All around us, we are witnessing daily moments of incivility. There’s the snide remark your neighbor on the train gave the person in front of you. There are coworkers who don’t say sorry, colleagues who are purposefully avoiding each other, clients who won’t meet your eye.
New research finds that we are subconsciously picking up on these moments, and even when rudeness doesn’t happen directly to us, witnessing rudeness affects our mood for the rest of the day as if we had been the recipient.
Study: We’re sensitive to rude awakenings
A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and highlighted by BPS Research Digest found that our exposure to rudeness works like a contagion, infecting our moods and productivity with its bad energy.
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Researchers recruited 81 students in a business course to complete surveys in the morning and evening. Students in the test group would see a video of a rude workplace interaction before completing the survey. The rudeness being witnessed would be as mild as a request being answered with no eye contact or unfriendly language, but these moments made a difference to the rest of the students’ days.
Participants witnessing rudeness would internalize the incivility. In their evening surveys, these participants would report seeing more moments of rudeness throughout the day. The researchers said this heightened awareness of what a rude world we live in would spark the parts of us that start to see everyone and everything as a threat. These bystanders to rudeness would be more likely to psychologically withdraw throughout the day and would report poorer progress towards their goals and a higher sense that they had no agency over their actions.
Rudeness affects everyone
What this study proves is that when you’re rude to someone, it doesn’t just affect the person you want to insult; everyone who witnessed the moment will get dragged down, too. An overheard terse remark can cause a ripple effect of rudeness and bring a whole office down in its wake.
Our sensitivity to rudeness is backed up by previous research that found it can have devastating effects on our ability to do our job. In one study, doctors and nurses who heard mildly rude statements about their competence were more likely to make serious mistakes that would result in the wrong diagnosis.
Here’s what you can do
Inevitably, we will encounter rude people and witness uncivil, unkind behavior throughout our days. How can we prevent ourselves from the psychic damage these acts cause us?
The researchers in the rude awakening study found that we can build our immunity to rudeness by shoring up our reserves of confidence. The innocent bystanders to rudeness who reported higher levels of self-esteem were immune from the rudeness manipulation.
But until we all gain the self-confidence needed to repel rudeness, we need to watch what we say and how we act around others. Recognizing the outsized power one snide word can cause is one more reason to hold your tongue against the temptation to make someone feel small.
This article was first published on November 6, 2017.