“When it comes to incivility, there’s often a snowballing effect. The more you see rudeness, the more likely you are to perceive it from others and the more likely you are to be rude yourself to others,” he said.
The debate over civility kicked into high gear after a Virginia restaurant asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because employees didn’t want to serve her. That followed the outright heckling of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as she ate at a Mexican restaurant in the District. Some people, such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), have called for more such confrontations with Trump administration officials. Others warn of a race to the bottom and plea for an end to the boorishness.
President Trump, of course, opted for insulting the restaurant, Waters and others.
Such cycles — now repeated on a weekly or even daily basis and spreading quickly online — are driven in part by our unconscious reactions, experts say.
In a 2016 study, Christopher Rosen, an organizational scientist at the University of Arkansas, tracked employees over the course of their work days. He and fellow researchers found that individuals who experienced a perceived insult earlier in the day would later strike back at co-workers. Using psychological tests, the researchers linked that reaction to lowered levels of self-control.
“When someone is uncivil to you, it forces you to spend a lot of mental energy trying to figure out what’s going on, what caused the rudeness, what it means,” Rosen said in an interview Monday. “All that thinking lessens your capacity for impulse control. So you become more prone to be rude to others. ... People, in a way, ‘pay it forward.’”
In recent years, rising concerns over incivility — insults, condescension, dismissiveness and the like — have led to increasing research on the topic by social scientists and psychologists.
In a series of experiments, for example, Foulk and others showed that the more that people witness and experience rudeness, the more they are predisposed to interpret an action as rude and then act toward others in rude ways.
“Rudeness is interesting in that it’s often ambiguous and open to interpretation,” he said. “If someone punches you, for example, we would all agree that it’s abusive. But if someone comes up to you and says in a neutral voice ‘nice shoes,’ is that an insult? Is it sarcasm or something else?” The more someone has witnessed rudeness, “the more likely you are to interpret ‘nice shoes’ as deliberately rude.”
In one study, workers were shown videos every morning before work. On the mornings when those videos included an uncivil interaction, the workers were more likely to interpret subsequent interactions throughout their day as rude.
In another study on negotiations, Foulk found that if someone experiences rudeness from a person on the opposing side, the next person they negotiate with is highly likely to perceive them as rude, too. Even when the two negotiations took place seven days apart, the contagion effect was just as strong.
“What is so scary about this effect is that it’s an automatic process — it takes place in a part of your brain that you are not aware of, can’t stop, and can’t control,” Foulk wrote in a summary of his findings.
Other studies also suggest incivility by top brass — whether immediate supervisors or CEOs — has an outsize influence on the uncivil behavior of those below them.
But perhaps most worrisome is the effect of all this growing incivility. Mounting research shows rudeness can cause employees to be chronically distracted, less productive and less creative. Researchers have shown how incivility can lower trust, spark feelings of anger, fear and sadness, and cause depression. One study found increased incivility at work had personal-life implications, such as a drop in marital satisfaction.
And two studies in 2015 and 2017 found that doctors and nurses in neonatal intensive care units who were scolded by an actress playing the mother of a sick infant performed much more poorly than those who did not — even misdiagnosing the infant's condition.
“The results were scary,” one of the authors told the Wall Street Journal. “The teams exposed to rudeness gave the wrong diagnosis, didn’t resuscitate or ventilate appropriately, didn’t communicate well, gave the wrong medications and made other serious mistakes.”
Researchers have struggled in vain to come up with ways to stop the spreading effects of rudeness. Those who studied the hospital neonatal staffs, for example, tried having the doctors and nurses write about their interaction from the perspective of the rude mother. Doing so made no difference.
From Arkansas, Rosen has a simpler suggestion. “When you experience incivility, it’s important to take a step back and not act on your impulses. Do things that help you recover your ability to self-regulate, like exercise or taking a break,” he said.
At the same time, he acknowledged, “Our research shows people are often not even aware of their reactions and the way they spread negativity. So some of these recommendations for how to stop it are easier said than done.”