How to deal with stupid people

A drive-thru Starbucks (wrong + wrong ≠ right)

A drive-thru Starbucks (note: wrong + wrong ≠ right)

I got an email the other day from Haley, who made a salient point about how other people’s non-green idiocy can lead to major anxiety:

“It is becoming harder and harder to be around those who are completely ignorant of the world’s needs. I am wondering if you could post some stress-relieving tips for those of us who have to deal with our mother-in-law, friends and crazy co-workers who continually destroy everything we greener people do on a daily basis … I would also like to know if it is even humanly possible to convert my mother-in-law (or rather anyone) from her eco-destroying ways. It is like watching someone kick a puppy. She likes to do two loads of laundry a day in hot water even if it is a few towels and shirts, hand wash her dishes and then put them in the dish washer, buy paper towels in single rolls, and worst of all, keep her house at 68 even when she leaves the country for two weeks. Any advice?”

Yeesh. I can definitely sympathize, Haley. I’ve found myself nearly yelling at friends of mine when they put banana peels in the garbage instead of the compost, I frequently reprimand co-workers whenever they use Styrofoam containers in the cafeteria or buy a can of Diet Coke at lunch (although, i’ll be honest, the nagging has proven somewhat successful — one guy now uses ceramic plates and the other drinks tea and water instead of Coke), and when I opened the fridge at my parents’ house recently to find a case of over-packaged mini Evian water bottles, I practically had to shove a fistful of Ativan in my mouth.

It’s hard to know what to do in these cases. If we’re too overbearing, we run the risk of sounding like preachy, holier-than-thou environmentalists. If we don’t say anything, we’re implicitly condoning these acts of disregard. Even if we try the gentle, “You know… ” approach, it still manages to come out with a condescending air. Using pop-psychology terms here, I have to say I prefer the carrot over the stick — positive encouragement over negative reinforcement — because there’s less chance people will compost if they feel it’s a chore, and a greater chance they’ll do it if it’s seen as a way to minimize garbage and fertilize the garden.

Nonetheless, there are some folks out there who just seem like a lost cause. When I was buying some coffee recently, for instance, a guy saw me searching along the shelves and said,

“They’re all the same.”

So I replied, “Well, yeah, they all taste similar, but I’m looking for the Fair-Trade brand.”

And what does he say?

“Ugh, please, you don’t actually believe in that, do you?”

At this point, I could have gotten into a lengthy debate about the merits of Fair-Trade coffee, however it was obvious this would’ve required at least two hours of dialogue, preferably accompanied by secondary reading material and signed testimonials from Venezuelan coffee growers.

It just wasn’t worth it.

But is this really an excuse? Should I at least have said something more than, “Well, yes, I do believe in it”? And what do we do about all these weirdos who don’t believe in global warming and can’t understand why Styrofoam takeout containers are evil? Anyone got advice?

Photo courtesy of Simon Miller on Flickr

42 Responses to How to deal with stupid people

  1. Sarah says:

    Its totally hard. I am 17, and whenever I try to get my friends to recycle or ride our bikes or anything, I get The look. y’know, the – who are you crazy hippie, look. I find that it is easiest to be casually persistent. offer little “green” tips. or say, i will recycle that for you, or there is always going behind someones back and sneakily rooting through the garbage for the papers or water bottle that was thrown away. And actually, i like confrontations with strangers better. i am never going to see them again, and as long as i am in a not self conscious mood i can be as crazy as i want. I am sure i have screamed “recycle!!” at some random dude, and i know me and my friend have danced around (in public) making our own “reduce, reuse, recycle” song and dance. Anyways, the whole point of this rambling is to teach by example. Friends, Family, school/work mates will see that you always recycle, always carry a lunch sack, use Tupperware, and along with little reminders and ideas, we can hope to influence others to do good.

