The contagion of incivility …dealing with the canker of rudeness at work


She has to be the Empress of Rudeness. If there was a National Competition for Impoliteness, that lady was going to walk away with the crown hands down. The entire office is aware of her behaviour and yet no one dares say anything, for fear that she would download a truckload of rudeness their way. Everyone tries as much as possible to stay away from her path. Some senior colleagues have attempted to sit her down and advise her on a need for a change in her behaviour. That is something many of them have regretted up till today. Like we say in our local parlance, she really “gave it to them.” She is now simply untouchable.

If she was rude to only her colleagues, one would have grudgingly accommodated her poor behaviour. But that is not her case. In her world, everyone is fair game. She would raise her voice at the slightest issue to customers and colleagues alike without blinking an eye. She recently got into a heated argument with a customer who threatened to report her to the MD. She dared the customer to go ahead. That’s how far this individual can go. She just could not be bothered with the mantra that the customer is the lifeblood of the business.

If the lady I am describing here seems like someone you know in your office, someone you have met quite recently or someone you have heard of, I am sorry to disappoint you. I am not describing any particular person. The reason why this person might sound like someone you know is because there a lot of these individuals all around. And I must add that they are not only females. Some of the rudest individuals you would encounter in the world of business are males.

No one likes to deal with a rude person, whether as a customer or a colleague. It is such an unpleasant experience that no one wakes up in the morning looking forward to that. However, apart from the feeling of distastefulness, there is another very important reason why any form of rudeness should be eradicated from the workplace.

More than one scientific study has shown that rudeness is contagious. Some have likened rudeness to a virus. When one person catches it in the office, it begins to spread. It is not as if those who begin to show rude behaviour after witnessing something similar, go out of their way to be rude. It just happens. That is why it is important that rudeness is not allowed to rear its head up in the first place.

Published in the January 2016 edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology, one research undertaking, led by Trevor Foulk of the University of Maryland, was actually made up of three separate studies. The study was titled “Catching rudeness is like catching a cold: The contagion effects of low-intensity negative behaviors.” The results were quite alarming, if you ask me.

According to the researchers, “low-intensity negative behaviors like rudeness can be contagious.” They went ahead to state that even a single episode of witnessing a rude behaviour could have an effect on the person. Secondly, and even more disturbing is the assertion that anybody can be a carrier of the rudeness contagion. Finally, it was found that this behaviour could stay inside an individual for as long as even up to a week, thereby affecting future interaction partners.

It was explained that when people experience or even witness rude behaviour, they are more likely to expect it in subsequent encounters. The lead researcher explained that there were centres in our brains which begins to look out for signs of more rudeness, even when there is nothing to suggest that the one is going to be exhibit any rude behaviour. The spiral begins when the individual goes into the next encounter expecting to be treated rudely and as such also begins to put up a rude behaviour.

Another study from the Department of Psychology, Lund University in Sweden buttressed the point that incivility in the work-place had the potential to initiate a negative spiral. Published in BioMed Research International, the study involved more than 2,800 members of the Swedish Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. The results indicated that instigated incivility was to a large extent caused by colleagues witnessing co-workers acting in a rude manner. In other words, people were more likely to be rude when they witness others being rude.

The quality of a business’ customer service is directly related to the quality of interactions among co-workers. The service among internal customers is a good barometer of the quality that external customers will receive. And if the preceding discussions are anything to go by, then managers, supervisors and even colleagues should ensure that something as seemingly harmless as a rude comment, gesture or behaviour should be instantly dealt with.

If according to the study, anyone can catch the contagion of rudeness, then it stands to reason that even those who might not be expected to have any form of incivility in them can actually exhibit such behaviour unconsciously. An otherwise cool and mild-mannered individual might end up exhibiting behaviour that might be alien to his or her nature. When rudeness is allowed to fester in the organisation, customers tend to suffer.

In one of the studies undertaken by Foulk and his colleagues, participants were asked to enter into a series of negotiations with their assigned partners; some nice, others rude. After a period of time, the partners were changed for each individual. It was worrying to note that when individuals were given new partners to negotiate with, those who at first had encountered the rude partners were themselves rated as rude by their new partners. It seems the rudeness of the earlier partners had seeped into their system. They had caught it like one catches a cold.

For the purposes of our discussions, this means that when co-workers exhibit rude behaviours to each other, the chances are high that the negative behaviour might be replicated towards their customers. I am sure this can easily explain why sometimes people act in ways that may even surprise themselves.

The timing for sighting a rude behaviour is also of great importance. For instance, if an individual is met with rude behaviour early in the morning, the chances of that individual carrying that behaviour for the rest of the day becomes very high. Like one writer wrote, that person would go through the rest of the day with “rude-colored glasses that taint their perceptions of the world.”

It is important to also note that sometimes rudeness could be a sign of some shade of inferiority complex or an insecurity.  Irish author, orator and philosopher, Edmund Burke was right when he said “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” Such an individual needs more than a query or reprimand. A counselling session might do the one some good. The one must also be made to appreciate the extent his or her negative behaviours is capable of going.

I have opined on this platform before that sometimes it is the very little things that make the biggest difference in life. Customer service is no different as it is a reflection of life. We might think of a single rude act as nothing serious but if we are to consider its ripple effect throughout the organisation, we would realise that there is nothing little about a single rude remark, act or behaviour. Supervisors, unit heads, managers and business leaders must always be on the lookout for any potential acts or remarks smacking of incivility and nip the situation in the bud. After all, in a world where we find ourselves closer to each other than we have ever been, the last thing one wants is to be infected by a contagion of incivility. Too many people might catch it.

Leave a Reply