On Her Own

How to be rude [updated July 2023]

We all know the standard safety tip offered to women: don’t be afraid to be rude. If we want to refuse a request, if we want to leave a place, if we object to being touched, then we have the right to say no and we don’t have to be nice about it. While there might be good reasons to be nicer or gentler, including acting appropriate to where we’re at and who we’re talking to, we are allowed to act and speak in ways that are rude (whether in actuality or just because we feel like it’s rude). It’s a great piece of advice but like many, it’s a bit simplistic. We need to dig a bit deeper if we want to actually put it into action successfully.

The dictionary definition of rude sets it up as the opposite of being courteous or polite, with courtesy and politeness requiring behaving in ways that reflect respect for and consideration of others. As you run down the rabbit hole of what each word means, rudeness boils down to not needing to thoughtful or sympathetic towards the other person. You come first, and you don’t need to think about the other person’s needs or wants, or balance them against your own. We often contrast rudeness against niceness, so idea is that rudeness is the opposite of the pleasing, agreeable, appropriate behavior that marks a nice person. If we were pleasant and agreeable, after all, then we wouldn’t tell someone that they couldn’t have what they wanted.

Rudeness can be challenging to define in real-world terms, though; it’s the sort of thing we know when we see it, and not everyone agrees on what counts. For our purposes, when it comes to being willing to be rude in self-defense, it’s whatever you think and feel is not courteous, not polite, not nice. Your personal history may have taught you that you should submit to the wishes of a person in a position of authority to you, for instance, and that it would be rude to refuse any request they might make. You may also have learned that it’s not nice to pass by and not acknowledge a person trying to speak to you in the street, a panhandler or an activist perhaps, and that you must respond in kind if they try to engage you. Choosing not to might seem unbearably rude to you, even if another person might think nothing of it.

Regardless, the dictionary definitions gives us clues to why it’s so hard to be rude, even if our safety is at stake. As members of society, and most particularly as women, we are raised to be all of the things that aren’t rude. Even if we know we shouldn’t or don’t need to be courteous and polite and considerate and nice, habits and conditioning die hard. It can feel, for lack of better term, bad to be rude. Gross. Shameful. Embarrassing. Being rude can make us feel anxious and fearful of judgment, whether from those around us in the moment or the people in our past and present. We want to be liked; we want the people we love and respect to approve of the way we act. We may have had negative consequences resulting from our rudeness, justified or not, and may be nervous that we will face them again. All of that makes it so there is no “just” to being rude against someone we want to stop from hurting us, no matter how simple the advice seems.

We don’t need to reject the advice entirely, though. It just takes a little more work. As with much of self-defense, we have to start with the internal. Knowing that being rude might not feel good and that it might be difficult is the first step to accepting that discomfort and deciding that you are willing to act through it. You can also prepare yourself by thinking about scenarios where you might need to be rude, and thinking about what you’d want to say or do. Visualize exactly what will make you act, and how you’ll speak or move, and how the person you’re being rude to will respond. See yourself be successful, but also see your rudeness not having the desired effect so that you can work your way through how you’ll manage those results. In a way, you are changing your conditioning so that you are less disturbed by the idea of being rude when and where appropriate, perhaps shifting your personal definition of what it means to be rude.

Another preparation you can make is to come up with and practice the phrases you might want to say or the things you might want to do to tell or get someone to stop or go away. Choose words and actions that are authentic to you. It doesn’t matter if someone else might think they superficially sound nice or polite, so long as they are clear and unambiguous. You are looking for things that are as comfortable as possible for you to say and do, then tweaking them so that they have the force that is necessary. The closer they are to your authentic self, though, the more likely they are to be effective. That means that perhaps you will plan to say “Please go away” or “I’m telling you to stop” in a firm tone instead of adding profanity and shouting loudly. After all, using polite words will sometimes be more effective because they won’t make an angry person angrier. But maybe this is when you’re going to adopt swear words and volume into your personal way of speaking, to make an unexpectedly strong point. Or you might think about how you can moderate your instinctive response to be less aggressive and less provoking – still you, but perhaps a version of you who doesn’t come across so much as spoiling for a fight. Consider how different folks might respond, and whether you should change or elaborate your plan accordingly.

Part of your practice should be saying the phrases you chose out loud, at the same volume and in the same tone as you envision. Use a mirror or video record yourself to get used to doing it for an audience. If you can, enlist a friend to role play the bad guy so that you can also practice saying those words in response to an actual person, one who can feed you unexpected lines and responses. With role playing, you can also practice actions like walking away from a conversation or ignoring a stranger trying to talk to you. All of these kinds of actual practice, beyond just visualization, will help you get used to speaking and acting in ways that you feel are rude.

While you put in the work to learn how to be rude when necessary, remember that your ultimate goal is to be respectful, considerate, thoughtful, and sympathetic towards yourself. It’s not about forcing someone to be kind to you, but about prioritizing yourself because you deserve to be treated well by at least one person in your life: you.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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