  2. pillbox says:

    Yay! You’re back! 🙂

  3. kaytrey says:

    sometimes you aren’t the right messenger. sometimes you need to change the message. and sometimes you need to pick your battles. Maybe your husband is in a better situation to get his mom to make some changes. maybe his argument will be about her electricity or gas bill, or her water bill. maybe he’ll go after ther laundry but skip the dishwasher, or go after the heating/cooling and skip the laundry. maybe mom is a real germophobe and only believes in hot water and double washing…

    Don’t forget, these are your values that influence your behavior. Other people have different values. It’s ok to tap their values to get the outcome you want. But you should respect and understand their values. but other people are not obligated to be motivated by the same issues that motivate you…

  4. KFC says:

    After listening to NPR’s Science Friday about how we’re on the verge of another extinction if we don’t seriously change our ways, I’m upping my green ways and trying to gently get others to do so, although I stick to family and friends because they might listen to me instead of trying to convince a stranger. The broadcast is about biodiversity, but it all has a ripple effect.

    Here’s the link, if you want to listen to the broadcast:

    Kaytrey, you make good points. However, I respectfully disagree in that what we do as individuals to the environment affects us as a whole, and more people need to value that. I’m not the poster queen for green; I’m doing what I can and I still make mistakes. But our action or lack of action adds up and affects not only us, but those who come next. I don’t know how to write that without sounding preachy, but I feel it’s true. I guess the question is how can we make more people value a greener, cleaner environment? It reminds me of how people still smoke even though they know it’s bad and a lot don’t quit until they get cancer or someone around them does. How do we change people’s value sets? Not sure.

  5. Doug A says:

    It’s strange how people in Florida right now aren’t preparing for the Hurricane that is now approaching their shores. Most won’t take action until they see the sky is dark and the rain has started. By then it will be too late for some. Most people take the path of least resistance because it is the easiest way. It is really hard to convince people to change when they don’t see any reason to do so. The effects of climate change aren’t obvious to the average person. I find that when the weather is wacky (really warm in January or really wet, cool and rainy in July) I have an easier time of making my point. People can see that the planet isn’t right.

    On the anniversary of the great blackout that happened in the eastern part of North America 5 years ago, I wished for that event or something like it to happen again. Events like that have a way of shocking people into action. They become aware of their electricity use and wasteful ways. I just wish there were a way to do that everyday without the weird weather or the loss of power.

    My advice is to speak when the opportunity is right – you’ll know when it is right and when it isn’t – but keep trying and don’t give up. This problem will not solve itself and the planet will need people like us to keep reminding and educating others as best we can.

  6. Having just returned from a week volunteering at an organic farm, I must say one of the best parts of living in this environment was being surrounded exclusively by like minded individuals. We all did our wash together and hung every thing out on the line to dry. There were two bins for compost- one actually for compost and one for the piggies. When someone opened the piggie compost and found a wrapper from a tea bag, he just plucked it out, made sure everyone knew where the tea bag wrappers should go next time and he was thanked for the clarification. There was no food wasted, and no processed food available. There was no need to explain why any of us lived the way we lived because we all got the importance of it.

    With that said- not everyone is going to get it. If you have ever had a crap-ass boyfriend that you thought you could fix, you soon learned that people don’t change because someone else wants them to. So if you can find a way to make something that is important to you, relevant to someone else in their life, than it may show some positive impact.

    When my friend tells me that her brother is reading a book about how organic food and organic growing is a wank and makes no difference to the health of the environment or the consumer, all I could do was ask what he hoped to get from that book. As someone who hates arguing, what I have learned with both my belief about whole foods and my conviction that we each have to take responsiblity in caring of the planet is that sometimes it is better to be at peace than to be right.

  7. Hellcat13 says:

    I try not to preach; rather, I lead by example and hope like heck that some of it will rub off. I mean, I’m far from an environmental saint, but every little bit helps. The fact that my boyfriend has set out recycling bins at work and brings them home every week to add to our recycling makes me happy. Little steps, but they add up.

  8. Elise says:

    Last week, I sat at Penn Station in NY and watched people try extremely hard to shove their trash through the thin slot on a bin that said “NEWSPAPER RECYCLING ONLY!” all over it. I walked up to one of them and told her that it was a recycling bin, and that her trash would probably make the whole bin contaminated and unrecycleable. She looked like she was interested, but as soon as I walked away, she continued shoving the trash into the bin! In the minutes she spent doing that, she could’ve walked two feet to the trash can without any struggle. Some people are truly unbelievable.

