Rude behavior could be as contagious as a cold

'You'll see more rudeness even if it's not there'

Ever wonder why you get a sour feeling after talking to a rude coworker? Well, new research may have the answer.

A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology by researchers from the University of Florida (UF) found that rudeness can be contagious, and that being the target of—or even just witnessing—rudeness can actually make a person act more hostile and unpleasant.

For the study, researchers had 90 graduate students engage in 11 negotiation exercises with various partners. After each negotiation was over, participants were asked to rate how rudely their partner behaved during the exercise. The study found that participants who viewed their partner's behavior as rude were more likely to act rudely toward their next partner.

Is your office 't oxic'?

In addition, the researchers measured whether the time between negotiations played a role in how rude an individual acted in the next negotiation. Surprisingly, they found that the rudeness experienced in the previous encounter caused participants to behave rudely in the following one no matter if the next negotiation was the following hour or the following week.

Researchers say this happens because our brain's rude "concept"—which is activated when we experience rude social stimuli (like a conversation with a negative coworker)—can change the way we perceive the world. 

"When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable," says Trevor Foulk, an author of the study and doctoral student in management at UF's Warrington College of Business Administration.  "You'll see more rudeness even if it's not there." And that rudeness, Foulk notes, can be detrimental to creativity, performance, and helpfulness (as evidenced in prior studies).

The researchers also examined how quickly 47 undergraduate students could point out real or nonsense words from a list. Before being asked to identify the words, the students were required to watch one of two staged interactions—one involving rude behavior and one involving normal behavior. When the students saw the rude interaction take place, they were more quickly able to point out the rude words on the list than those who viewed the normal interaction.

Can't stand a difficult colleague? Tips to work together

Recommendations

The researchers suggest employees take time to clear their heads and reflect on their states of mind before interacting with others and encourage employers to take how their employees treat one another 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," says Foulk. "It isn't something you can just turn your back on: it matters" (Cruz, Medical Daily, 7/22; Foulk, The Conversation, 7/22).

Insights from the Advisory Board

Learn how to deliver the right feedback to motivate your team, get a staffer back on course, and succeed in a difficult conversation with doctors.


Next in the Daily Briefing

Weekly review: Anthem and Cigna strike a deal, U.S. News names the nation's 'Best Hospitals,' and more

Read now