I was talking with a friend about a former coworker. "I saw him while I was out last summer," she said, "but I totally pretended I didn't see him, because he used to be so awful to me."
"I understand," I said. "I ran into him at a party and the whole time he was talking, all I could hear was his voice in my head, screaming at me from his desk: 'DANIELLE! I CAN SEE YOU! PICK UP YOUR FUCKING PHONE!' and it made me not want to be there at all."
"It felt kind of rude," she admitted, "but I just couldn't do it."
I don't think it was rude.
I have come to the conclusion that you teach people how to treat you.
This works in a couple of ways. For example -- say you have a "friend" (and I'm putting this in quotation marks because someone who would treat you this way really ISN'T your friend) who thinks that it's great fun to put you down EVERY time you see her. It's always something with this one. She doesn't like your sweater. She thinks your new shoes are ugly. She thinks your hair looks stupid. The only way for her to feel good about herself is to cut you down.
And you wonder -- why does she always target ME?
To which I would say: Honey, it's because you LET her. You've taught her that it's totally fine for her to act like this because you put up with it. You have taught her that her behaviour is completely acceptable.
In a broader sense, think about it like this: everyone knows at least one person who tells very objectionable jokes. He thinks it's funny to tell racist, sexist, homophobic, appalling stories in whatever company he's in. Every time, you probably think: "Why does he do that? How can he think it's okay?" but you probably also don't say anything, right?
Look in the mirror and wonder no more. You (and everyone else around this guy) have taught him that it's okay with you and that his horrific behaviour is completely acceptable every time you didn't call him on it.
I'm not saying that you should be the behaviour police. I AM saying that you teach people how to treat you and how to act around you. It was a hard won lesson for me, which came at the cost of more than one romance and some broken-beyond-repair friendships until I finally realized -- if I don't want to be treated like a doormat, perhaps letting people wipe their feet on me sends a bad signal.
The other way in which this works -- the one where I don't think my friend was at all rude to avoid our former associate -- is this: your actions directly impact the way the people around you think of you. It's not just about standing up for yourself when you're being mistreated, or when you see or hear someone acting in a way that you find objectionable. It's also about using your own behaviour in a way that will allow people to react to you positively. If you're kind, if you're thoughtful, if you're considerate -- people respond well to that. If you're demanding, rude, boorish, and agressive to the point where people actively fear you -- which is the case with our former co-worker -- then it should come as no surprise when someone is uncomfortable in your presence.
I'm just saying.