#1176: The limits of respecting one’s elders just ’cause they are elders.

Hello Captain,

I’ve got a few older women in my life who keep talking to me like I’m one of their kids. It’s either unsolicited advice or outright orders in a snotty tone. One of these women volunteers at the same place I do. She orders people around constantly, is generally rude and condescending, and from what I can tell she’s a ‘missing stair’ that people don’t stand up to. She’s not in a position of power, though you wouldn’t know it from how she acts.

I know I do look young but I don’t look that young – and even if I did, I don’t think that’s excuse to treat people the way she does. I’m 34, professional, and the organization has been super happy that I’ve come on board. From what I can tell, she doesn’t know anything about my credentials or my background and she doesn’t care. I’ve heard some stories but I wasn’t prepared to handle it myself. My own mother hasn’t talked to me like that since I was ten. I’ll admit I don’t love being ordered around, and I bristle when people don’t acknowledge the hard work that other people are putting in. From what other staff has said, she’s definitely alienating people with her behavior.

Tonight was the first time that I worked with this woman for a long event, rather than interacting with her at meetings. I’m still relatively new, so I didn’t feel comfortable confronting her. I plan to let the agency know my experience (and that if I didn’t care so much about what they do, I would have left on the spot), but do you have any good scripts for telling her to knock it off without making the situation worse?
Here for the good cause, not your condescending remarks

Dear Here For The Good Cause:

You were raised to be polite to old/older people, correct? I was, too (my mom worked in eldercare, I was around ’em a lot, not just the ones from my own family).

I also worked in customer service long enough to know that some old people, especially “little old ladies,” are evil incarnate. 

I think being polite to older people is generally a good practice.

I think being polite to EVERYONE is generally a good practice.

I think that the politeness someone shows to people with less status/power/age/experience/perceived “importance” than they have says as much or more about them than how they engage their elders.

Follow the golden rule. Say please and thank you. Be kind. Start with assuming best intentions. Don’t make life harder for someone who is clearly having a hard time. If you are able-bodied, give up your seat on the subway. Look for common ground and reasons to be kind. Remind yourself that we’re all carrying our own burdens. Try to keep in mind that responding to rudeness with more rudeness can escalate a situation instead of defusing it.

These are good working practices to have in place! These are good guidelines for a functioning society! Who doesn’t want to make the world a more pleasant place, model compassion and consideration, and do our part to not add to the world’s suffering?

These lessons can also fail us in some important ways. They can leave us defenseless against people who are operating in bad faith. Predators. Abusive people. Assholes. The Skeksis kleptocracy that is systematically destroying the public sphere and the commons of the United States of America.

Because what happens sometimes is that someone is rude or downright harmful to you, and you endure it and model respectful behavior like you were taught, and then the other person keeps going and doubles down. They don’t stop it, they won’t stop it, until their victims remove themselves from the situation or until someone (maybe you, maybe the manager, maybe an institution with greater power, maybe someone they respect more, maybe voters, maybe a general strike, maybe a trebuchet, I’m just spitballing here) supplies consequences that they actually give a shit about. It doesn’t help that our culture is drowning in stories where the crusty old Ebenezer Scrooges of the world are just one act of human kindness away from a total change of heart. Consider that not every rancid old person gets haunted into an epiphany in enough time to help the people who get harmed when they commit their sunset years to being wrong about everything.

My lovely letter writer, you are a volunteer, you are not dependent on this organization and this lady has no power over you. That is not always the case (for example, if she treats staff this way and they are afraid of professional consequences if they engage her directly, in my experience the people who behave like this are almost always friendly with someone on the board and/or wealthy enough that nobody wants to tell them to fuck off). So I suggest that you document this lady’s behavior for the organization and make it clear that you care about their mission but you might not be able to volunteer anymore unless they can assure you that they will not subject you to abusive behavior from a fellow volunteer. You can make it clear in your letter that you assume this person provides some value to the organization and you hope they can find a way to best use her skills, but you’d prefer not to staff any future events where she will also be. Be drippingly polite and constructive, but also name exactly the things she said and did.

Hopefully they’ll do the right thing. If they don’t, that’s a choice they are making.

In the meantime, if you do encounter this lady again, and she is rude again, consider saying:

“DO NOT speak to me that way again.”

And walk away from her for the remainder of the event. There is likely something important that needs doing on the other side of the room.

There are gentler strategies, like asking questions (“Did you mean to speak to me like you would a badly-behaved house pet? I don’t enjoy it, let’s keep our conversations professional.”) but honestly those kinds of interrogations or corrections are for people who like her.

There are alternate scripts for expressing displeasure succinctly: “Wow.” “Really?” “Is that how you speak to everyone?” “Yikes!” at your disposal. Do what works for you. I generally prefer to keep my cool, even when people are being jerks. This is an honesty zone, so let me say honestly that this is less about having a compassionate nature or wanting to be the bigger person than it is about being afraid of how far I’ll Hulk out if I let myself get started. This is an honesty zone, so let me also say: There are multiple occasions where I have exhausted “polite” and “nice” and finally told people to back the fuck up and take no for an answer and that last thing was the only thing that worked to make the situation better. Bullies are bullies, whether they are 6 or 96.

If she does apologize or change her behavior, be gracious. If she doesn’t, it literally has nothing to do with you. It’s not your fault, or yours to fix. If she thinks you’re “difficult”/rude/mean/a “bitch”…so what? You don’t care about her opinion of you and you KNOW she is awful. She isn’t going to melt because someone decided to stop catering to her bullshit for 30 seconds.

Also know: She will not have a change of heart as a result of this encounter. She might leave you alone from now on, though. Sometimes that’s the victory we get.

Let’s respect our elders. Let’s also stop the abusive ones in their tracks.

P.S. If you’re a volunteer coordinator at an organization, it is your responsibility to train volunteers and make sure they are not behaving badly when they’re representing your organization. If someone tells you a fellow volunteer is being abusive, “that’s just her way” is not cutting it.