Rudeness Is Contagious and Spreads Like a Disease

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A taxi driver and a cameraman arguing in Sao Paulo. Recent research shows rudeness can spread like a disease. Nacho Doce / REUTERS

Research has shown that negative behaviors, such as overt violence, can be passed on in certain circumstances. For example, an iconic study in the early 1960s found that youngsters who watched adults yell at or beat up Bodo dolls (which resemble punching bags) were much more likely to hit the dolls as well.

But something like rudeness is more subtle, and whether it's contagious has been a more open question in the social sciences.

So Trevor Foulk, a doctoral student in management, and colleagues at the University of Florida set up a series of experiments to find out. As explained in Scientific American, in the first round of tests, the researchers brought participants into a room and had them complete a background survey. Toward the end of this time, they had an actor come in, playing the part of a late participant to a study, after which the person was either politely told to wait or rudely berated by the researcher running the experiment. Those who witnessed the "participant" get told off were then given a test to gauge their reaction time to words that denoted rudeness, such as "tactless." Compared with those witnessing the polite interaction, the group exposed to rude behavior was primed to respond to such cues much more quickly, suggesting they were "sensitized" to rudeness, and that it had affected their mindset.

Would that translate into action, however? In another set of experiments, people who witnessed a rude interaction (known as "carriers," as in hypothetical "carriers" of rudeness) then subsequently negotiated with another person in a game wherein the two decided how to split a share of imaginary resources. Those who negotiated with carriers rated their negotiating partners as more rude than others. Perhaps most importantly, they were also much more likely to deny carriers a portion of the resources. Rudeness, it seems, can be passed on, like a contagious disease.

"Part of the problem is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they're actually really harmful," Foulk said in a statement. "Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace" and likely in other aspects of work as well.