Their behavior was totally unlike anything I had ever experienced. They would make fun of my hair and clothes and even the way that I shook my head. They would mock any human emotion. They yelled at me and got in my face. I couldn’t respond. I am not saying that my parents are perfect, but I just didn’t come from a family where people went for the jugular. One of the girls who was mean to me had a problem with wetting her pants, and I probably could have turned everything around by saying “At least I don’t wet my pants,” but I just didn’t have the skills. You’re probably wondering how an adolescent girl with a pants-wetting problem managed to be labeled cool. That question haunts me to this day.
So I just stopping being friends with these people and went back to the nerds. It was such a relief.
I think I had about a six-month respite from mean people and then my parents bought a summer house, and almost everyone in that community was mean. There were whole families of mean people: mean parents, mean kids, mean siblings and their mean cousins and their mean friends who visited them from their mean hometowns. I hated them all so much and continue to hate some of them! Even as an adult their misfortunes make me smile.
So I stopped going to that place as soon as I was old enough, and I think I had about three years of not really dealing with meanness. Then, when I was in my junior year in high school, a group of boys in my class started being really mean to me. That was the absolute worst six months of my life. There was no escape from it. I woke up every day in terror and came home every day in shame. It finally ended when I got mono and was home sick for six weeks.
You’re not telling them they have to like you, you’re not telling them how upset they make you, you’re just telling them what the rules are.
When I went back to school I was mean as a snake. If someone said something mean to me, I said something meaner to them. I would do anything to protect myself. I remember telling a smart bully how short and ugly he was, and I remember telling the tall, good-looking one how stupid he was, and how good it felt.
So for a while all I knew about really mean people was how to get away from them or how to be mean back to them. (And I am not saying I myself am never mean, I am talking about people who are repeatedly, unapologetically mean, or at least mean to you—because one of the ways that people can be really mean is by being nice to other people around them, so that the people they are mean to feel insane; it is a THING.) But as you grow older and your life involves more people from whom you can’t necessarily fully separate yourself—neighbors, in-laws, exes with whom you share property, pets, children—you have to learn how to deal with mean people without going insane. The only thing that I have found is to say, “Do not speak to me like that.”
You have to say it really plainly, without too much emotion. Do not sound hurt. The hurt is what they like. The hurt is where they see the opening. “Do not speak to me like that” is just a border that you’re putting around yourself. You’re not telling them they have to like you, you’re not telling them how upset they make you, you’re just telling them what the rules are. Because mean people are dependent on you letting them make up the rules, such as: “It’s alright to intimidate people with cruelty and condescension and calling out their flaws.” Every time you let a mean person be mean, that rule is affirmed. And as hard as it is, you have to state a new rule.
“Do not speak to me like that” works really well. It has never failed me. For tough cases a little dismissiveness in the tone works wonders. But remember: Not a lot of emotion. You’re building a wall of stone, not of tears.
Recently the father of the meanest girl I have ever met got into legal trouble. I thought about how she must have grown up, how she must have come by her meanness, being raised by someone who lied and stole and was basically a complete sham of a human being. I still felt a little bit satisfied. I don’t think that’s the most mature reaction, but I don’t care.