    What gets me through the day is the fact that my ultra-conservative father now buys organic food, carries reusable bags, and is looking into getting a wind turbine and solar panels for our house. My mom gives her reusable bags to friends to “spread the word.” My family and friends still make fun of me, but they actually make changes and listen. At least some people actually care.

  9. JC says:

    Hi! Have you ever heard of Just Coffee? It’s fair trade coffee – but they’re a “100% fair” roaster. They’re a worker-owned cooperative and they have a much shorter supply chain ( so more money goes to the actual workers – I’d encourage you to check out their site! Here’s a link to the breakdown of a cost of a bag of coffee

    It’s really cool, my friend managed to get our school to source some of its coffee from Just Coffee!

  10. jenn says:

    Your conversation with the coffee guy aisle sounds like many a conversation I’ve been bludgened with by a long time extended family member—all the no need to recycle, my trash doesn’t make a difference, how stupid is it to buy Fair trade/local/oprganic, etc. With Strangers —I tend to think lead by example though my kids are really good at yelling at the top of their lungs “LOOK HOW MUCH GAS*WATER*WHATEVER THAT PERSON IS WASTING!!!!!”

    Its the family/friends that are awkward. I try to remind myself that their snippy comments come from feeling threatened and insecure and that I can’t change that. If they want to mock me for buying organic or local or recycling, I can’t change their core feelings of insecurity. I can just do what feels right to me and teach my kids to do what I think is right.

  11. Lisa says:

    I was discussing with a group of people last night that what really bugs them are “dirty hippies” not regular “hippies.” I’m so relieved.
    Please carry on, cleanly.

  12. CT says:

    I think it’s worth remembering that however much we care about these specific issues, not everyone does, and we have to treat our friends and family with kindness and respect. I’m not a neat freak (in fact, one might call me the opposite); I would very much not appreciate it if a member of my husband’s family felt entitled or even obligated to point out my many flaws in the cleanliness department. So lead by example, be open about what you’re doing, and make the occasional informative statement if anyone is interested (or at least not hostile), but if you see someone doing something that makes you want to scream, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you really don’t want to be screamed at about your messiness or meat-eating or musical tastes.

    Okay, so I’m not all that calm or rational. My best advice? Make deals. I hated that my husband got a take-out cup of coffee every morning, so we made a deal that I would straighten up the bedroom every night if he would carry a reusable mug. Problem solved. Maybe the mother-in-law is worried about her plants freezing and would agree to turn the heat lower if her daughter-in-law offered to drop by every morning. If she’s a germ phobe and there’s no way she’ll do fewer loads, maybe you could get her to try more environmentally friendly detergent. You can’t control other people, but you can find out why they’re doing what they’re doing, and you might be able to use that knowledge to at least make a small change.

  13. carolyn says:

    I have had a kitchen garden for years, slow food before it was called that, recycled, reused everything I could reasonably thing of, bought my clothes second hand whenever possible, been an environmentalist for 30 years and taken static for it, raised rabbits whose fur I spin rabbits who eat the weeds and fertilize the veggie garden and have to watch my neighbors here in GREENville put in sprinkler systems even in this severe drought, that lavish their lawns so they have to cut them with gas inefficient mowers,often riding mowers, dowse them with chemlawn, etc.

    I don’t take the car out unless I have an important errand and then plan so I do several at once. Yet I see people leave cars on with engines running for heat or usually air conditioning when they are going into a store.

    Here in this ultra conservative black hole I don’t dare say anything. But I want to scream, scream, scream as we start to fall over the tipping point we have pushed so many species over.

    Leading by example hasn’t worked here. Not that I’ve seen. Maybe in other, more enlightened places. And talking about it in the past has only gotten me in trouble, I am tired, disillusioned, fed up.

