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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.”

Tell Us What You Think

Do you know of an interesting workplace study you’d like to see here? Comment below or join the discussion on Twitter!

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9 Comments on "SCIENCE: Rudeness at Work Is Contagious"

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Wow! Powerful discussion. Maybe I misinterpreted the article. I was thinking ‘rude’ as someone checking their phone when they are talking to you in front of your face. Someone leaving their food in the refrigerator until it starts to move. People using company money for their personal purposes. People who speak so loud in the airplane the pilots up front can hear them. Someone who uses profanity every other word throughout the office. I will agree In our society today it may not be considered as rude, it might be considered more obnoxious . I have been in situations like… Read more »
Raghu Barigeda

Consistent rudeness behaviour make work atmosphere contagious. Rudeness some times is right behaviour or inevitable to bring time discipline, meeting targets, a communication for improving work efficiency, team jolting.
Bosses should explain to convince their team time to time why rudeness was that time used and what was achieved being rude. This way team will gain confidence and respect for work values.


Supervisors, Managers, employees, should be rotated and relocated, interchanged as much as it is possible to maintain and grow business. Most of us are most polite in a less familiar environment. This also solves a host of other workplace issues…

This is a good article and I would encourage Managers to do further learning with regard to these matters. The comments made in relation to this article show a serious lack of education about factors affecting the workplace, a stunning lack emotional intelligence and also show a disturbing tolerance for anti-social behaviour. In situations where “rudeness” is tolerated, it breeds complacency towards these attitudes that only leads to escalation of the behaviour. SJD is entirely incorrect about encouraging “victim attitude”. It takes more courage to speak up against this behaviour than it does to just put up with and accept… Read more »

I agree! Get over yourself, do your job and get off the PC stuff. Everyone wants to be a victim. Whining and tattling is out of style. So sick of articles like this that encourage the victim attitude.

Troyce Key

The article didn’t offend me but some of these comments sure did. I would just like to add thatafter living and working and owning by own company in Shanghai for 15 years that there you have to become a little immune to rudeness or you can’t get through the day. There they have made rudeness into world oympics quality. It’s a total way of life and more!

JD & Company
The article is out of touch from the real business world plain and simple. The worst language that you will ever hear comes in management meetings and sometimes even in board meetings. If you are soft, get a thicker skin quick or you will be flushed out as being weak. Honestly, in today’s business environment, you must be aggressive and well prepared. Mediocrity will not cut it. I am not going to pretend to understand “why” people are so rude today, but it is a reality and you must accept it for being a condition. If you run to Human… Read more »

Dont be rude right back at ya. Dont start nothing wont be nothing, mind your own business, what does another person care about what your doing when your doing your job, being nosy if you ask me, so i say mind your own business n do your own job.

Bruce W Clagg
Frankly, I’m just about sick of all of this PC mentality. Everyone is different. Some are offended by almost any remark about them, or someone else; sometimes their correct in their assessment and sometimes not. Sometimes the statement was meant to be clearly satirical, but the other person can’t read it that way. Perhaps a “Freudian Slip?” As a former VP/GM for 30+ it’s hard for me to say “I’ve seen, or heard it all,” but I’m probably not too far from that. Sticking within the business, disagreements happen; opinions differ; that’s healthy and perhaps worthy of a timely debate… Read more »
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