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SCIENCE: Rudeness at Work Is Contagious

If you've had a boss or co-worker tell you to leave your attitude at the door, you can feel better knowing they were probably just trying to protect your innocent colleagues from catching your rudeness. That's right: according to new research from psychologists at Lund University in Sweden, rudeness is contagious, and it can have seriously negative effects on the workplace.

If you’ve had a boss or co-worker tell you to leave your attitude at the door, you can feel better knowing they were probably just trying to protect your innocent colleagues from catching your rudeness. That’s right: according to new research from psychologists at Lund University in Sweden, rudeness is contagious, and it can have seriously negative effects on the workplace.

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We all have our own definition of rudeness. But, the research, which surveyed nearly 6,000 people in order to understand the social climate in the workplace, defines rudeness as “something that goes under the radar for what is prohibited and that in some way violates the norm for mutual respect.” Rudeness can be simple, petty behavior like going out to a company happy hour and explicitly not inviting one person. Rudeness can also go as far as taking credit for someone else’s work, spreading rumors, and not giving praise to subordinates.

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A Word About the Study

Although bullying in the workplace is a well-documented phenomenon, rudeness that risks turning into bullying is not.

“It’s really about behaviour that is not covered by legislation, but which can have considerable consequences and develop into outright bullying if it is allowed to continue,” says Eva Torkelson, the lead on this project.

In plain English, if rude people aren’t corrected sooner than later, they could become a workplace bully.

Why Are We So Rude?

According to the researchers, the most common cause of acting rudely is imitating the behavior of our colleagues. This tells us that rude behavior is something we potentially learn and develop as we build relationships with our co-workers.

“An important finding from our studies is that those who behave rudely in the workplace experience stronger social support, which probably makes them less afraid of negative reactions to their behaviour from managers and colleagues,” says Martin Backstrom, a psychology professor involved in the study.

What Can You Do?

Because people tend to act like those they hang around with, there is a risk that office rudeness could become a vicious circle. Behavior like this affects everyone in the workplace.

So what can we do to fix this before things get out of control? Talk to your leadership, managers, HR, and staff. Being open and transparent about a growing negative trend will not only show that you care about the company, but that you care about others who are being victimized who may be too afraid to stand up for themselves.

“When people become aware of the actual consequences of rudeness, it is often an eye-opener,” Torkelson said. “And of course, most people do not want to be involved in making the workplace worse.”

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