How to Disengage from Hostile Strangers

How to Disengage from a Hostile Stranger

Yesterday I struck up a casual conversation with another person in the checkout line. Somehow the conversation turned to an ugly anti-feminist rant by this hostile stranger. I kept my mouth shut, but I was filled with rage. I noticed she paid with a credit card, which women could not even have until feminists fought for and won the right for women to have their own credit. How ironic, right? My question: Was I gutless to hold my tongue? –Taylor in Charlevoix, Michigan


Taylor, given the situation, your best course was to disengage. A brief exchange while in a public queue with a hostile stranger whom you will never see again requires only courtesy and respect. It serves no purpose to escalate into a pitched skirmish or screaming match. Nor does it help your peace of mind if you remain silent while hate is being freely spewed.

Braving a bully is never easy. Responding in a rational calm manner sets the tone for constructive dialogue. A bully feeds on fear and insecurities of others. When you understand and recognize the twisted mentality of a bully, you empower yourself to follow Michelle Obama’s lead. Take the high road. Be strong, confident, and clear with your own actions and words.

I choose my battles and select the landscape. With a one-time individual case as you described, I would have used a pause or opportunity to change the subject. Another gambit is to say “pardon me” or “I’m sorry to interrupt” and alter the direction. Ask what time it is, then add a comment to change the topic or end the discussion.

How to Disengage from a Hostile Stranger

Consider the frame as a bystander. Your behavior should demonstrate that you will not add fuel to a worldview of hate. In other words, don’t try to out-bully the bully. Don’t denigrate yourself by jumping into the mud pit. Never remain silent, or allow yourself to become paralyzed by fear. Silence equals complicacy.

You feel the weight of implied complicity when you do nothing. Every situation is different when braving a bully. In this scenario, you would have felt better had you shut to conversation down. You can do it in a courteous manner. The important thing is to learn from this experience, and be better prepared to manage a similar situation in the future.

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