  14. It is difficult. I’ve had some success and my environmental ways have definitely rubbed off on my parents who are themselves pretty green nowadays (though they were never huge consumerists anyway). Work colleagues can be a challenge but i do try to lead by example and our organisation is more environmentally friendly than most.

  15. I think I might have responded with “ugh, please, don’t tell me you DON’T believe in that…”

    When I first started bringing my reusable bags with me to stores- grocery or otherwise, I had a friend who would rib me for it. She’d poke fun and pretend to be embarrassed to be shopping with me.

    The other day though we were out and she saw a reusable tote for sale on an end cap, and she bought it. I think the design caught her eye more than the green nature of it, but she uses it, and that makes me smile.

  16. Jennifer says:

    I agree, it can be a challenge. I focus on the positive and surround myself with people who do care. I think there is a real shift in perception taking place and I try to remember, and respect, that everyone is at a different stage.

  17. Greenpa says:

    Hey, stranger! 🙂 Alas I don’t check your blog regularly these days, so I’m a bit behind. But still here!

    Yeah, I have advice. (You’re shocked! I can tell!)

    Your goal with these folks is to make some kind of a crack in their complacency. They obviously are not listening at this point. More beautiful, cogent, true, arguments will not get their attention; they’ve made up their minds very nicely; all settled.

    You want to make one, ice-pick like comment; which might, just might, stay with them; and make them start thinking. What that is, will vary drastically; depending on who you are talking to. Pick something they believe- and if possible, present them with another fact that is incontrovertible- and obviously contradicts their belief.

    Then smile, and walk on. They’ll have to deal with it themselves.

    They’ve got shells like giant clams. If you can make one little crack- maybe you can start them thinking. Maybe.

  18. P says:

    Go for the coolness -route. I bring my very trendy Kleen Kanteen in bright pink to work everyday. I bought the office a Brita pitcher, and sent out an email to welcome anyone else to use it. I drive a Hybrid and make sure to give people rides to lunch in it so they can see all the cool gizmos and love it as much as I do. When people complain about gas, I try to (as UN-smugly as possible), insert the fact that I pay 1/4 the gas bill. If you don’t come off as a gloater, than people will be instead shocked and amazed, and also want a Hybrid. I also bring bags to the store, and blatently don’t use the plastic fruit bags. I’ve seen people stare, and I hope they are thinking…hmm..interesting. I blatently bring my own chopsticks to fast food of any type. I clean them off afterwards and return to their own cute carrying-case. I tell the person behind the bakery counter not to give me a plate or plastic gizmo, but to just hand me the item if I’m going to eat it right away anyway. I talk about buying local and when I bought my first hemp shoe, I went around the office and told everyone why hemp didn’t need pesticides and was awesome. Start a trend, and try to convince others its ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ and that will go farther. 🙂

  19. Person says:

    Sometimes I think that people go too far with telling others to do the same as they do, but there is a very good point made here. If everyone could be positive about encouraging others, perhaps everyone would be more willing to change. I admit that I still have some bad habits that would likely frustrate a good many of you, but when I actually think about it, I try to do what’s best for the environment.

  20. D says:

    I am glad you posted this. Our environment is in danger and it is not about a fad or something weird. We really need to take personal responsibility.

  21. sam says:

    OMG!!! Your mother in law sounds like a monster!!! And to think I was worried about rapists and murders!!

  22. Lisa says:

    I think this calls for a blog lol.I was going to comment all I wanted to say but that would be very long lol. So I will just say I totally relate to this!

  23. Going Green says:

    There really are a lot of ignorant people out there. I try to tell people ways to go green but the ones who haven’t already done it do not seem to be intent on making the transition.

  24. Give me a break says:

    You people are taking this ‘green’ thing to the extreme. I’m an avid recycler, but yelling at a co-worker for buying a can of coke is rude and infringing. Cans are recyclable people! If your co-worker doesn’t recycle the can like he should, then take the initiative and recycle the can for him; simple.

    I’m all for green, but don’t become (what I call) a Green Nazi; the type of person who imposes his / her belief of ‘green’ on others, like making a big scene over someone buying a can of coke.

