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Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally!
Reason 1: Lack of Skills/Knowledge or Awareness
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Read the following to:
  • Understand how unintentional meanness may be due to innocent lack of awareness.
  • Learn that some people may be appear to be mean because they lack certain social skills or knowledge.
Related articles by Dr. Frank:

Previous: Introduction to Why are People Mean?

Next: Reason 2: Miscommunication/Misunderstanding

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

To help you determine why a person might be mean:
Reasons for Meanness Inventory

Reasons for Meanness

The following reasons for meanness are listed in order, to the best of my ability, from the unintentional situations that may be perceived as being mean, to the reactive situations in which people are mean, to the situations with malicious intentions.

REASON 1: Lack of Skills/Knowledge or Awareness

Frequently people will perceive a behavior as mean when there was no intention to be hurtful. Instead, the behavior may be due to a lack of skills, a lack of knowledge, or a lack of awareness.

Many situations occur in which people appear mean due to lack of skills or awareness when they have no intention of being mean (and sometimes their intention is quite the opposite). By understanding when this occurs you are able to eliminate these situations from your perception of the amount of “meanness” in the world around you and are less likely to be insulted.

Lack of Awareness

1) Not Noticing. Sometimes others may be focused internally or on something else and don't notice your situation. For example, someone doesn't let you merge in traffic because their attention is focused on their companion and they don't notice that you want to merge. Certainly, you could make a case that they should be paying more attention in traffic. However, the evidence isn't available that they were being mean; instead they were unaware.

2) Cultural. Also, lack of awareness is often involved with cultural differences. For instance, a great deal of misunderstandings occur because of personal space. Research has shown that in the U.S. people stand about three to twelve feet away from one another unless they are romantically involved. Someone from another culture who stands much closer may be interpreted as intimidating or rude.

By recognizing that people have different belief systems and behavior when interacting with others, we can understand that their behavior may not be “mean,” but has a different meaning in their culture.

3) Little Insight. Some people may have little insight or awareness of how they impact others. They might tend to be more concrete in their thought processes and don't realize their behavior may be hurtful or rude. For example, a simple question such as “How old are you?” may have much undercurrent of meaning. Some people are insulted by the question because they believe it implies they are old. Someone with little insight about others' feelings may not realize that they insulted someone.

Lack of Skills

1) Social Skills. Some people may have poor social skills. They may not have been taught the proper social skills or they may not have the experience with social interaction to have learned the skills. As a result, they may be awkward interacting with others. For instance, someone who is shy or who has Asperger's Syndrome may not make adequate eye contact. Some people may interpret this as lack of interest and be insulted.

Some people may not know certain skills such as solving problems assertively. When they are attempting to learn these skills they may not be able to find the right words or tone of voice that comes with more experience. When people are first learning these skills they may appear more aggressive than they intend.

2) Tone. Some people have difficulty in communication because they lack the skill of expressing the right tone. This can occur in spoken communication but especially is problematic with written communication. These days of the internet, email, and texting have led to numerous problems due to the fact that tone cannot be easily conveyed through these mediums.

I have had clients read emails or texts to me they maintained were insulting; and certainly, when read with the tone of voice they used, they were insulting. However, when I read the emails out loud without the tone, the message was entirely different.

Another problem is that certain types of humor or sarcasm can be very difficult to use the right tone and can be easily misunderstood. For intance, I have a very dry sense of humor that can work well with the proper non-verbals but is difficult to communicate in writing. I made the mistake when I first wrote articles for my website to write the way I communicate verbally. I made a joke that a reader mistook as an attempt to manipulate and was highly insulted. Therefore, when I write now I try to keep in mind that people from different backgrounds all over the world will be reading my articles. I can't prevent all misunderstandings but I can stay away from teasing and dry humor which can be easily misunderstood.

Next: Reason 2: Miscommunication/Misunderstanding

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