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Can You Catch Rudeness From Your Coworkers?

Topics: Work Culture

Life is hard enough without having to contend with negative coworkers on a daily basis. These folks can really bring you down. But a bad attitude might be even more dangerous than is immediately obvious. Could rudeness actually be contagious? Here’s what you need to know.

Image Credit: Rosaura Ochoa/Flickr
  1. Emotions are contagious in general.

Research about emotions and how they spread between people is not new. It’s long been known that humans “unconsciously and automatically” mimic the feelings and emotional expressions they see and experience around them. The human brain is triggered by frowns and smiles, for example, to experience the corresponding emotion as if it were our own.

When we take this idea and see how we can apply it to improve our working lives, we realize the importance of surrounding ourselves with the right people. Being positive is important, and could make a big difference for your career. So, try to avoid those coworkers who drag you down and instead elect to be with folks who are feeling good — it just might rub off.

  1. Research shows we can fall into “incivility spirals.”

A study published this past summer in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined expressions of incivility at work. The research looked at incidents of sarcasm, put-downs, and other rude behaviors to see how they impacted others. In the end, researchers learned that in fact these actions do tend to spiral, with one leading to another and so on.

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“We all have a finite amount of resources available for controlling our behaviors at work,” Christopher Rosen, coauthor of the study and a professor of management at the University of Arkansas told the Boston Globe, “and this study suggests when you experience incivility from others, it draws down those resources and you’re unable to inhibit your own actions going forward.”

The idea is that we each only have so much self-control available to us each day, and that coworkers who exhibit these rude behaviors chip away at it and leave us more likely to act out. In other words, if someone cuts you down, interrupts you, or snaps at you, you’re more likely to turn around and do the same to someone else later in the day.

  1. Other factors help rudeness to spread.

According to the research conducted by Rosen and his colleagues, other factors contribute to this problem as well. Some workplaces are more vulnerable than others to the spread of rude behaviors. Offices that were dubbed “political” (workplaces where employees were hyper-vigilant and overly involved in power struggles or self-serving activities) seemed especially vulnerable. The competitive environment created by these ideologies is most likely to blame. Also, rudeness increases, naturally, in high-stress work environments or when workloads are particularly heavy. It stands to reason that feeling mentally drained could lead to increased vulnerability in these areas.

  1. Awareness always helps.

Perhaps through identifying and better understanding this issue, we can begin to tackle it one person and one workplace at a time. Rudeness is contagious, just like so many other negative behaviors. When it happens to you, you’re more likely to turn around and do it to someone else. Maybe knowing that could help us end the cycle. Also, it’s important to be aware that certain attitudes and the work environments they create (think: self-serving, overly competitive) can be toxic, not just to individuals but to the entire staff and ultimately to the company at large. Awareness always helps — and so does kindness.

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What attitudes and behaviors feel contagious in your workplace? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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