So the context of this question is as follows: I attended a friend’s art opening a week or so ago. It was a pleasant, low key affair and a few of the people in attendance tangentially were connected via a common arts organization we all volunteer at. This art show was a group show completely disconnected from this arts organization; simply a common group of friends.

Also, no drinking is happening so alcohol cannot be blamed.

As the opening proceeds I run into someone I met at one point—about 1 to 2 years ago—at said arts organization and he introduces himself to me, I introduce myself to him and say:

“I met you a few years ago. I’m not too sure you remember, but we did.”

For some reason he seemed to be excessively offended by me mentioning that and responded.

“Oh, I don’t remember you… But we met a few years ago?”

And I reply:

“Yes…”

And he says again:

“Well, I don’t remember you… But you remember me right? I guess you know better than me, right?”

And then this awkward back and forth goes on an on for a few rounds and it feels a bit uncomfortable to aggressive on his part.

The conversation changes, and then this is where it gets weirder.

As the night progresses, no matter what the topic, if we were together he would endlessly say:

“Oh, I met Jake before. In the past I guess. I don’t remember. But he said so.”

This goes on and on so much other people are looking at the other guy quizzically as well. I’m trying to “grin and bear” it, but it’s painful. I didn’t want to confront this guy in the middle of the opening because that would have ruined our friend’s event. And given this guys odd behavior, who knows how bad that could have been.

It even spiraled to the end where I said, “Gotta go! Nice meeting you!” And everyone is nice and polite… Except for “that guy” who is aggressively shaking my hand and repeating:

“Well, it was nice to meet you… But we apparently met before and I don’t remember you from then. But still, goodnight!”

While some of this might seem comical, a lot of the interactions were just straight out passive aggressively weird. Real sense of hostility. No real humor to deliver or intonation. My sense is he knew he was at a sensitive social event and was “testing limits” for his own enjoyment. Other people seemed to sense this as well.

So when all is said and done, could there have been a way to politely get this guy to stop being a jerk at this event?

How would it be possible to stop someone like this without making a scene? Is the solution as simple as a, “Hey… Let’s talk…” followed by leading said person to a quiet place—even outside of the venue—to confront them?

Please note that the fact this happened in the context of an art opening with colleagues from an art organization has little bearing on this behavior. The person in question is not trying to be “witty” or cool but was genuinely aggressive.

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There was a point where you could have defused it if you'd detected the "ramp-up" in his responses. When he questioned your statement for the second time:

“Well, I don’t remember you… But you remember me right? I guess you know better than me, right?”

That's a sign that, despite reasonable expectations in a social setting, this is something the other person wants to push on (especially with that "know better than me" part). To defuse that, you could have responded with:

"Perhaps I've misremembered. Well, if we haven't met before, I'm pleased to meet you now."

By saying this, you accept blame on yourself and redirect the discussion. I've used this approach many times, though not specifically about past meetings with the person I'm talking to. (I've used it when someone else and I disagree on some memory or some unimportant fact.)

If you only realize later that he's going to be weird about it, you can still try the "perhaps I'm mistaken" approach. The longer he's been carrying on the less likely it is to work with him, but the other people around you will hear you too. All you can do at that point is to rely on them to realize which of you is behaving inappropriately.

I know an answer has already been selected, but I have to disagree with the idea that the questioner should/could have handled this differently.

I think he/she did nothing wrong, and should not take responsibility for how the weird passive-aggressive person responded. That person sounds like a textbook narcissist who couldn't handle the idea someone else has a better memory. Since they responded aggressively to something totally innocuous, it's equally likely they would have been aggressive even after the "perhaps I'm mistaken" line.

The solution to dealing with people like that is—as the selected answer included as a failsafe—to allow their aggression to be visible to others, and let them be judged for it. And, to avoid/limit interaction with them whenever possible.

I think this is a better course of action for at least two reasons. Firstly, on the principle that it does not allow the narcissist to alter the behavior of those around them. Secondly, it does not pretend that the aggression displayed by that person is justified. By apologizing to them, their behavior may be reinforced, and they will continue to be unaware that anything was wrong with it. As I said above, it is also unlikely that there was only one 'trigger' for that person's obnoxious aggression; taking the "Sorry, I must be mistaken" approach is not sustainable if they do repeatedly take that form of response.

