Being a jerk isn’t just destructive to everyone around you; it’s destructive to everyone who has to interact with anyone you interact with. In 2015, in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers from the University of Florida argued that rudeness spreads like the common cold. In short, germs of rudeness are everywhere, and it’s as easy to catch other people’s negativity as it is to catch the sniffles.
The first of three tests measured how people acted in negotiations in a graduate course. People who perceived their first negotiation partner to be rude then turned around and acted more rudely to their next partner.
In other test, 47 undergrads were brought into the lab, ostensibly to complete a decision-making task. One “participant,” planted by the investigators, showed up late. In one condition, the researcher leading the session reacted rudely, telling the fake student to get out immediately. In the other, the researcher calmly asked her to email to find a new time to complete the task. People who participated in the rudeness condition were quicker at identifying words associated with rudeness (like tactless or intrude) in the computer task than people who didn’t witness a rude interaction.
In the last test, 147 students played the role of an employee at a local bookstore in an online task. After watching a video of an interaction between two employees, they were asked to respond to customer emails, some of which were rude, some neutral, and some aggressive in tone. Witnessing rudeness made the students more likely to respond in a hostile way to the rude email.
All these results suggest that rudeness can be contagious, and that negative interactions color subsequent behavior toward other people. Now, all of these situations played out with students in management courses who participated in simulated lab interactions, so the results might not translate evenly to how people act in their offices or communities. But it’s never a bad time to remind yourself: Don’t be an asshat.