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<p>Why Rudeness Goes Viral
October 17, 2016
How good at you are responding to rudeness with courtesy and respect? Do you find yourself
experiencing disrespect at work? Everyone has both heard of and probably experienced a
“toxic culture” at work. Countless hours of consulting have been spent on addressing these
complicated ecosystems that undermine motivation and sap productivity. Now recent
research points to a subset of this phenomenon that may explain why it’s so hard to take the
proverbial high road when we are faced with rudeness or incivility in others. This matters
because toxic cultures aren’t spontaneously manifest out of thin air. They evolve out of the
aggregation of moments, and corresponding policies and choices that make life at work less
empowering and collaborative. So anything that leaders can do to interrupt the drift toward
the lowest form of behavior can potentially help to avoid such a negative environment.
Back to how we respond to meanness. The research was done by Christopher Rosen’s team
at the University of Arkansas. To understand their findings we need to look at what processes
allow us to “turn the other cheek” or maintain courtesy and respect even in the face of
disrespect and rudeness. Doing so is not easy or automatic. In fact, it takes discipline and
self-control not to reciprocate unkindness. I think I’m safe in assuming that most of us have
experienced a moment when our reflex was to lash out and strike back, and instead, we
counted to ten or took a deep breath and responded politely. Customer service people are
regularly tasked with controlling their impulses in the face of rudeness or disrespect. But
doing so takes real training, skill and most of all, willpower. All of those require a finite
resource: psychic energy.
In the study, Rosen’s team found that when people are subjected to rudeness or hostility,
their performance on impulse control tests fell. In other words, the experience of being
treated rudely or disrespectfully actually ate away a