  25. TryingHardtobeGreen says:

    I have been trying hard to be green for many years: taking cloth bags to the shop years before it was popular, recycling where possible, using greywater on my plants, walking everywhere, shop at farmers’ markets etc etc. I have made these choices over the years because I’ve been influenced by people in my life, particularly my sister.

    However, lately, my wonderful sister and her husband have become quite self-righteous in their green efforts, and become preachy. It now feels that no matter what I do (which is a LOT more than 95% of people I know!) it’s still not good enough. It’s a bit like when religious people come to the door to “spread the Word”. You appreciate that they are committed enough to their cause to try and change your mind about something, but you hate that they intrude on your personal domain to tell you what they think you should believe.

    I think the best way to do it, as many have said before, is to lead by example. I have converted coworkers to taking their own mug & spoon to the coffee bar, recycling office paper into notepads and taught my partner how to effectively recycle and reuse. When they ask you why you do something green, I just say, “I’m just trying to reduce waste” or similar. Pretty soon, you’ll notice they’re thinking about these issues too! The saying, “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar” is very true in this case.

  26. Flower says:

    How to deal with stupid people? When im in a hurry, I say “I dont have time to debate my reserch with uneducated people, get your facts straight and we will talk again.” This always ticks them off, but I live in a small town and i have had people come talk to me later with more information than just, “thats stupid.” So, I believe my comment makes people think.

  27. geodejerry says:

    Hi, I just wanted to say “thanks” for running this site, and suggest to people who would like to go beyond dissing Styrofoam and loving organic wine, that they pick up a copy of Thomas Friedman (another journalist!)’s new book, Hot, Flatr, and Crowded. I’m still reading it, but already know that he has a lot of sense about the truly awesome problems we’re on the way to encountering. (I think it was he that turned me on to this site.)


  28. geodejerry says:

    Sorry, I meant “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”.


  29. geodejerry says:

    I appreciate TryingHardToBeGreen’s problem with his relatives. When you have “got the message,” proselytizing seems to come naturally. Here in the wilds of southern Oregon, my wife and I (both retired, we can afford the time) are building our new home, a straw-bale construction of aprx 1000 square feet (90 sq. m.) with passive solar heat, wood-stove backup (lots of dead and waste wood hereabouts), and electric backup-to-the-backup. (Excuse my technical details, I designed most of it myself, and come from a technical background.) We figure, after it’s built, our yearly heating bill should be under $100 — assuming my calculations mean anything! Growing season is short here, so we have plans, when there’s time, to put up a solar greenhouse — we’re both avid gardeners. The soil is not very good — very mineral, so we’re amending as we can from local manures and compost.


  30. kafirharbii says:

    You have too much time on your hands.

  31. david says:

    I find the best way to deal with stupid people is to just be polite and ignorant.They will never admit they are wrong anyhow.

  32. Flu-Bird says:


  33. sob7ee says:

    hey!! hellooo 😉
    i really liked this website as for the advices it’s giving!!
    but i have a project to be done and need some help!!
    we r trying to plan out an assembly for middle and high school to show them how smoking is bad to health. and we r trying to show them really convincing reasons as to make them stop or even not to smoke!! but im clueless……i need many ideas that would help out!! like some stuff like videos, poems, plays or even give me any helpful websites!!
    plz…….waitin 4 help!! =)

  34. Richard says:

    Every body hates a “know it all” and every body hates me. No matter how I interact with people to get them to emulate me they just don’t care. They figure that as long as they are part of the magority the “magority rules” and that every thing will be fine as long as they are on the “winning side”. Makes me sick! Makes me angry! What do thay do when they don’t ever want to put up with something? Answer: Thay go to war, thay cheat till thay win, thay tax you, thay arrest you, thay unemploy you.

    Makes me sick that when I try to speak my God given wisdom it goes through one eye and out the outer.

    What does this remind me of?
    Answer: Tyrants!

    Or maybe they are just crazy and we need to lock them up and treat them like the little children in big bodies they are? I don’t know and I have been sick of it all since before I first opened my eyes at age one week and one second.

    There is just too much to go on about these people, it makes my hands sweat!

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