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Why Rudeness At Work Is So Contagious

The more psychologists learn about how rudeness spreads, the more workplaces need to adjust to defend against it.

Why Rudeness At Work Is So Contagious
[Photo: Flickr user Andres Rodriguez]

Most offices have policies in place to stop sexual harassment, abuse, and other problems in the workplace. And rightly so.

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But smaller-scale issues can do major damage if they’re left unaddressed–everyday rudeness perhaps most of all. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace,” says Trevor Foulk, a doctoral student in management at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration who led a recent study on the issue. “Most workers will go their entire careers and not experience true aggression and violence in the workplace, but people experience rudeness all the time.”

Rude encounters might seem like minor annoyances that are easy to brush off, but their effects can build up, eventually hurting productivity and performance. “When people experience rudeness,” Foulk explains, “they perform worse, they’re less creative, and they’re less helpful with coworkers.”

The reason is that when we experience rudeness, our brain dedicates cognitive resources to process the event. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking about the rude encounter. It’s sucking your attention away from doing other things–like the ones you’re actually paid to do.

Rudeness Is Contagious

Foulk’s study tested undergraduate students’ reactions to a staged interaction between a late-arriving participant and the study leader. When the leader was perceived to be rude, participants identified more “rude” words than they did when the leader was perceived to be more accepting of the student’s late arrival. The students were then asked to answer a fictitious customer email that was neutral in tone. Those who had perceived the leader to be rude in the interaction were more likely to answer the email in a rude way. The researchers concluded that workplaces where small doses of incivility are tolerated can develop cultures of rudeness. In other words, people respond to perceived rudeness by being rude themselves.

Rudeness is so contagious because there’s a mechanism in our brains that’s switched on when we experience or even witness it. “That part of your brain wakes up and is now scanning your environment for rudeness,” Foulk says.

This is why you tend to notice more rude events and interpret ambiguous events as rude. For example, if someone says, “Nice shoes,” they could be giving you a compliment, or they could be insulting you sarcastically. If you just had a rude run-in with someone else, you’re more likely to interpret the remark as a dig at your shoes. “When you’ve just experienced rudeness, your brain tends to go to the rude interpretation,” says Foulk.

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Stopping Rudeness From Spreading

Combatting rudeness in the workplace, Foulk says, has to be tackled at an organizational level: “We really need to reexamine what behaviors we accept in the workplace.” Because of what we now know about how rudeness spreads, our workplaces need to adopt similar policies as those that guard against more serious abuses.

Few employers have begun thinking about rudeness as a behavior to be sanctioned, but the more we understand about it, the greater the need becomes to address it like the real issue it is. As Foulk says, “I hope this study turns managers’ attention to how negative these behaviors can be and how harmful they can be to performance.”

Related: Are You The Toxic Coworker?

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About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction

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