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Civility Matters: How Rude Behavior Spreads Like the Flu

What research reveals about snark and psychological safety.

Source: pathdoc/Shutterstock

Anxiety, depression, grief, and coping with a narcissistic partner are big topics in therapy. But behind salient signs of distress, such as overwhelming thoughts, hopelessness, humiliation, or low self-worth, lies a lesser-acknowledged, low-intensity behavior: rudeness.

If you consider the neuroscience of human connections and the implications for our emotional well-being, it’s easy to spot this insidious culprit for all its obnoxious glory.

Problems with interpersonal relationships typically begin when one person feels disrespected, slighted, or cheated out of something. In theory, if we acted like the evolved species we are, we could identify the behavior (rudeness), maturely voice our displeasure with the recipient, and end the mean behavior right then and there.

Snark and Social Media

Easier said than done. Especially when the internet and social media allows us to post comments anonymously and hide behind default avatars. This lack of transparency encourages some of us to say things we normally wouldn’t have the courage to communicate directly.

Guilty as charged. As a regular viewer of Twitter’s trending hashtags, I recently delighted in the collective criticism following singer Fergie’s rendition of the national anthem at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. After wasting a good 30 minutes scrolling the #Fergie hashtag, I recognized my rudeness and decided to turn the bitterness into a more compassionate lemonade.

After all, it’s a song — albeit, a national treasure — but a mere 120 seconds of time. Considering the unthinkable act of domestic terrorism which occurred days earlier at a high school in Florida, hardly worth expending the mental energy, right?

Research on Rudeness

A series of 2016 studies conducted by the Journal of Applied Psychology found that, like the common cold, rudeness is easily contracted, and exposure to one episode can have long-lasting effects. Not only can anyone be a carrier, but also “rudeness activates a semantic network of related concepts in individuals' minds, and that this activation influences individuals' hostile behaviors.” When we’re around rudeness, we may even misinterpret ambiguous behavior as hostile, exhibit negative facial expressions and body language, and then exact revenge.

“When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable,” said lead researcher Trevor Foulk. “You’ll see more rudeness even if it’s not there.”

Applying the findings of this research, it’s not hard to imagine the effects on the workplace, organizations, schools, and the interactions in our own backyards.

Bottom line: Exposure to rude behavior affects our mental health and the way we respond to impropriety.

Channeling Civility

Acting with kindness and grace won’t eradicate mental conditions like anxiety and depression, or eliminate the toxic effects of narcissism on children. However, it’s the easiest way to ward off those behaviors which quickly spiral out of control and negatively affect our mental state.

But wait, why should I turn a blind eye when others are mean to me?

In short, because politeness increases our sense of psychological safety. In long, because watching rude behaviors leads us to be rude to others, who then may act rudely (or worse) toward us.

In a world full of heartache, turmoil, and instability, there is no reason to add rudeness to the mix. Even if others choose incivility, we don't have to follow suit. In my case, I’ve bookmarked Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl rendition of our national anthem (just in case). And it should be that easy to recognize and stop the detrimental pattern of rudeness. So the next time you find yourself competing for a berth in the Mean Olympics, ask, What will I do to stop the contagion of obnoxious behavior now before it spreads like wildfire? And do that.

For more information on increasing awareness of your actions, click here.