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Rudeness is more than upsetting, it’s contagious

3 min read

Rudeness is more than upsetting, it’s contagious

Rudeness at work is actually contagious. Here's what you can do to steer clear of it (and not spread it).

When someone is sick at work, we ask them to go home. Keep those germs contained! Maybe if they’re in a foul mood, we should do the same.

Not only does it feel like garbage when someone is rude to you, but rudeness at work is actually contagious. In a terrifying self-perpetuating cycle, you’re more likely to be rude to other people if someone is rude to you.

Even the scientists say so.

Rudeness is contagious

First off, you’ve got to love science. It’s like anecdote’s best friend. We humans feel something instinctively, but it’s not proven until science comes along and confirms what we suspected all along.

This time, science says that rudeness is a powerful contagion.

Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum, and Amir Erez of the University of Florida completed a seven-week study, in which students were engaged in 11 negotiation exercises with various partners. Here’s how it worked:

“After each negotiation, participants had the opportunity to rate how rudely their negotiation partner had behaved. The structure of this exercise allowed us to explore how rudeness could be contagious by examining how the rudeness experienced in one negotiation influenced rude behaviors in the next negotiation.”

“If negotiators felt that their negotiation partner was rude, when they went on to their next negotiation, their new partner in turn perceived them as rude.”

And, fascinatingly, rudeness is long-lasting.

Some of the negotiations were seven long days apart, but the researchers found it didn’t matter.

“Even if negotiations were a week apart, the rudeness experienced in the previous negotiation still caused participants to be rude in their next negotiation.”

Finally, you don’t even need to be the receiver of rudeness to feel its effects.

The study shows that you only have to witness rudeness—like one colleague speaking sharply to another—to start noticing or perceiving rudeness more.

“For example, imagine someone walking by you and saying “Hey, nice shoes!” You might interpret that as a compliment, or you might interpret it as an insult—it’s sort of hard to tell, and your brain has to decide.

“Well, when you’ve recently experienced rudeness, you are more likely to perceive that comment as rude even if it wasn’t meant that way. Then, subsequently, you will respond to the perceived rudeness with more rudeness.”

What about if you’re having a bad day?

We all have bad days. Sometimes life hands you lemons. And making the lemonade is just too exhausting to handle. You’d rather throw the lemons at the wall and stomp out of the room, into the rest of your day.

What then?

In my opinion, it’s time to be self-aware. To get mindful.

Mindfulness helps you check in with yourself and keep watch on your own emotions. Then, when you’re aware of your emotions, you’ll be better able to mitigate them. And, hopefully, better able to handle them in stressful situations.

“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future."

It's been shown that mindfulness can help regulate emotion, reduce emotional exhaustion, and improve job satisfaction in the workplace.

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude."
Maya Angelou

How can you avoid catching rudeness?

At some point in your life, people will be rude to you. This circumstance is almost impossible to avoid. But, while you can’t control how others treat you, but you can control your response.

To avoid catching rudeness, you’ll need to try your best to let it roll off you. To understand that this isn’t your problem, it’s someone else’s. Either kill the rudeness with kindness, or simply separate yourself from it.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, says: “Not everyone can be nice, but you can do your part to refocus your energy from annoyance to acceptance.”

And don’t forget: happiness is contagious too.

Remember this when you experience rudeness. Your reaction could stoke the flame of rudeness, or put it out and trigger a chain of happiness instead.


You can catch rudeness at work, just as you can catch the common cold. But, by exercising mindfulness and kindness, you have the power to stop the rudeness spreading any further. Try to put this into practice the next time someone treats you rudely.

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Hannah Price

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