Rudeness begets rudeness. Watching someone who is rude tends to make you act rudely. Being treated rudely makes you more likely to treat someone else rudely. It happens automatically, without your even being aware of it.
If this happens in personal interactions, does the same thing happen when the media is constantly exposing us to people who are acting rudely? And what happens when politicians behave boorishly? Do these examples tend to make us behave more rudely toward others? Do they promote bullying and other forms of assaultive disrespect?
And, what happens to the culture when politicians are rude and disrespectful to members of the opposition party? What happens when they show more contempt than courtesy, when they demonize each other? Ought we to conclude that these political leaders undermine social harmony?
Also, some forms of psychotherapy, in particular Freudian psychoanalysis involve systematic rudeness. When you refuse to look your patient in the eye, when you refuse to take what he says at face value, when you give him the silent treatment, you are being monumentally rude. Does this promote good behavior or bad behavior? One must note that Freud would have considered the latter to be more in touch with the fundamental truth of human nature. See Janet Malcolm’s seminal essay: “Therapeutic Rudeness.”
Scientific American reports on the research without drawing too many conclusions and without applying the results to different cultural situations. Which is well and good. We need to evaluate the data before drawing a conclusion.
Researchers from the University of Florida were not surprised to discover that we tend to emulate our betters. If someone who has fame and fortune and power acts like a boorish lout, he is inducing others to do the same. If you associate certain behaviors with success, you will happily adopt them. And yet, we also imitate and mirror behaviors when we are relating to our peers, to our colleagues or friends. And it does not matter that much whether you have simply witnessed the rude behavior or have been its target.
Let’s examine the Scientific American report on the research:
New research by Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum, and Amir Erez at the University of Florida takes that same first step in identifying a different kind of contagious menace: rudeness. In a series of studies, Foulk and colleagues demonstrate that being the target of rude behavior, or even simply witnessing rude behavior, induces rudeness. People exposed to rude behavior tend to have concepts associated with rudeness activated in their minds, and consequently may interpret ambiguous but benign behaviors as rude. More significantly, they themselves are more likely to behave rudely toward others, and to evoke hostility, negative affect, and even revenge from others.
Prior studies had addressed the effect of emulation. We tend to emulate our betters because we associate their behaviors with success. But, the new research has shown that the imitation effect applies even with our peers:
In addition, in most previous studies the destructive behavior was modeled by someone with a higher status than the observer. These extreme negative behaviors may thus get repeated because (a) they are quite salient and (b) the observer is consciously and intentionally trying to emulate the behavior of someone with an elevated social status.
Foulk and colleagues wondered about low-intensity negative behaviors, the kind you are likely to encounter in your everyday interactions with coworkers, clients, customers, and peers. We spend far more of our time with coworkers and clients than we do with supervisors, and so their actions, if contagious, are likely to have a much broader effect on us. Evidence for negative contagion among peers and customers might also suggest that there is more than one mode of infection. We are far less likely to intentionally base our behavior on our customers than we are on our bosses, and thus any behavioral contagion observed in these settings is likely driven by unconscious, unintentional processes rather than by purposeful imitation. Perhaps we can “catch” behaviors without even trying.
Being polite to your customers, your clients, your friends and neighbors contributes to social harmony through the contagion effect. Being rude induces rudeness in others, and it happens without one's being conscious of the process:
These findings suggest that exposure to rudeness seems to sensitize us to rude concepts in a way that is not intentional or purposeful, but instead happens automatically.
The researchers showed different videos to test subjects. The subjects were then shown a rude email. Their reaction to the email was colored significantly by the video they had seen:
However, the type of video participants observed early in the study did affect their interpretation of and response to the rude email. Those who had seen the polite video adopted a benign interpretation of the moderately rude email and delivered a neutral response, while those who had seen the rude video adopted a malevolent interpretation and delivered a hostile response. Thus, observing rude behaviors, even those committed by coworkers or peers, resulted in greater sensitivity and heightened response to rudeness.
Therefore, it is not just about being treated rudely. You will behave more rudely merely by witnessing bad behavior:
Collectively, the data from Foulk and colleagues highlight the dangers of low-intensity negative behaviors, even those that are merely witnessed rather than personally experienced. With negative behaviors, the witness becomes the perpetrator, just as the person who touches a doorknob recently handled by a flu sufferer can themselves get sick and infect others. No conscious intent in necessary, and the contagion may last for days. Unfortunately, unlike the flu, there currently is no known inoculation for this contagion.
What conclusion can we draw? Perhaps the studies show that we are prone to harmonize with others, even when their conversation amounts to a cacophonous din. Surely, it is taxing to indulge in that level of rudeness, but we seem to be programmed to get along with other people and to speak to them in a language they understand. One suspects that people who adopt rude behaviors are not trying to avenge themselves or to return the abuse as much as to try to connect with someone who is behaving badly. Or else, they might be trying to adopt the posture that seems to be socially acceptable.
What is the solution? Perhaps it lies in the Biblical injunction: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Which is not the same as: do unto others as others do unto you.