Do you work in a rude or hostile environment? If so, a new study shows that rudeness in the workplace is a contagious behavior that spreads, if nothing is done to break the vicious cycle of incivility.
Workplace rudeness is a serious problem. For the recent study, three psychologists at Lund University in Sweden surveyed nearly 6,000 people on the social climate of their workplace. 75% of the survey respondents said that they'd been subjected to rudeness in the past year.
Rudeness often goes under the radar. Although the researchers observed that bullying and harassment in the workplace are often well documented—acts of rudeness, that often border on bullying, are rarely reported.
The researchers of this study said, “Rudeness can refer to petty behavior such as excluding someone from information and cooperation, or "forgetting" to invite someone to a communal event. It can also refer to taking credit for the work of others, spreading rumors, sending malicious emails, or not giving praise to subordinates.”
The December 2015 study, “Models of Workplace Incivility: The Relationships to Instigated Incivility and Negative Outcomes,” was published in the journal BioMed Research International.
In a press release, Eva Torkelson, who is leading the project on rudeness as a social process in organizations said, "It's really about behavior that is not covered by legislation, but which can have considerable consequences and develop into outright bullying if it is allowed to continue."
This groundbreaking research unearthed that the most common catalyst for co-workers acting rudely is imitating the behavior of their colleagues.The study found that people who behave rudely oftentimes experience a type of ‘lowest common denominator’ social support, which makes them less afraid of negative reactions or repercussions for their rude behavior by managers and colleagues. This creates a climate in which rudeness can spiral out of control and contaminate the entire workplace.
Handling rude people can be tricky. Obviously, you can’t control someone else’s behavior or explanatory style. I believe the most effective way to break the vicious cycle of rudeness is to keep your cool, bite your tongue, and avoid being rude in response.
Equanimity is the key to stopping the ricochet effect of rudeness snowballing out of control. Equanimity is defined as, “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” In 2013, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post about equanimity, “The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back," which was inspired by baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Before signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers in 1945, the general manager, Branch Rickey, made it very clear that: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey was looking for an individual who was both a great athlete and a ‘gentleman.’ He needed someone with the inner-strength and self-restraint to withstand intense hostility and aggression without becoming reactive. Robinson was able to realize that 'not fighting back' was the ultimate testament of his courage.
My grandmother lived and breathed the etiquette rules of Emily Post. Although my mom is a renegade of sorts, she always kept a copy of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, that her mother had given her, on hand for whenever she needed to reference the ‘Rule Book’ of good manners and proper etiquette.
I always assumed that Emily Post was old-fashioned and stuffy. However, after reading the new Swedish study on rudeness in the workplace being contagious, I did some research this morning on what Post had to say about dealing with rude people. To my surprise, I found that many of Emily Post's insights on etiquette hold timeless wisdom about how people should treat one another.
Emily Post sums up proper etiquette as another form of the 'Golden Rule' in which you simply "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Post says, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” In defining the principles of etiquette, Post boils it down to three components: respect, consideration, and honesty.
Obviously, when someone’s rudeness crosses the line and becomes bullying or harassment, you must be a proactive "whistleblower" and alert others to the details of your hostile work environment. Sometimes being 'polite' is not an appropriate response to disrespectful treatment.
When dealing with rude people, always stay even-keel and use common sense. Trust your gut instincts and intellect when deciding whether to let rudeness roll of your back in an attempt to create an upward spiral of more empathy and kindness by "not fighting back.” In some instances, we all need to put our foot down and make it clear, in the spirit of 'ferocious equanimity,' that we won’t tolerate rude or insulting behavior anymore.
That said, I rarely escalate conflicts with rude people. 99% of the time, it’s more effective to disarm rude people with politeness. Over the years, I’ve found that deflecting rudeness with genuine, Kevlar-coated kindness is the best defense.
If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,
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