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The Best Way to Counteract Rude Behavior

When people are rude, new research shows how best to manage your response.

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Complaints about rudeness in others aren't new to contemporary society, but modern life certainly presents many opportunities to be uncivil. There are the people who can't resist checking their cellphones while talking to you, those who dawdle and fiddle around at the self-checkout counter at the drug store, and others who fail to RSVP to your invite to a bridal shower.

Other rude behaviors aren’t new to the digital age, but are bothersome nonetheless because of the rapidly changing pace of life: You’re trying to get work done on a lengthy train commute or plane ride, or even just trying to zone out in your weekly yoga class. You’ve set aside this precious time for work or relaxation and don’t feel like dealing with interruptions. It may be a group of fellow commuters who decide to entertain each other with loud anecdotes from their weekly poker game, or people who can’t keep from whispering to each other in the final meditative moments of that yoga class.

In all of these cases, rudeness only makes you irritable and distracted, and you can’t shake off the bad mood.

Research by the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Andrew Woolum and colleagues (2017) shows just how disruptive and upsetting such rudeness can be. The focus of their study was on workplace rudeness, which is somewhat different from the rudeness that occurs among strangers or people who only see each other occasionally. However, “incivility” at work is becoming a topic of investigation by organizational health psychologists who see it as an important contributor to higher overall stress levels and lower productivity. It’s not a large logical leap to take the findings from this research into the other areas of daily life in which rudeness invades your sense of well-being, as you’ll see shortly.

Woolum et al. began with the premise that rudeness may seem “only minor in nature and often dismissed as innocuous” (p. 2), but that it can have disastrous consequences going well beyond harming the health of workers themselves. They note that “even a mild rude incident can severely harm the performance of medical professionals, increasing the probability of fatal consequences for patients” (p. 1). That’s a pretty strong indictment of incivility.

According to the UNC-Wilmington team, the research that backs up such claims is impressive, but flawed, in that it typically involves measuring reactions to one-shot events, instead of, more appropriately, seeing reactions to rudeness as evolving over time and spreading beyond the immediate incident and players involved. Instead, Woolum and collaborators see rudeness as “embedded within the social fabric of the workplace,” and potentially “contagious” (p. 1).

Thinking of those rude people on the train or in yoga class, these too are probably not isolated events if you tend to go on the same routes every day or are on the same fitness class schedule. Like rudeness at work, running into incivility in such settings can put you in a similarly lingering bad mood. The Woolum et al. study’s findings, therefore, could be applicable to your own situation, even if you don’t typically encounter rude behavior at work. The study focused on rudeness in the morning as particularly important, based on the idea that seeing rudeness first thing in the day will cause you to see the rest of your day behind “rude-colored glasses.” Start-of-day experiences serve a kind of effective resetting function, which frames your perceptions for the rest of the day. Those rude morning train riders will sensitize you, in other words, to rudeness in everyone else you see throughout the day—and possibly into the evening after you return home.

Rather than just wait for rude behavior to rear its ugly head or ask people to report on times they’ve been treated rudely, Woolum et al. tested their hypotheses on MBA students in an experimental fashion. Their study involved exposing participants to instances of rude or neutral behaviors and then asking them to report on their moods over 10 consecutive workdays. On the five “rude” days, participants saw a video depicting either rude or neutral behavior among workers.

They also completed a word puzzle in which they were to unscramble words in a sentence that contained either rude or neutral content. In the rude videos, a worker responded harshly to the request of a fellow employee for a favor. The rude sentences contained content that conveyed people acting poorly toward each other (e.g., “him bothered she always,” which solves into “she always bothered him”). Participants rated whether they perceived rudeness in the workplace, such as being talked to in a condescending manner by a fellow employee.

Additionally, they reported on their tendency to avoid fellow workers, their ability to get their jobs done, and their effect right after being exposed to the rudeness manipulation. Participants also rated items on a self-evaluation scale, assessing, for example, how self-confident they felt and how well they felt they could cope with their problems.

Witnessing rudeness in the rudeness condition indeed led participants, in general, to experience negative outcomes in mood, to perceive more workplace rudeness, and to perform more poorly at their jobs. However, among workers who perceived themselves as self-confident and able to solve their problems, the rudeness manipulation turned out to have no effect. Woolum et al. concluded that, in terms of practical implications, the study’s findings show that “organizations will be well-served to limit workers’ exposure to rudeness by, for example, stressing a culture of politeness and cordiality” (p. 10). The other implication is that because rudeness is less disruptive for a person high in self-confidence and self-assessed coping ability, it would seem important to help beleaguered employees feel better about their own ability to manage their feelings when they’re confronted with rudeness, either toward them or others.

To sum up, it’s helpful to know that the beginning of the day sets the stage for how you’ll react to the unfolding of events in the subsequent eight or 12 hours. To help that time be as productive and fulfilling as possible, try taking the high road and focusing on your own strengths and coping ability. Those talkative people on the train or in the yoga studio don’t have to get to you. Not everyone can be nice, but you can do your part to refocus your energy from annoyance to acceptance.

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Woolum, A., Foulk, T., Lanaj, K., & Erez, A. (2017). Rude Color Glasses: The contaminating effects of witnessed morning rudeness on perceptions and behaviors throughout the workday. Journal of Applied Psychology, doi:10.1037/apl0000247

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