Snapping at a perpetually cheerful co-worker. Slinging a surly answer toward a harried waiter. Aiming a snarky comment at a friend. If you're on the receiving end of an ill-mannered interaction, could it alter the emotional trajectory of your day?
The answer, at least according to one recent study, is a resounding "yes." Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered that it takes only one "patient zero" to spread rudeness like the common cold. A single rude person can infect dozens of other people, causing a chain reaction that can have a surprisingly long-lasting negative impact.
For seven weeks, Trevor Foulk and two other doctoral students at the University of Florida asked study participants to complete 11 negotiation exercises with a variety of partners. After each exercise, participants were asked to rate the rudeness of each partner.
Researchers discovered that the participants who experienced rude behavior became rude themselves, and then infected the next person with whom they negotiated. This "contagious rudeness" factor remained consistent, whether the negotiations were back-to-back or separated by up to a week.
"We found that time did not seem to be a factor. In other words, it appeared in the data as though the contagious effect was not wearing off," says Foulk.
Turns out, small doses of rude behavior can really add up. This is especially true of the workplace. Most organizations try to prevent outright abuse or aggression, but employee attitudes experience death by a thousand cuts as uncivil interactions pile up. In fact, up to 98 percent of workers report being on the receiving end of rude behavior.
"Many people can go their whole careers and never experience actual abuse or aggression at work, but low intensity behaviors at work happen all the time," says Foulk. "There is mounting evidence that these low intensity behaviors are harmful to people. They hurt performance, creativity and helping behaviors."
Foulk surmises the effect is an automatic process, one that taps into emotional concepts in the subconscious part of the brain. For the same reason writing about power can trigger feelings of empowerment, being exposed to rude behavior can cause people to interpret negative or neutral behavior as rude. And when the subconscious is primed to recognize rude behavior, it sets an automatic reaction into motion — one you don't realize is happening, and are therefore powerless to prevent. (This probably explains a lot about middle school. And "Real Housewives.")
This heightened effect of the subconscious on autopilot can lead people to misinterpret otherwise harmless interactions.
"If someone does not say 'good morning,' some might feel that he or she is being deliberately rude, when actually the individual is lost in thought," says Lisa Bahar, a licensed clinical counselor who specializes in helping clients regulate emotions. "[Responding to a slight with] rudeness is, in most cases, a form of defense or protection against vulnerability. Rudeness sometimes works for individuals to gain a sense of power over a feeling of being inferior."
These emotional auto-responses can turn interpersonal communication into fertile ground for insolence, and entire organizations into a hotbed of incivility.
"If you're spending time with rude people, you're likely to become rude yourself," Foulk says. "We may need to reconsider how tolerant we are of these behaviors. Everybody thinks people will just 'get over' rudeness, but more and more we're seeing that's not the case, so it may be time to start questioning whether rude behaviors belong in organizations."