In my professional life, I have worked with incredible people. Thoughtful leaders, genuine do-gooders, and talented superstars with in-check egos. I’ve also worked alongside people who swore and demeaned others simply because their bosses did, who walked by never saying hello or making eye contact in the hall, and a few who even pretended they couldn’t hear you when you chimed in during a group conversation. (Yes, full-grown adults; some with their own children.)
Guess which ones I think about more?
It’s not just me. Danny Wallace is the same, and in his witty and poignant new book, F You Very Much, he’s plumbed the depths of rudeness to show the profound effect it has on our health, and why a bad exchange can needle at you for days, months, and sometimes years after it happens.
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Rudeness is Ruining Our Health
Ever wonder why you can’t formulate a witty comeback in time after someone’s offended you? There’s an explanation for that. “One of the reasons rudeness is so devastating is that it affects cognition. When people encounter rudeness, they can’t think in the same way. We know now that it affects working memory,” Dr. Amir Erez of the University of Florida tells Wallace. A flustered barista? That’s a shame. A rattled surgeon? Imagine the terrifying consequences. Or don’t and just read Erez’s studies, including The Impact of Rudeness on Medical Team Performance, which showed that in a closed study, 40 percent of medical errors were due to the after-effects of being slighted.
Rudeness not only wears on our psyche, but our bodies as well. As Wallace writes, “The Journal of American College of Cardiology has shown that hostility has a direct link to heart problems and rude, hostile words can even cause brain changes and long-term psychiatric risks for young adults.”
And here’s the crazy part: You don’t even have to be the target of it. Just witnessing rudeness elevates glucocorticoids (stress hormones) levels for a day, while replaying an offensive memory can make us “more cynical, less trusting, and even less empathetic.” To the point where, in one study by Dr. Erez and Dr. Christine Porath of Georgetown University, people were 68 percent less likely to help a person in need following an incident of rudeness.
Rudeness is Contagious
What if the CDC’s “Take 3” campaign for stopping the spread of flu shifted to rudeness instead?
Step 1: Hold back your insults.
Step 2: Acknowledge and appreciate others.
Step 3: Only say things online that you’d say in person.
Picture the possibilities!
It’s a funny thought, but not an off-the-mark one. After all, we now have proof that rudeness is passed around as easily as the common cold. “It’s this nonconscious stirring of your rudeness antennae that means if someone’s rude to you, it’s now more likely that the next time you find yourself talking with somebody, you’ll be primed for both giving and sensing rudeness yourself,” professor Trevor Foulk of the University of Maryland tells Wallace. “It can spread like wildfire around a contained office, leading to general hostility, lower morale, poorer performance… .”
And here’s the tricky part: It’s never been easier to be rude. Or get away with it. We can hide behind faceless email, use a bogus IP address while trolling on social media, or blend into the background of a bustling city. “We are no longer the person who left the house that morning, but part of the process,” Wallace posits.
Rudeness is Not One-Size-Fits-All
What do you consider rude? While that’s debatable, one thing isn’t: If a questionable comment or action is coming from a woman, you’re more likely to be bothered by it. You can thank good old-fashioned sexism for that one.
We ask young girls to “talk like a lady,” and celebrate their kindness, demureness, and selflessness. Boys? Yeah, right. This lays a shaky foundation for the future where women find themselves in a double bind. Don’t speak up or ask for what you want, and you’ll get bypassed and paid less. Speak up, interrupt when needed, and ask for what you want, and be ready to be branded abrasive, difficult, or too forward. As Wallace explains, an assertive man is seen as determined, driven, aggressive; a woman is bossy, ruthless, a bitch. (Cue the heartache of the 2016 election.)
Women’s personalities, in general, are judged more critically, especially at work, argues Wallace via Kieran Snyder, CEO, Ph.D., and author, who has found that personality is inextricably woven into performance reviews, which is not the case for men.
Being a rude woman (itself a questionable term given the above) does have one perk: You’ll get paid 5 percent more than a nice woman. But it will still be 13 percent less than a rude man, who earns 18 percent more than his nice counterpart.
Rudeness Has an Antidote
It begins with accountability, both big and small. A lot of positive change can start with our smartphones: Stop having loud conversations in public, mute it when playing games, put on headphones to listen to music, look up from it when people talk to you or when ordering something, be as mindful of what you say and share online as you would IRL.
On a larger scale, we can remember what it was like when the Oval Office stood for grace and dignity, rather than braggart bullying. As Wallace writes, “Rudeness is a form of rebellion that we must rebel against. Not because it weakens us, but because politeness makes us stronger. It gels us . . . Civility is at the foundations of our society. Remove those foundations and let’s watch it all come tumbling down.”
None of us is truly siloed—as people, communities, or countries. Our actions, however righteous we feel about them, cause a ripple effect. It’s easy to forget that in these transitory, narcissistic, plugged-in-but-tuned-out days. “Rudeness happens in those gaps between people; the gap that makes another person a stranger,” Wallace writes. “We are each of us isolated, but we don’t have to be. We can choose to be part of civilization. We can choose to be civil.”
Amen to that. And, not clipping your nails or flossing your teeth on public transit.
Photo Credit: Linda Raymond/iStock