The science of rudeness

Road rage, interrupting colleagues, talking at the theatre – we are all familiar with rude behaviour, but do you know the science behind bad manners?

🤬Bad manners are contagious

Other people’s behaviour can spread a disease and influence our own

Forget trying to avoid catching germs on the Underground– there’s something else passing between the hordes of morning commuters that you could catch: bad manners. It only takes one person to shove past you or say something nasty and you’re instantly at a higher risk of passing on negativity to other people. Research investigating the contagiousness of rudeness has shown that workers are more likely to respond with hostility to customer emails after watching videos of employees interacting aggressively. When paired with partners on a graduate course, students who thought their first partner was rude would act more rudely in turn towards their second partner. This social phenomenon happens with positive interactions too, meaning you can feel happier around happy people.

🤬You might get ruder with age

Older people can lose their inhibitions, making them more likely to say exactly what they’re thinking

Scientists have discovered that rudeness impacts your brain’s frontal lobes; the regions responsible for your working memory. As we get older, these parts of our brain start to deteriorate and can impair ‘executive functioning’ – the ability to plan into the future and control the things you say and do. Research in the field has used tests such as the Stroop test, where participants are asked to say the colour of the ink and not read out the word. For example, being shown the word ‘red’ written in green ink and expected to say the colour green. We struggle to do this because we have to get our brain to override the automatic impulse to read, so it’s a good test on the ability to control and inhibit your own thoughts. Older people are less able to do this, which may be why they can sometimes be more blunt and make inappropriate remarks.

🤬Negative workplaces are less efficient

Nastiness at the office can cause you to lose focus and spend less time working

Rudeness in the workplace can have dramatic effects on your productivity. Whether someone is insulting you, ignoring you, or withholding information from you to make your job harder, research suggests that after encountering incivility in the workplace you are more likely to spend more time slacking off. This can be because you’re more likely to spend time avoiding rude people and more time thinking about leaving the company, in addition to the loss of motivation and morale that comes with working in a difficult environment.

🤬Rudeness can cause inadvertent but serious harm

The performance of medical teams can be detrimentally affected by rude interactions

Have you ever had someone say something rude and moments later you think of the perfect witty response? You’re not alone. But dwelling on these interactions and that snappy comeback distracts your brain and affects your ability to focus, recall facts, piece together information and remember things properly. Doctors, surgeons and nurses are no different – their cognitive function and performance can be seriously impacted by rude behaviour, which is no joke when other people’s lives are in their hands. One study found that medical teams exposed to a staged rude encounter earlier in the day performed less well when asked to diagnose and treat a medical mannequin compared to teams that experienced a neutral staged encounter. It’s estimated that error due to rudeness could account for over 40 per cent of medical mistakes.

🤬Bad manners partly evolved to protect us from disease

Communities may subconsciously separate themselves from strangers

New theories suggest that where diseases are common, individuals are ruder to strangers. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense: new people might bring new diseases, and being rude will keep them at a distance. Research suggests that countries with a higher disease prevalence are also countries where people are more likely to show prejudice towards people from other countries. Particularly in locations where deadly disease is common, individuals are more likely to be focused on the welfare of their own group rather than being polite to strangers.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 116, written by Charlie Evans  


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