Catching (and Spreading) the Rudeness Bug

It’s said that laughter is contagious, right? Well, apparently, the same is the case for rudeness.

ThinkstockPhotos-476962485According to a study out of the University of Florida, titled Catching Rudeness Is Like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors, “encountering rude behavior at work makes people more likely to perceive rudeness in later interactions. … That perception makes them more likely to be impolite in return, spreading rudeness like a virus.”

Trevor Foulk, a doctoral student in management at UF’s Warrington College of Business Administration and the lead author of the study, puts it this way: “When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable. You’ll see more rudeness even if it’s not there.

“Part of the problem is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful,” he continued. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace.”

Tracking 90 graduate students who practiced negotiation with classmates, the researchers found that those who rated their initial negotiation partner as rude were more likely to be rated as rude by a subsequent partner. In other words, they ended up passing along the first partner’s rudeness. The study found the effect continued even when a week elapsed between the first and second negotiations.

In a separate test, the researchers also found that people who witnessed rudeness were more likely to be rude to others. “When study participants watched a video of a rude workplace interaction, then answered a fictitious customer email that was neutral in tone, they were more likely to be hostile in their responses than those who viewed a polite interaction before responding,” a press release on the research explained.

So what do these findings (published in the Journal of Applied Psychology) mean for employers? Foulks points to the need to take incivility more seriously.

“You might go your whole career and not experience abuse or aggression in the workplace, but rudeness also has a negative effect on performance,” he pointed out. “It isn’t something you can just turn your back on. It matters.”