Miss Conduct

Advice: How can a quiet person best respond to bossy boots?

Random people yell at me, leaving me startled and shaken. What can I do?

I get a lot of strangers ordering me around, yelling and unpleasant. I am a quiet and unassuming person; I’m not sure if that provokes it. My usual response to these behaviors is something along the lines of “Well, since you want it done, I’ll let you do it.” But why should I have to? I am startled and shaken afterward, and these people have ruined more than one of my days. I’m tempted to say, “Are you accustomed to giving orders to strangers and having them take them?” Any insights on the cause of this or how I can handle it better?

L.M. / Jamaica Plain

How unpleasant! I’m sorry that happens to you. I wish I could tag along with you, to witness these events for myself and figure out what the underlying variable is. Something about you? About them? About the environment? (Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are neighborhoods in the Boston area where people stay militantly out of one another’s business to the point where they wouldn’t “flame shame” you if your hair caught fire, and other communities where running commentary on others’ life choices is a social norm.) It may simply be that you have a lot of social interactions, good and bad. You probably have more warm and fuzzy encounters than the average person, too.

Short of making yourself look actively threatening, there’s probably no way to keep people from doing this. So let’s focus on getting your equilibrium back quickly. Can you see the absurdity of these tinpot tyrants’ presumption? Hollering at strangers like that! Honestly! What kind of person takes Basil Fawlty as a role model? Let that amusement into your voice; let it infuse every word like a bracing sprig of rosemary. Give in to temptation: The question you’d like to ask is perfectly civil, and I’m sure the answer will be enlightening.


Have you ever had a 4-pound Yorkshire terrier charge you in a fit of outrage, dear L.M.? Treat the people exactly like that. Just like the charging Yorkie, would-be bosses-of-you can briefly disrupt your attention, but they can’t actually take away your power. Revel in that fact!

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

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