Working in retail, I still remember one of my worst customers. He went to hand me what I thought was a five dollar bill for a ten dollar product. I politely said, “Sorry, the total is actually ten dollars.” He pulled apart two bills, which I didn’t notice were stuck together, and slowly counted, “Five…ten. Do you speak English? Do you know maths?” I was fuming, but I said nothing. I was, however, short with everyone else that day, until a friend asked, “what’s your problem?” The problem was: I let that jerk turn me into a jerk, too.
Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.
This is something that happens to me all the time, and I think it happens to a lot of us. You’re a nice enough person, but you’re put in an environment where everyone is rude, and next thing you know, you’re rude, too. Maybe someone just gets under your skin and you don’t even realise it’s happening. Or maybe all of your friends are kind of jerks, and you gradually start becoming more like them.
Whatever the scenario, this happens because rudeness is contagious. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers had subjects reply to a neutral email. Some of the subjects watched a video of a rude interaction before replying, and their replies were a lot more hostile. That experiment and two others were enough for researchers to conclude:
Specifically, we show that rudeness activates a semantic network of related concepts in individuals’ minds, and that this activation influences individual’s hostile behaviours. In sum, in these 3 studies we show that just like the common cold, common negative behaviours can spread easily and have significant consequences for people in organisations.
Whether it’s rude coworkers, nasty Internet trolls, or just impolite strangers you encounter out running errands, here’s how to avoid catching someone else’s jerky behaviour.
It’s probably not about you
When a stranger sarcastically asks if you know how to count, it’s hard not to take it personally. However, this had nothing to do with me. Sure, I made a mistake, if you can even call it that, but it certainly didn’t warrant such a bizarre reaction.
As Tiny Buddha points out, another person’s rude behaviour it’s rarely about you. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. Maybe they feel inadequate or defensive. Or hell, maybe someone else was rude and it rubbed off on them. Writer Avery Rogers explains the motive behind her own rude behaviour:
When I became depressed, though, my temper shortened and I felt far more irritable…. I started to become rude and unkind myself. I lashed out at people, or, more commonly, gave them passive aggressive excuses for distancing myself from them. I even became prone to insulting people as a way of protecting myself if they didn’t like me. I didn’t make a conscious decision to be mean. I didn’t wake up in the morning and think, “Today, I am going to hurt someone’s feelings.” It just happened in the moment when I was feeling especially down on myself…When someone is rude for no reason, especially a stranger, it is rarely a personal assault, even if you accidentally did something to irritate them.
Rogers explains something I’ve always known but didn’t really take to heart until I started trying to change my own behaviour: you can’t do anything about someone else’s behaviour, but you can choose how you react to it.
It seems hokey, but there’s a lot of power in that idea.
Choose a different reaction
I live in a big city, which means I can encounter a hell of a lot of rudeness just going out for groceries. You get cut off in traffic. People steal your parking spots. They run into you with their shopping carts. The list goes on. Once, a whole series of these things happened to me, and during the drive home, when another car put on their blinker to get in my lane, I actually said out loud, “I’m not giving you an inch.”
In other words, I was being a total arsehole. In that moment, I realised being surrounded by jerks during a simple trip to the grocery store had turned me into a defensive, rude jerk too. I also realised I had a choice. I could choose how I reacted to the series of rude interactions I’d had that day. In doing this, it helped to understand that their actions were totally separate from who I was as an individual.
It’s tough to remember not to take things personally, but now I use my irritability as a trigger. When I notice bad behaviour rubbing off on me, I try to do the opposite of what I want to do, which is to be defensive and rude. Instead, I go out of my way to be nice, even though I’m in a bad mood and I don’t feel like it. So instead of not letting someone in my lane, I’ll wave them over. Rather than assume someone is trying to cut in front of me in line, I’ll offer to let them go in front of me if they have fewer items. At first, I did this just to break the cycle of rudeness. But I’ve noticed that it actually helps turn my mood around quite a bit.
