Healthy Living

Workplace Rudeness Isn't Just Toxic. It's Contagious.

So check that attitude at the door, please.

If you're dealing with rude coworkers on a daily basis, chances are it's rubbing off on you and affecting your other social interactions -- not to mention your overall well-being.

According to a recent study from the University of Florida, impolite behavior has the strong power to spread throughout the workplace, even to employees not involved in a given interaction. Plus, it can transcend the boundaries of the office space as workers carry that negative disposition home with them.

"When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable," said the study's lead researcher, doctoral student Trevor Foulk, in a statement. "You'll see more rudeness even if it's not there."

To test the contagion of rudeness in the office, Foulk and team conducted three experiments. In the first, they monitored 90 graduate students in negotiation scenarios with their classmates. They found that students whose first negotiation partner behaved rudely were more inclined to behave similarly with their subsequent partners in the exercise, perpetuating the cycle. That held true even when a week passed between different negotiation sessions.

In a separate experiment, the research team looked into how witnessing rudeness also encouraged negative interactions. The researchers created two staged interactions. In one, a study leader was rude to a participant who arrived late to a session. In the second, the study leader accepted the late student's apology and went on with their work.

Then they had all 47 participants read a list of both real and nonsense words. Students who watched the negative interaction identified rude words on the list as the real words significantly faster than those who observed the normal conversation.

In the final experiment, Foulk and his team asked participants to watch a video of a rude workplace interaction before responding to a hypothetical email from a customer in a neutral tone. The subjects struggled more to write a positive response email after watching the video than those who didn't watch it at all.

While the UF study is limited by its size, prior research confirms just how bad rudeness can be for morale and for business. Those on the receiving end of this incivility lose productive time worrying about the incident and avoiding their offending colleague, feel less motivated to perform well at their job, and often end up taking frustration out on their customers. This dissatisfaction at work is linked to after-work stress as well, negatively affecting one's relationships with friends and family members.

According to neurobiologist and author Douglas Fields, rudeness can be considered a neurotoxin as it creates undue stress on the body, and science has found just how harmful that stress can be, from increasing risk of chronic diseases to actually shrinking the brain. If you're spreading the rudeness contagion in your office, maybe it's time to recognize how that behavior could be affecting you and others around you -- both at work and otherwise.