4 Ways to Beat Covert Aggression (Rude & Sneaky People)

dealing with rude people

This article shares how to handle rude people. 

But not “in your face type of rude”, but rather “subtly rude”, in a sneaky way, which is sometimes referred to as “covert aggression”.

What’s Subtly Rude

Subtly rude people make their attacks more underhanded.

Maybe a dismissive gesture, a “funny” joke, or the good old eye-roll.

Sometimes you will see subtle rudeness from frenemies (see how to spot frenemies).
But while frenemies often don’t even attack you at all and just stew, subtly rude people think they have enough power that they can effectively undermine you.

In the article on mean jokes and underhanded compliments, we explained that the best way of dealing with these people is to “draw them out” and show to them -and to everyone around- that their “jokes” are actually barely veiled meanness.

However, with subtly rude people, it’s more obvious they are being rude. So there is less of a need to show everyone what their game is.

But you can’t attack them head-on either. 
Both because winning without escalation is most often socially superior, and because, since their move is small, it’s easy for them to take a step back and make you look like you are overreacting.

Example of Subtly Rude

To understand what’s subtly rude, look at this scene for one minute and see if you spot it:

De Niro is being highly dominant through and through. And the subtly rude moment is when he shields his code from Stiller.

Stiller was already sleeping in the house and he is the official boyfriend of De Niro’s daughter in a serious relationship that seems to be going towards a possible marriage.

Given the preconditions, De Niro is rude because his gesture communicates the following:

  1. I don’t trust you
  2. You’re not part of this family

Given the situation, it was fair for Stiller to hit back. 
But how to do it?
Here are four ideas:

#1. Use Humor to Crack a Joke At Their Expense

Your humor shouldn’t be innocent humor or, God forbid, self-

Your humor should even the scores, so this is one of those cases when derisive or “aggressive humor” is in the cards.

An example of derisive humor would be implying that De Niro is a paranoid wacko.

Alternatively, I like a type of humor that pokes fun at De Niro’s move rather than directly attacking De Niro’s personality (which is way more aggressive).

For example:

Stiller: Damn! I was this close from stealing the alarm codes of the house I am already sleeping in

This type of humor makes fun of Jack and the gratuitousness of his move while at the same time showing a superior attitude.
Very powerful.

#2. Use Humor to Highlight Their Covert Aggression

In this case, you would simply shake your head in disapproval and mutter something like:

Stiller: How welcoming


Stiller: I love you too Jack!

This one is good to show that De Niro was showing strong negative sentiment towards him.


Stiller: Typical Jack..

This last one is as if to say “typical Jack’s dickhead move”.

Minimalist humor is great for all situations in which you are not sure what to do and cannot come up with a smart, witty retort.

It’s simple and effective:

  1. Shake your head in disapproval or disgust 
  2. Mutter what they did was very low

That’s it, very simple. It shows superiority and doesn’t allow rudeness to unchecked.

#3. Encircle Them by Recruiting Bystanders on Your Side

If there are people around you can rally the troops on your side and isolate the rude bully.

This technique works best in two situations:

  1. You have good standing within the group
  2. The bully’s move was unsavory

If one of the above is met, then it’s relatively easy to get people on your side. And when you get people on your side, you win by default.

In this case, Still could have pulled off an encirclement move by looking at the bystander(s), pointing towards De Niro, and then making a joke or retort. 
With just a small tweak, most of the above examples would work in this situation as well.

For example:

Stiller: He really loves me

The moment the bystanders would have laughed, he had scored a social win.

If he wanted to go for a more serious tone, the social equivalent of filing a complaint with his girlfriend or mother-in-law, he could have looked at one of them, shaken his head, and used a minimalist retort.

Chances are that Stiller would have managed to get De Niro’s wife or daughter to complain to De Niro about his behavior. 
And that would have been a huge power move on Stiller’s side.

#4. Dominate Them Socially

The final option for dealing with rude people is to go socially dominant on them.

In the example we are discussing, Stiller could have walked to De Niro and touched him. Either put a hand on his shoulder or pat his back.

Touching someone is very dominant and, in this case, it would have sent a strong message that Stiller does not take sh*i from anybody.

Since walking over and touching De Niro in his own house was going to be a very dominant move, it was paramount for Stiller to take the edge off. 

He could have taken the edge off the dominant nonverbal with a friendlier verbal move.
For example:

Stiller: Ahah it’s OK Jack, I’m here in friendliness 

This one would have rather openly communicated something like “I saw what you did and you don’t need to do it because I’m a friendly, trustworthy person”.
I personally like this approach a lot.

A more dominant version would have been to say something like this while patting De Niro on his back:

Stiller: It’s OK Jack.. 

This one would have communicated something like: “it’s OK Jack, you don’t need to be such an ass”.

For the right tonality, you can watch this video:

Why Escalation is Difficult

Escalating against subtle rudeness is difficult and socially risky for one main reason: since their move is subtle, an escalation puts the burden on all of you.

You become the one who has to “prove him” wrong and you are the one who is expending more effort.

In Power University, I explain that the person who expends more effort is also the one who is more often socially weaker.
And it would be easier for the rude bully to step back and make it seem their move was nothing. If they decide to use that move, it’s easy for them to deny or minimize and counterattack by making you look like you are overreacting and taking things “too personally”.

Here is how it could have turned out in that event with a direct escalation:

Stiller: Jack, stop that! Why are you treating me like a thief. I am the boyfriend of your daughter
De Niro: ? What are you talking about
Stiller: The way you’re protecting your combination, you are acting as if I were a thief. Did you realize I am already sleeping in this house?
De Niro: I am putting the alarm on as I always do 
Stiller: Yes, but you did this and turned your back on me to hide yourself. I’m not a thief Jack
De Niro: You are making things up..

Etc. Etc. 
Even if De Niro didn’t want to deny his move, he could have easily said it was a natural reflex to hide his password, and Stiller would have indeed looked like he was making a big fuss out of small stuff.


That’s why, my friends, great social skills are not so much about pure dominance but about high social intelligence and social finessing.

As a matter of fact, the higher you go in the social hierarchy, the more the moves become subtle and the more power is conferred to the person who can display more tact and finesse.

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