Why Rudeness Is So Contagious

playing cards, Alice in Wonderland
The playing cards tell each other off in this illustration by John Tenniel from "Alice in Wonderland." The Print Collector/Getty Images

Someone cuts you off on the highway, so you flip him the bird. You're mad, and now he's mad. You both go to work and snap at your unsuspecting colleagues, who in turn fling some vitriol at others. And so, the cycle continues.

Rudeness is unpleasant. But it's also highly contagious and can affect your physical and mental health, says Danny Wallace, author of "F You Very Much: Understanding the Culture of Rudeness -- and What We Can Do About It." Wallace discussed the rudeness scourge on a recent episode of the podcast Part Time Genius, cohosted by Will Pearson and Mango Hattikudur.


"When someone has been truly rude to you and broken the rules [of civility], it's very confusing," says Wallace. "Which is one reason why people can't think of anything witty to say in the moment [as a retort]. And because you've been disrespected, you're trying to claw back some of that respect somehow." Which is why, he says, you keep replaying incidents of rudeness over and over in your head — particularly when you didn't make the perfect comeback at the time you were dissed.

And rudeness is contagious, he notes. In an article published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers cited three separate studies that showed that if someone was rude to you, you were more likely to behave uncivilly toward someone else. So, if you were cut off driving to work, later you might open an email from a colleague that asks, "Will you be at today's meeting?" and feel he is implying that you're going to skip it without a good reason. Even if you merely witnessed a rude interaction between two strangers, you became more likely to be nasty to someone else.

Rudeness affects your brain's frontal lobes, the area responsible for working memory. And those feelings can make your work suffer. Research shows that your creativity and job performance nosedive when someone is nasty to you. That's because rudeness is emotionally draining.

One of the most chilling aspects of uncivil behavior is that it can affect health and safety. Wallace says a study on surgeons in Israel showed that rudeness made them 50 percent less effective — they didn't communicate well, picked up the wrong instruments and missed changes that affected the initial diagnosis. In fact, says Wallace, had the simulation in the study been real, the infant being "operated" on would have died.

Despite this alarming intel, there's hope. Workplace rudeness can be addressed through plans of action set up by management. In fact, some scientists are working on a "rudeness vaccine" for doctors — a video game that they could do when they come to work to take a breath and reset their minds. Simple awareness of incivility's contagion can help you monitor your own behavior so that you don't pass it on.