When someone is rude to you, it can put you in a lousy mood. It may even lead you to be rude to someone else, creating a chain of rudeness that can be difficult to break.
In fact, this troubling chain may even be triggered by simply seeing someone be rude to another person. It can cause you to experience interactions through what a trio of researchers are calling "rude-colored glasses."
"You don't even have to be the target of the bad behavior," Trevor Foulk, management professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and co-author of the study, said in a statement. "Rudeness is contagious and can spread to uninvolved third parties."
The researchers worked with 81 students in the University of Florida's MBA program, with occupations ranging from security to business to medicine, who were asked to complete online surveys over a 10-day period. Participants recorded their moods when they woke up; in the evening, they described their experiences over the course of that day.
Each morning, the participants also viewed a short video in the morning. The video, depicting a workplace interaction of some kind, was supposed to be a critical thinking task, but in fact was a way for the researchers to expose participants to various degrees of rudeness. Half of the mornings, the video incorporated some aspect of rudeness while the half had some kind of cordial interaction in the workplace. Rudeness was conveyed through various means, including a lack of eye contact or unpleasant language.
The videos were accompanied by simple puzzles, like word jumbles, that the participants then had to solve. If the video was rude-based, then the puzzle reinforced rudeness as a concept, with solutions like "She always bothered him."
Participants who watched the rudeness videos reported seeing or experiencing rudeness during the day, and they were also more likely to disengage from fellow employees to avoid being the victims of rudeness themselves. They reported that their overall work suffered that day due to this disengagement.
Foulk explains more about how this played out in the video below.
"Their task performance and goal progress was low, they avoided interactions with their co-workers and they avoided thinking about work," Andrew Woolum, an assistant professor of management at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and one of the study's co-authors, told the Wall Street Journal. "All of a sudden, everyone seemed rude, so they disengaged, which killed their performance."
While it may seem a bit of a leap that one instance of rudeness — even just a video of it — could influence a person's whole day, it's important to remember that our brains are wired to form connections and relationships, particularly early in the morning. The result was that affected participants donned "rude-colored glasses" that tainted the rest of their day.
"With your brain, everything is arranged in a semantic network," Woolum explained. "So if I say 'bird,' you are likely to recall tree, sky, feathers, etc. These are related nodes, closely linked to the concept of birds.
"So when incivility or rudeness is witnessed in the morning, it calls to mind related concepts. That also means that when you encounter ambiguous behavior in the workplace later in the day, you are primed to see it as indicative of rudeness."
Some people are more immune to it than others
Not all participants were affected by the rudeness videos, however.
A few weeks before the study began, the participants completed a "core-self" evaluation that measured their self-confidence and emotional stability, among other things. The participants who scored higher on this evaluation were significantly less likely to be influenced by the rudeness priming.
As a result, Woolum recommended that companies hire managers who can limit exposure to rudeness, provide plenty of positive reinforcement and foster a civil workplace environment. This, in turn, could help employees build their confidence levels and help them better navigate workplace rudeness.
The findings also point to the importance of starting your day off right. Rudeness can happen during the commute or even in a pre-work yoga class, so finding ways to minimize your exposure to rudeness, whether it be changing up your commute or work out times, might go a long way toward having a happy and productive work day.
The study was published in December 2017 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.