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Why rudeness is so toxic — and how to stop it

Rudeness perpetuates rudeness. And the act of being rude or being the recipient of rude behavior can impede productivity, emotions and overall health.
Image: Man being rude in theater
Rudeness is a stressor and it affects our health and wellbeing because it's emotionally upsetting. Blend Images / Getty Images

No one likes being cut off, bumped into or the recipient of a terse email. Yet it happens all the time — both to us and if you think hard enough, you can probably think of something you did or said not too long ago that someone else may have seen as not so nice.

Therein lies the problem, explains Michael P. Leiter, PhD, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia. Rudeness happens when someone behaves in a way that doesn’t align with the way someone else might think is appropriate or civil, he says. “You can’t really assume that the people you’re encountering share your core values about how people should get along.”

That applies whether you’re at work, on a crowded train platform or elsewhere. And that means a lot of rudeness can be and tends to be unintentional, Leiter adds. “It comes from cluelessness, being inconsiderate, not thinking it through, or simply not imagining that somebody could be offended by something.”

So why is it that seemingly innocuous, simple acts of rudeness can very quickly set us off or put a damper on the day? Because rudeness (“incivility” as psychologists sometimes call it) is anything but innocuous.

Such behavior instigates a self-perpetuating cycle of negative behavior, hampering our productivity, our happiness and our health along the way.

Rudeness begets rudeness and hurts productivity

“Incivility is a virus,” Christine Porath, PhD, Associate Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, says. “You touch it and unfortunately we often don’t realize we pass it on to others.”

Porath’s research shows that when people experience more rudeness, they are less motivated, they actually cut back on the amount of effort they put into a certain task, and they are far more likely to leave an organization compared with organizations where there is less rudeness. Other research shows as incivility between customers and workers increased with an organization, sales performance dropped and employee absenteeism increased.

More experiments from Porath and her colleagues show that even witnessing rudeness can hurt performance scores when it comes to routine tasks (for this study the participants unscrambled purposely scrambled words) and creative tasks (the participants had to come up with an idea for how to use a brick, a brainstorming task frequently used by psychologists to study creativity).

Rude actions tend to trigger rude responses, creating a big negative spiral and a negative culture, Porath explains.

That’s not to say rudeness necessarily triggers aggression — as in most of the time a coworker talking over you in a meeting won’t necessarily lead to a fist fight. But people do tend to reciprocate in more subtle ways, Porath notes. Think passive aggression, she says. “They’re not helpful. They may insult each other back and forth. They may not share information with that person in the future — or not work as hard.”

Rudeness is bad for our health and wellbeing

Rudeness is a stressor, Leiter adds. It affects our health and wellbeing because, he says, “emotionally, it’s upsetting.”

We tend to ruminate about rude interactions — maybe talking about it with our friends, thinking about it later in the day, or letting it wake us up in the middle of the night. That’s because such interactions are an attack on a part of our identity, Leiter explains. It tells us you’re not important enough to be treated better, he says — “you’re not really a legitimate person.”

And finally rudeness is so toxic because of that negative spiral. The aftermath of a rude encounter driving to work or on an elevator might get brought to work. “We take it out on others,” Porath says. “We’re frustrated, we’re short with people, we don’t acknowledge them, we don’t listen to them or pay attention.”

And most all of us can likely relate to the fact that leaving the office in a bad mood makes it that much tougher to come home in a good one. Experimental studies, too, have documented this contagious effect of rude behavior.

Breaking the cycle of rudeness starts with just being nicer

So what can you do to avoid and stop the rudeness virus? Here’s what the experts suggest:

1. Acknowledge people and express appreciation

Say hello, thank you, and all the other niceties you know. “The act of kindness itself start changing the tenor of things,” Leiter says. Survey data his research group collected have shown that the biggest predictor of how often people are rude to you is actually often you are rude to other people.

2. Don’t let rude behavior fester

When someone does something rude and you internalize it, negativity festers, which can lead to resentment, Leiter explains. Particularly when it’s someone you have a relationship with and see over and over again — family members, friends, or colleagues — it helps to express how you feel about someone’s behavior toward you, he says. “It’s more risky, but it’s a powerful thing to do.”

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggests: “Use statements with ‘I,’ like ‘I felt this say when this happened’ or ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware how I felt when.’”

Think of it as re-negotiating a better way of getting along, she says.

3. Avoid rude people

You can’t necessarily skip all interactions with a rude desk mate at the office. But limit it when you can, Leiter says. Skip the happy hour or long lunch if you know you’re going to leave upset because of a certain individual.

4. Think about how your behavior will sit with others

Be wary of how other people might react to your behavior, says Trevor Foulk, PhD, Assistant Professor of Management and Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland. “Most interactions are ambiguous in terms of meaning,” he says. “We know what we mean, but we’re relying on the target to infer the meaning we want.”

(That applies especially to emails and text messages, too, Foulk says.)

Let the niceness be contagious instead of rudeness.

5. Apologize if you do find yourself being rude

If and when you do find yourself doing something rude, apologize, Krauss Whitbourne says. “Apologies and seeking forgiveness are very important for mental health.”

And use it as an opportunity to learn how to be nicer in the future, she adds. “Let the niceness be contagious instead of rudeness.”

6. Believe in decency

If you go around thinking everyone’s out to get you, you’re always going to be on the defensive and rudeness will automatically follow, Krauss Whitbourne says. “The thought leads to the emotion, which leads to the behavior,” she explains.

Instead, start with the assumption that people have good intentions. It may sound like the Polyanna-view, but you’ll start approaching interactions (with strangers and likely with those you do know) in a much more positive way. One way to do it, Krauss Whitbourne says: “Attribute bad behavior maybe not to the person, but to the situation.”

We tend to forgive our own bad behavior easily or blame it on being rushed, stressed, or whatever – yet we tend not to cut others so much slack, she says.

If you go around thinking everyone’s out to get you, you’re always going to be on the defensive and rudeness will automatically follow.

7. Smile!

Smile more, Krauss Whitbourne says. “Smiles — genuine smiles — go a long way to counteracting rudeness,” Krauss Whitbourne adds.


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