Rudeness Is Becoming an Epidemic
It's like poison for the brain.
Marcel / Stocksy
I was standing in line a few weeks ago at the airport in New Orleans, waiting to board my flight back home to New York. It was a strange Meet the Parents-like scene where there were very few people there but the airline associate was being an anal stickler about making sure everyone boards according to zone. One passenger, who had missed her zone announcement on the staticky 1920s-quality PA system, rolled up and tried to board. Of course, airline lady and zone-misser lady began to argue, fairly and respectfully at first.
And then—out of nowhere—airline lady said, “It’s always the New Yorkers. So rude, every time.”
I gasped audibly. How dare she? New Yorkers are some of the most genuinely kind people I’ve ever encountered. Sure, we don’t smile at strangers on the street. But we’re reputed to fight tirelessly for the oppressed, we always give solid directions, and we’ll make room for you on the subway regardless of how packed it is (well, except those jackasses who won't move all the way in to the car). So screw you, airline lady. Publicly calling a whole region of people rude, is well, rude.
I got to complain about this to a man who spent countless hours researching rudeness, surveying 2,000 randos about their experiences, along with some of the most brilliant psychologists and neurologists who shed light on science behind rude behavior. With all that and some salty humor, Danny Wallace, author, actor, and comedian, wrote the rudeness manifesto itself, F You Very Much: Understanding the Culture of Rudeness—and What We Can Do About it, which drops everywhere on February 6th.
The book breaks down how rudeness is comparable to a neurotoxin; it spreads like the flu and affects us more profoundly than we realize. As a part of what he calls "The Wallace Report" (a collection of research with a title that he tells me makes him "sound important”), he presents case studies—examples of how a shitty attitude pervades different scenarios. And of course, he highlights the societal mechanisms of how one of the world’s rudest people became President of the United States.
“Political correctness has somehow become a dirty phrase, when it’s actually quite a beautiful phrase that just means not being a dick to people,” Wallace tells me. I agree. In an interview about the psychology of rudeness and how we can remedy it, we discuss the subtle intricacies of how to not be a dick to people.
More from Tonic:
Your research says that rudeness is contagious. Are we that easily influenced?
It can spread the way a cold can spread throughout an office and really make your bleaker than it should. It’s like this neurotoxin that gives you a hangover, basically. A day after this rudeness, you will be worse at your job. You may not be able to do simple tasks as well as you could on a normal day. And that’s fine if you’re a writer, but when you have someone else’s life in your hands—a surgeon, say, who is about to operate on an infant, and someone has been rude to you—science has shown that that surgeon will be much less effective at his or her job.
That’s terrible news for the infant on the operating table. Because it’s invisible, we don’t know who’s being infected by this rudeness. But you take it home and you snap at your partner, and they’re now infected.
You discuss the weird phenomenon of how rude people sometimes get ahead. They project authority and the rest of us buy it. What, have you found, is the key to projecting authority without being a dick?
You can have a quiet authority. You can still appear confident without being a dick. You can project that feel that you know what you’re talking about, and that you're in control without having to put other people down.
The trick rude people have used for a long time is, they put as many people around them down as possible in order for the them to feel better. And they make it look like by breaking these rules, they’re somehow allowed to break these rules. And we all know those people are dicks and yet we vote these dicks in, or let them go on TV, or we read their columns, and we pay them more money and attention. I think we’re in the eye of the storm at the moment when it comes to this. We are handing over power to people we wouldn’t want to sit next to at dinner.
One study you cite in the book found that power without status can lead to “rudeness, abuse, and even violence.” The researcher is talking more about low-level authoritarians like bouncers rather than presidents, but I argue that some presidents don’t have much status. I’m not implying anyone in particular because that’d be rude.
I hadn’t thought about it that way but you’re right. He who we’re not naming craves respect—the respect from the elites, the respect of the military, the respect of the FBI. He’s always talking about that. Respect is something we trade off. Gangsters or the mafia would hate to be disrespected; it’s a huge crime. And absolutely, he’s acting in that way to assert more power and more control and almost punishing you because he suspects you don’t respect him.
And you find that in every office in the land. You find that in every street in the land. Someone who’s got a little bit of power, but not enough power to make you actually do anything. And if they don’t feel you respect them, they’ll be rude to you when you’ve done nothing. When you blow this up to a national level, the results are extraordinarily scary. Whereas you might fire off an angry to tweet to a bank teller for disrespecting you, suddenly we’re talking about angry tweets going to the leader of the North Korean regime.
When the president talks, the world listens. His words will be weighed up and given great importance. When those words are badly chosen or a product of the moment, or just coming from a very rude place, you start to see how a moment of rudeness could genuinely lead to the apocalypse.
At the end of the day, can we conclude that rude people are dealing with their own baggage—the old “hurt people hurt people” excuse—rather than believe that some humans are just bad?
There has to be something like that going on. You rarely hear of a happy-go-lucky rude person. So yeah, our job is to try to think of it from the other person’s point of view. But you usually can’t tell anything just from looking at someone. So in the moment that rudeness surprised you, you’re confused by it. You act in the moment. You feel that they disrespected you and you want to claw some of that respect back, maybe by being rude to them or taking revenge.
We’re all trading—it’s like stocks and shares of respect with every interaction. It would happen less in smaller communities because there’d be ramifications; the person you were rude to at the post office, you’d see at the school an hour later. But in a city, we’re kind of given free rein to be assholes.
That respect-as-currency idea makes me think of that 'Black Mirror' episode where everyone is constantly rating each other on social media, that number defining their human worth. If this is real, how are people still rude to each other?
We are living in the culture of likes and retweets and follows and Uber ratings and Amazon ratings and everything is rated. This is a culture of “I will have my say on every little thing” and “I will tweet about things I don’t really understand.”
It all speaks to a childishness, but some people are just rude and have a slightly sociopathic element to then in that they don’t care what you think. It really doesn’t have any bearing on their life, so they go around doing these things. And they may end up getting paid more at work and being promoted through the ranks because of it. It works for them. But for the rest of us, who want to work with each other, we tend to stick to the rules that are unwritten. We don’t feel the need to write them down because it just makes sense.
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