When people smile and use a pleasant tone of voice your Elephant can’t help noticing, and most importantly, copying the emotion. It does exactly the same thing when people are being rude to each other. Remember, the number one neural drive for the Elephant is to connect with others. It does this by “fitting in” – both at the level of non-conscious emotions and public behavior.
Rudeness Is Contagious
A study of 6,000 employees in Sweden showed that a critical factor in undermining a positive climate at work was one employee being rude to another and getting away with it. This included, “forgetting” to invite them a meeting; taking credit for their work, spreading rumors about them, or simply being openly rude.
Rudeness involves conscious choice, but watching someone get away with it and imitating that behavior is automatic. The Swedish study indicated that the most common cause of rude behavior was the imitation of a colleague. A controlled experiment in the US confirmed that simply watching rude behaviors can lead people to be rude to the next person they meet. When unchallenged, a few acts of incivility can lead to a climate of rudeness.
The spread of rudeness through imitation happens not only at work but at the highest levels of government as well. When a sitting US president addresses a joint meeting of the houses of congress the moment is imbued with deep significance and polite, respectful silence. While President Obama was in the midst of such a moment in 2009, an angry Republican representative suddenly shouted, “You lie”. This act opened the floodgates of incivility. It seemed that anyone could be rude to the president and thereafter Republicans of all stripes were: from a Republican governor waggling her finger in his face as she lectured him to congressional republicans attempting to pass a bill requiring presidential candidates to show their birth certificates (to support the conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in the US) to the Republican senate minority leader’s private and eventually public commitment to all-out resistance to anything Obama for two terms.
And what has been the outcome for the Republicans? They’ve angered the public by getting nothing done for years and maintained a climate of angry incivility towards the most revered political position in the nation. As a result, they now have to deal with someone who could shatter their party: Donald Trump. He’s running in Republican primary elections to become their nominee for president. He bullies, belittles and bellows threats against almost anyone to get attention – and so far he’s winning. Rudeness really is contagious.
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