger or rudeness in the email that really was not meant to be there because that is how you are feeling yourself. This can happen with phone and in person conversations, as well, but is far more prevalent in emails and letters. The point is, remember that you are viewing the communication through your own lens, and that your interpretation of the communication may not be what was intended by the speaker/writer. It goes without saying that if you are rude back to someone who was just trying to ask a general question or whatever it may be, you are now going to look like the jerk.

Regardless of the situation, it is always better to respond to a jerk (or perceived jerk) by taking the high road and showing professionalism and courteous behavior. This is especially true in the times we are living in where stress and negativity are abundant, and kindness and understanding have been in short supply. The truth is, we do not know what any one person is dealing with. So, even if nothing else discussed above resonates with you, then let the idea that you can bring kindness to someone’s day and add a little bit of positivity into this world be what motivates you to take the high road and not be a jerk.

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