Psychologist Elana Miller would probably approve of this method. In an article on the “Art of Not Being an Arsehole,” she suggests:
Expecting everyone else to conform to your rules is a losing battle.We go around getting frustrated and frustrating other people. Sounds like a lot of unnecessary frustration to me. You could spend 100 pages writing down all the rules people should follow and it would still be missing the point, because it’s the concept that’s important, not all these individual rules. The concept is actually straight-forward: Be aware of yourself and your behaviour, and avoid arsehole-like actions.Be forgiving when someone else is an arsehole, because they probably didn’t mean it the way you think they did. This means spending less time paying attention to all the annoying things everyone else does and more time paying attention to all the annoying things YOU do.
Instead of reacting to someone else’s actions, you take control over your own.
Be assertive without being a jerk
Some rude behaviour is harder not to take personally, especially when it affects you in other ways. For example, let’s say a coworker throws you under the bus. You’re now on the hook for their mistake. It might not have been personal, but that comes at little comfort when your boss is upset with you and you were planning to ask for a raise soon.
According to a survey of more than 4500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 per cent tied disruptive behaviour, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 per cent tied such behaviour to patient deaths. My studies with Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, show that people working in an environment characterised by incivility miss information that is right in front of them. They are no longer able to process it as well or as efficiently as they would otherwise. In one study, the experimenter belittled the peer group of the participants, who then performed 33 per cent worse on anagram word puzzles and came up with 39 per cent fewer creative ideas during a brainstorming task focused on how they might use a brick. In our second study, a stranger — a “busy professor” encountered en route to the experiment — was rude to participants by admonishing them for bothering her. Their performance was 61 per cent worse on word puzzles, and they produced 58 per cent fewer ideas in the brick task than those who had not been treated rudely.
When dealing with issues like this, you still want to be aware of how you react, but simply being nice might not work. In fact, ignoring the problem with kindness could make things worse later. At the same time, being rude could cultivate an environment of rudeness, which would be counterproductive. If you’re dealing with a social underminer or a bully at work, there are a few ways to be assertive without becoming a bully yourself:
- Distance yourself: Keep your social media accounts private, ask your boss to move your desk, and/or avoid sharing any contact or information with them.
- Confront them about their behaviour: Be upfront about how you feel and address their behaviour objectively. Most bullies will back down as soon as you call them out.
- Tell someone who can help: If nothing else works, you may need to have a conversation with your human resources department.
All of these options are better than trying to get back at a coworker by turning into a jerk yourself. Some argue that jerks get ahead, but as Porath explains, the studies show otherwise, leading researchers to conclude that rude people get ahead despite their rudeness, not because of it.
Try a few mental exercises
- Give Them a Mental Hug: Try to feel compassion with a rude person and understand why they might be behaving like a jerk. Giving them a hug, mentally, can help you empathise with their actions.
- Acknowledge Your Emotions: When you’re feeling angry or upset and reactive, sit with your feelings for a moment and identify them. Think objectively about what you’re feeling. For example, instead of “that mean customer made me feel belittled,” I would just say, “I feel belittled.” This helps you keep the situation under control by separating your emotions and staying in the present.
- Find Your Inner Toddler: Try to “think big” and imagine that you’re a toddler throwing a temper tantrum over ice cream. As an adult, you realise there are more important things in the world, because you have a bigger perspective. When I dealt with my own anger issues, a friend suggested reassuring that inner toddler, too. In the case of my rude customer, I’d say something to myself like, “Why did that make you mad? Because you don’t feel smart sometimes? That’s ok, we all feel that way occasionally.” Not only does this exercise acknowledge why you’re angry in the first place, it makes you realise their rudeness really isn’t that big of a deal for you as an adult.
It can be tough to avoid catching someone else’s rudeness. Sometimes we don’t even realise how much someone’s behaviour affects us, and we don’t even realise we’ve become rude ourselves. With a little awareness of the situation and some self-reflection, it’s easy enough to avoid becoming a jerk when you’re surrounded by them. And on really tough days, a few mental tricks can pull you through.
And in some cases, a little distance can work wonders. Especially if you’re used to being around people who are rude all the time, you might get to a point where you don’t know any better. If all of your friends or coworkers are jerks, try spending time with new friends. Find a coworker who’s not caught up in the office incivility. Get out of the big city once in a while. Being around other people or less stressful environments can help you readjust your perspective.