I think it is much better to actually signal to the person—without escalating—that their aggression is not welcome, rather than allowing them to continue feeling like the wronged party from an objectively innocuous comment. Some degree of ostracism can help that person get the signal, without making a scene.

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    Thanks for the pointer! I did some reading from the link you provided and tried to back up my answer. While I have experience dealing with people like the one in the question, I do not have a specific recollection of putting this idea into practice. I still believe the reasoning I presented is strong enough that it should be considered a valid answer, but if I am mistaken, let me know. – tripolon Oct 7 at 10:09
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    This is much better and I removed my downvote. As a side note, here is the link to "How do I write a good answer" (I forgot to link it before). – Noon Oct 7 at 12:33
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    @Noon This answer is great! – JakeGould Oct 7 at 17:39
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    Hi @ElizB, I meant to try to strike a balance -- to not act as though the aggressive person was acting normally, but not call them out for it. Being more direct by saying something like, "Hey, stop being weird. Everyone here thinks you're an ____!" risks provoking further aggression. In a social situation like the above, that directness wouldn't be worth the risk. A more delicate signal would be to abruptly end the conversation and/or conspicuously start talking to someone else in the group in a more upbeat manner. – tripolon Oct 9 at 3:56
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    I understand the balance part, but I'm still not understanding what the signal would be. Instead of saying "hey, everyone here thinks you're ____!", can I have an example of what could be said instead? – ElizB Oct 9 at 11:18

If your quotes are verbatim what was said, then I read this situation as the guy taking (or pretending to take) exceptional offense with your word choice of

“I met you a few years ago. I’m not too sure you remember, but we did.”

You meant this to get across the message of "We met, but you are under no obligation nor expectation to remember me." This intention is very courteous, potentially saving a person from feeling the need to pretend to remember meeting you.

However, your particular wording "I'm not too sure you remember" could come off as you informing a person of what they do and do not know, in this case, telling the person that they don't remember. While all you meant was that you would not expect them to remember, a certain type of person could take offense to being told what they know (especially if they did remember). In my opinion taking offense to this and not understanding (or willfully ignoring) your innocuous meaning behind the statement is an IPS failing on their part.

This negative interpretation and offense taken seems clear to me by their next few responses.

“Oh, I don’t remember you… But we met a few years ago?”

Read from the perspective I've outlined above, they are not confirming that you are telling them "we met a few years ago" but confirming that you are telling them that they don't remember you.

Of course, since you meant no slight by your comment and did not for-see/realize the way that they had taken your comment...

And I reply:

“Yes…”

He then sets up an even more explicit stating of what he is offended about. As Monica pointed out in her answer, this was the ramping up moment and a point at which tensions could be defused.

“Well, I don’t remember you… But you remember me right? I guess you know better than me, right?”

Unfortunately defusing this situation is going to be tough since you don't understand the source of offense. My preferred way of defusing a miscommunication is to call out the fact that I think there was a miscommunication and invite that person to work back through the conversation to repair it. Something along the lines of:

[Um|Whoa|Uh,] I'm perceiving that you've taken offense to something I've said, but I think there may have been a disconnect between what I meant and what you heard. No offense was meant, what did I say wrong?

This approach could also work after pulling the person aside after a number of these petty and snarky interactions calling back to the offense. Pulling them aside for a one on one interaction more likely to be effective, an audience drives on to defend themselves.

If the person is rational and doesn't want to be offended, this should defuse tension, maybe shed some light on the miscommunication and perhaps even lead to an interesting conversation about the miscommunication (if you're some meta-analyzing conversation nerd like I am). Asking for an upset person's input on what is upsetting them will often (in situations such as this) make them aware of the triviality or non-existence of the perceived slight.

On the other hand, if this person was determined at this point to take offense, this comment leaves them very little real issue to take with you and as you observed, people were able to identify who the bad actor was in this situation.

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