Anyone who's been on the Internet, worked in retail, or attended a city council meeting can tell you that, anecdotally speaking, rudeness seems to spread like a virus. University of Florida researchers Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum, and Amir Erez found out actually, it really does — and they've got the science to back it up, in the form of three interlinked studies exploring rude behavior and the way it spreads between individuals and through groups.
Their work might not change the way people interact with each other, but it does provide more information about the psychology behind how we interact with each other.
We're often reminded that we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar when we're chastened to avoid aggressive communication — women in particular get saddled with a demand to be nicer — and opt for polite, measured interactions. We use terms like "common courtesy" and "good manners" to stress that humans should treat each other reasonably and not be jerks, and there's already a social awareness that people tend to return like with like. Hence the notion of taking the high road when someone's being aggressive or inappropriate — something that can be really difficult to do at times.
Overall, the researchers found that when their study subjects were exposed to different kinds of behaviors (neutral, aggressive, rude), encountering rudeness tended to make them rude in return in future interactions. Being around rudeness, in other words, encouraged them to assume that neutral communications had a more malicious intent — the classic case of reading an innocent note as passive-aggressive — and it also made people more inclined to be rude in response, thus creating a chain of bad manners.
In the first study, the researchers asked their subjects to complete a brief survey. A prearranged plant showed up late and the researcher either politely asked the person to return later or scolded her for not being on time. After the surveys were finished, participants moved on to a task where they were asked to look at strings of letters and quickly assess whether they were words or not, a common tool in social science research for exploring bias. Those in the control group as well as the experimental group quickly identified neutral and aggressive words (ANGRY, HELPFUL, and so forth), but when it came to words associated with rudeness, the groups diverged.
Those who'd been exposed to the negative interaction between the researcher and the confederate zeroed in on words like TACTLESS very quickly, but those who'd been in the control group didn't. The experimental group had been sensitized to rudeness by their experiences, in an illustration of how a single interaction, even when it's just observed, can color your perception of the world around you.
The second study may be familiar to the independent booksellers in the audience: Subjects were asked to put themselves in the shoes of booksellers and respond to a letter from a customer. First, though, they watched a video that either showed a congenial interaction between coworkers or an impolite one. When they were done, the study subjects were given one of three letters — a polite and reasonable one, an extremely hostile one, and a rude one. Both groups met aggression with aggression, and neutrality with politeness, but when it came to rudeness, the group exposed to the friendly interaction wrote a polite response to the rude email — giving it, perhaps, the benefit of the doubt. Those who had watched the negative conversation, by contrast, had again been sensitized with rudeness and they wrote back with that in mind.
Work environment, it seems, would have a definite influence on how people respond to rudeness from customers, but the study has broader implications, again showing how an observed interaction affects perception. Rather than deflecting rudeness by meeting it with neutrality to deescalate a situation, people have a tendency to make it worse.
The final study put the subjects through a series of negotiations with different participants (and some trained plants). The researchers focused specifically on what happened when people interacted with someone rude and then moved on to another negotiation. They wanted to see if being sensitized to rudeness would turn participants into a sort of "rudeness carrier," as indeed it did — the people who negotiated with them perceived them as impolite.
In response to those bad manners, though, people weren't just rude back. They were also vindictive. When asked to choose between dividing a resource fairly, taking more than half of a resource, or simply destroying it, even though they would lose out as well, a significant percentage chose the third option. It would appear that cutting off your nose to spite your face is in fact a real phenomenon, with people willing to forgo benefits to themselves in the interest of sticking it to others.
When researchers came back a week later, they found that rudeness behaviors had persisted, illustrating that, much like a lingering summer cold, exposure can leave people sensitized for longer than they might imagine. Along the way, of course, these individuals were spreading the "infection" through rude interactions of their own, creating a daisy chain effect.
That has tremendous implications for the way people interact — and explains why someone ruining your day is more like ruining everyone else's week, even if you're not consciously trying to be ill-mannered.
This phenomenon is part of a larger pattern of what's known as emotional contagion— researchers in this case were looking at what were previously thought of as "low-intensity negative behaviors," and they found that these behaviors have a bigger impact than they realized. Numerous studies have explored the ripple effect of how moods shift in groups and crowds, with researchers like Elaine Hatfield taking a prominent role in developing theory around the subject. Understanding group behaviors is especially important in settings where people are interested in promoting harmonious group cooperation, from space stations to kindergarten classrooms.
Studies like these show that emotional influences can be extremely subtle, happening on such a low level that people don't even notice that they've been sensitized to rude behaviors. That makes it much more difficult to be aware of these influences and correct for them, requiring instead a conscious effort to take that high road and give communications the benefit of the doubt all the time, in case your perceptions have been skewed by a recent exposure to genuine rudeness. That's a challenge for anyone, even Mother Teresa.
Humans are complicated creatures with a penchant for making things worse for themselves, and while there's an inoculation for the flu, no one's been able to find a cure for bad manners just yet, unfortunately.