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Why are so many people mean, even to family members?

Updated on July 24, 2012
Nothing says "Stay Away", "Keep Out", or "Leave Me Alone" like meanness. Each mean act is like a weapon that hurts anyone who gets near you.
Nothing says "Stay Away", "Keep Out", or "Leave Me Alone" like meanness. Each mean act is like a weapon that hurts anyone who gets near you.

There are Many Types of Meanness

Years ago, you may have encountered one of the bumper stickers proclaiming “Mean People Suck”. You may have agreed with the sentiments. Dealing with mean people is challenging. Every interaction is like a forced grind. Without niceties, each word and conversation requires effort. The whole exchange often leaves you feeling drained and used. With such experiences, you can see why someone proclaims to the world ‘Mean People Suck”.

The mean people in your life present challenges, especially when you choose not to be like them. Learning how to deal with mean people to where you do not get mean in return takes practice. It is not just a matter of knowing what to say, it also requires having the right attitude toward them along with listening and responding to them. When you can turn a mean person around or reduce their meanness, there is a sense of accomplishment. Although the world is full of mean people, getting one to be less mean brings a sense of reward. Learning how not to be mean in return is one way of keeping the meanness from spreading its poison.

Meanness is a combination of behavior and attitude. Unlike diseases like cancer or HIV, identifying the cause of meanness is not clear cut or simple. The closer you examine meanness, and understand its causes, the better equipped you will be in dealing with the mean people that you encounter in life.

Most mean people do not want to be ‘mean’. Some of them have other things on their mind. Since they are preoccupied, they do not put forth the effort to be nice. They may he in the middle of a divorce, or rejected by someone important to them, or heard distressing news, or a host of other maladies. When people are faced with such challenges, it is like all their mental and emotional resources are focused on the problem, and not on human niceness.

People with illness or those not feeling well often come across as mean. When you do not feel well, it is hard being nice to others. Illnesses also bring a sense of being out of control of your health and life. When your life feels out of control, it is hard to extend courtesies to others.

Another closely related group to the ill, are the elderly, who may be struggling with changes in their bodies as well. There are many mean old men and women. You may want to think of the elderly as being all nice old men and women, but you would be mistaken. The mean old men and ladies often use aggression and harshness in getting their way. They do this in grocery stores, public places, and restaurants. In some cases, they do not have social skills, in others, they are just downright mean.

Some of the elderly just want to be left alone. They use their meanness to push others away. They do not want all the hassles that go with modern life. They want to be left alone. I can understand how an old person would want to live in a shack on the fringes of civilization, threatening to shoot any unwanted visitors. To outsiders, they are viewed as being mean, in their mind, they just want to be left alone. In such cases, they aren’t really mean, just misunderstood.

There are also cultural differences behind meanness. In the South and Texas, where I am from, you are expected to show good manners in dealing with people. Use of “Yes ma’m, No ma’m”, “please” and “thank you” are expected. When Yankees or those from other areas interact without showing such manners in their exchanges, they are viewed as being mean. The Yankee may believe they did nothing wrong, they just ordered their food, or brought something back for exchange or whatever. They are accustomed to short, fast-paced, brusque interactions and think nothing of it. To the Southerner, such behavior is the epitome of meanness.

Those from other countries who are not accustomed to such social expectations are also viewed as being ‘mean’. These visitors are often unaware of such expectations or scared or unsure of what they are doing. The harshness exhibited may have many reasons behind it, yet what occurred is labeled as ‘meanness’. Years ago, I often considered store clerks from other nations mean, due to their style of interactions. After learning more about their ways, I understand the reasons behind their harshness.

There are times that people do not care how others view them or think about them. When you are dealing with an old drunk, drug addict or criminal, they often do not care about manners. This population is often highly focused on accomplishing what their goal is. They do not care how they obtain what they are after, or who gets upset. They do not want to take time to be nice. In their mind, any niceness will not help them get what they are after any quicker.

The mentally ill can come across as mean. In some cases, they do not have the social skills to navigate relationships. In other cases, they are doing the best they can, the problem they are dealing with makes it a challenge. When a person is struggling on a daily basis with depression, each interaction is often a struggle and strain. For them, showing simple manners requires an effort. In this respect, they share a great deal with populations that are struggling with health disorders.

When you are raised in a troubled house, behaviors which others view as ‘mean’ may have been the way of life for you. You often did what you needed to do in order to survive. Manners and kindness were often equated with weakness. Being weak in such situations was often a prelude inviting more exploitation. Rather than risk being taken advantage of, using meanness to protect yourself is the preferred option.

There are also some people who use meanness as a social skill of exploitation. They learned early in life that you can get what you want through meanness. Those that learn this skill are often adept in using meanness to exploit others. Through the threat of meanness, they functionally blackmail those around them. In such cases, the meanness is a form of manipulation. With such populations, life is viewed in extreme terms such as the weak and the strong, the givers and the takers. Meanness is then justified as a way of attaining success within this mindset. This mindset is often associated with the term "Machiavellian" since they believe that the end (or goal they are after) justifies the meanness (or whatever else they do to obtain their goal). Within this group, people are viewed more as objects to be moved around. Using manners or niceties are seen as a waste of time.

Any behavior repeated over time can become a habit and way of life. In each of the groups above, there are reasons behind the meanness. Although the meanness had a reason, it is not always easy to turn on and off. This is one of the reasons that it spills over onto family. Although you may assume that your behavior should be its best with family, the sad reality is that it is often the opposite. Mean people continue being mean whether or not they are in the company of family or others. One of the things that makes meanness in families more painful is that with family, you often let down your guard. Meanness in the family has a way of inflicting hurt and pain at deeper levels than would typically occur.


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    • Sue St. Clair profile image

      Sue St. Clair 3 years ago from I would rather be in Paris


      People with no heart, feelings or mercy present problems. They are often hurting people that only are able to deal with their hurts by hurting other people. They often do not start out being selfish, but things happen that make it that way.

    • profile image

      Mohsin Haleem 4 years ago

      i think the people with no heart ,feelings or mercy are always selfish

    • Sue St. Clair profile image

      Sue St. Clair 5 years ago from I would rather be in Paris

      Seafarer Mama,

      Thank you for your kind words. The importance of being kind and respectful can not be overemphasized, especially during this times when so many are facing hardships. That is an excellent point you made in how it is also important to show kindness when we decline to cooperate as well. I hope you have a good day.

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 5 years ago from New England

      Great article, Sue. Enjoyed reading your perspective about where some of the meanness we encounter comes from. It is always important to be kind and respectful, even when we need to decline our cooperation in a matter we fell would be harmful to cooperate with..