You’ve chosen to set as your phone alarm to “By the Seaside” so you wake up to good vibes. And when you do, you’re pleased to find your black pants wrinkleless, which means you’ve got just enough time to pour yourself a coffee rather than ironing after a few moments of meditation.
You saunter out the door where your neighbor is rounding up his children to get them on the school bus. He greets you good morning and you laugh about the new crossing guard who somehow remembers all of the students’ names.
You live only a few blocks from the subway, so you’re seldom late — getting anywhere is quite easy. You swipe your card and thrust your hips through the turnstile, greeted by the train that conveniently arrives just as you do. You take a seat and eagerly open the book your friend gifted you “just because.”
But a person beside you scoffs. Without realizing, you’ve taken the last free seat. But that’s just it — it’s a free seat, up for grabs. You’ve no obligation to give it up, but you offer this person your seat regardless, because they’ve made you feel uncomfortable. They tell you it’s “fine,” and they give you their shoulder.
When you reach your stop, you wiggle your way out of the train, trampled by a rushed corporate-clad mob that pushes past you. You step onto the escalator but the person ahead of you stands on the left, even though everyone knows the left lane is for climbers. You excuse yourself and, when they don’t budge, you choose instead to ascend patiently. But when you get upstairs and head outside, they let the door shut in your face. Disoriented, you drop your coffee. The droves of commuters and pedestrians alike brush by you, neglecting to lift a finger.
You finally get to your office, hop in the elevator and hit your floor. Others run to catch it before the doors close, but then they stand in silence — everyone in the car stares blankly at their phones, swiping through old emails without ever acknowledging one another. “Good morning,” you say. Not one of them responds with eye contact.
Well, that sequence of events may just set the tone for the entire rest of your day, recent research says. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that exposure to rudeness can actually affect your mood and productivity for the day.
Researchers recruited 81 business students and asked them to complete two surveys, one in the morning and one in the evening. Those in the test group were first shown a video of a rude workplace interaction before filling out the survey — this includes everything from a request being answered with no eye contact to unfriendly language. Regardless, these rude moments notably impacted those students’ days.
Participants who witnessed rudeness internalized the incivility. In their evening surveys, they reported having noticed more moments of rudeness throughout their days — as though the first instance heightened their awareness and shed light on insolent exchanges thereafter. They were also more likely to psychologically withdraw throughout the day and reported poorer progress towards their goals and a higher sense that they had no agency over their actions.
This is not the first time science has delved into the many ways in which rudeness affects our lives and, particularly, our careers. In 1999, researchers at Saint Joseph’s University and the University of North Carolina published a study aptly titled, “Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace.” The authors of this study found that workplace incivility can indeed spiral into increasingly intense aggressive behaviors — if you’re rude to someone, they’re more likely to be rude back and they’re also more likely to dump on the innocent. Rudeness can spread like a “contagion,” they wrote.
In 2015, researchers from the University of Florida took a deeper dive into how and why rudeness has this spiral effect through three different studies. They began by studying the interactions of 90 graduate students during negotiation training, which was conducted in pairs. After each negotiation, students rated the rudeness and likability of their partners and then, through a series of nine trials, the split a cash sum with that partner — they did so fairly, selfishly or, instead, they spitefully accepted a poor prize in order to deny the other any cash at all. Each participant then repeated the same process with 10 more partners. The researchers found that, if one partner was rude, the other would be likelier to spite them financially; then, the spiteful partner’s next partner would be more likely to find them rude and, again, spite them financially. In other words, one person’s rude actions transcended negotiation pairs.
A second study looked at how fast students recognized rude-related words like “boorish” or “pushy” and found that they were quick to do so especially when the start of the experiment had been marred by the experimenter rudely humiliating a latecomer. The researchers found that experiencing rudeness, then, brings it to the front of our minds and perhaps colors how we interpret others’ behaviors, thus influencing our own behavior.
The last study highlighted how these biased interpretations thrive in ambiguous situations by showing one set of students a video of an altercation between coworkers in a bookshop. They were then asked to complete a version of the cash allocation task used in the first study but, this time, they were asked to share proceeds with a customer who’d emailed the bookshop with a query regarding an undelivered book. When the query was written in a neutral tone, participants were fair with cash, but, when the query was deemed hostile, participants chose to spite the customer in about one in four trials — whether or not they’d experienced rudeness prior didn’t sway their decisions. But a third query version that read, “I REALLY need those books. I hope this isn’t asking too much!??????” and was deemed ambiguously hostile proved divisive; participants who hadn’t experienced prior rudeness gave them the benefit of the doubt and treated them fairly, but those who did experience prior rudeness opted to spite them.
All of these studies are piling proof that bullying — albeit outside of the office or inside the workplace — can systematically infect organizations. Rudeness affects our moods, hampers our productivity and spreads like wildfire.
While we can’t necessarily control spreading colds at the office, we do have the choice to be kind. And we can start by being more contious of the ways we perceive others and how it affects our own actions. Or, simply, by making sure we look for the good in the world around us, too, despite how difficult it might seem at times.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.