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4 Ways to Deal with Obnoxious People

Research-based tips to help you keep your cool, even when you're offended.

You're enjoying a social gathering when someone makes an unwanted comment that causes offense. Is it okay to call the person "obnoxious"?
Psychologists hesitate to use the term because it has no theoretical basis. Terms like that label a person, not a behaviour. For our purposes here, however, we will consider any person or behaviour "obnoxious" when it is deliberately offensive and makes others feel uncomfortable.
People engaging in this behaviour do not self-regulate and so they may blurt out their inner feelings, regardless of the occasion. Here are some other typical examples:
  • Someone continually plays pranks on friends, family, and co-workers, and it’s starting to get old. You no longer feel like laughing, nor does anyone else.
  • A joker interrupts meetings, family gatherings, or casual conversations with friends to make a stream of witticisms, causing annoyance.
  • A person frequently expresses racist, sexist, or ageist opinions in a public setting. Even if no one from the targeted category is present, the remarks offend others.
The University of Arizona’s Elizabeth Focella and colleagues (2015) examined methods to address and correct a biased individual who expresses opinions that offend both those present and the target of the prejudice. By applying some psychology to the situation, you can use the team's findings to foster more harmonious and fulfilling interactions. 
Here, then, are 4 ways to respond to obnoxious people:
  1. Understand the source of your annoyance. 
    Consider whether your offense is realistic based on the gravity of the obnoxious behaviour or a response to deep-seated insecurity that you have. Often, we experience "counter transference," used in psycho-dynamic psychotherapy, which distorts our perceptions of others due to our own insecurities. For example, you become enraged at a co-worker who pokes fun at the vacation photo you just put on your desk. The remark was not really that hostile, but it reminds you of your childhood feelings when your brother taunted you.
     
  2. Ignore the person or behaviour.
    People are more likely to act in ways that bring them some type of reinforcement. For people who behave in obnoxious ways, that reinforcement may be any form of attention. Is the person just wanting to elicit a reaction from others? Then make a pact with the other people in your group to refrain from laughing or paying any attention to the unwanted comments or actions. Without the desired response, the behaviour may diminish on its own.
     
  3. Confront the person.
    Focella and her team noted that direct confrontation can be effective in reducing someone else’s bias. However, for the confrontation to be effective in making the individual back off, we know that it should come from a person other than the target of that bias. For example, you’re a working woman at a group lunch where a man refuses to acknowledge that working women might be good mothers. As a working woman, if you point out the already compelling and still-mounting counter-evidence, you will engender that person’s dislike, extending and perhaps even exacerbating the "debate," and the unpleasantness for all, instead of quelling it. Strictly for the purpose of quieting the offending party, it would potentially be more effective for a non-working mother, or a man, to speak up.
     
  4. Preserve the individual’s self-esteem.
    According to Focella and her fellow researchers, people are more likely to change their prejudice if they first feel good about themselves. The Focella team recommends asking “self-affirming” questions of a person who you’re trying to "de-prejudice." For example, in the course of the conversation about working women, give the offending individual the opportunity to talk about what he perceives to be his greatest personal accomplishments. Bumping up an "obnoxious" individual's self-esteem may help him feel less threatened and he may alter his opinion, or at least drop the offending argument, so that everyone can move on.