The Real Cost of Rudeness

Sept. 1, 2016
Employees who are subjected to rude behavior put in less effort and work fewer hours. They often take out their frustrations on other employees, as well as clients or customers, family members, even strangers. Productivity, and ultimately profits, suffer.

The level of rudeness in this country has reached a fever pitch, as evidenced by the current presidential campaign, and we should all be concerned. Why? Because, it’s become too easy for rudeness to morph into outright hate.

Political parties have become increasingly polarized. Disparity in compensation between corporate executives and those on the shop floor has never been wider.  Social media encourages people to be unaccountable for their behavior by allowing them to post vitriol online, behind the safe mask of anonymity. Television programming, especially “reality” TV, frequently encourages rudeness and disrespect. The news media, once the vanguard of fairness and objectivity, too often has become nothing more than entertainment fluff or the biased thoughts of “opinion hosts” posing as journalists. Tolerance for different perspectives has evaporated and too many disputes end violently and tragically.

In my book, Truth, Trust + Tenacity:  How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Leaders, I talk about civil discourse and how it’s often portrayed as a weakness when, in fact, it is a strength. It takes much more resolve to compromise and show respect than it does to be rude and unbending. Unfortunately, too many people equate being rude as a sign of being superior. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The results of rudeness are real:  in the workplace, employees who are subjected to this type of disrespectful behavior put in less effort and work fewer hours. They often take out their frustrations on other employees, as well as clients or customers, family members, even strangers. There is a reason the phrase “misery loves company” is so popular—this type of behavior is contagious. Productivity, and ultimately profits, suffer.

Here are five examples of rude behavior we all see far too often today:

  • Parents who assume store employees or restaurant servers are there to babysit or clean up after their children. Mom and dad ignore their kids’ behavior and get offended when they are called out on it. Children who observe this behavior assume it’s acceptable to be rude and that the rules of etiquette don’t apply to them.
  • People who keep you waiting for no real reason. Two of my former bosses regularly kept people waiting simply because they could. They wanted to ensure that everyone knew who was in charge.
  • Aggressive drivers who weave in and out of traffic, cut you off or text while driving—and then swear at you if you point it out. These drivers are creating dangerous and often life-threatening situations.
  • People who don’t know how to say “thank you”. How many times have you held the door for someone without any acknowledgement? Not only is this rude, it’s also a sign of stupidity and arrogance. For some reason, certain people feel it’s beneath them to hold the door open for another, or to even recognize that there’s someone there, letting the door hit the next person as it closes.
  • People who litter, throw trash from their car window, leave the office break room a mess, and drop a used cigarette wherever they walk.

While these examples may seem inconsequential in a world with far bigger problems, they are ones we can all relate to—examples that can be indicative of much larger issues if left unchecked. Just as with hate, no one is born rude—it is a learned behavior that can be just as destructive.

Have we become such a narcissistic society that one’s own desires are the only ones that matter? During the recent Olympics, one member of the U.S. women’s soccer team disparaged the opposing team after losing. Fortunately, action was quickly taken (she was suspended) to underscore that rude behavior like this has no place in a civil society.

The good news is learned behaviors, including rudeness, can also be unlearned:

  • Recognize that sometimes the rude person is you. Think before you act.  Apologize if you act before you think.
  • Don’t overreact when others are rude towards you. Let it go, walk away, don’t take it personally. If you feel you must, politely call it to their attention  (and then drop it).
  • Finally, think more about your own actions in your daily life, especially on the job. It’s hard work to be more conscious of your actions instead of simply going through the motions. Being civil requires one to be more aware, take responsibility and consider the repercussions.

Eric Hoffer may have said it best, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” The next time a colleague or stranger opens the door, thank them. Better yet, make it a point to open the door for them.

Ritch K. Eich, author, executive and naval reserve captain (ret), has published three books and more than 125 articles on leadership. He has served on a dozen boards of directors and trustees and his public service has been recognized by numerous professional organizations. He holds a BA degree from California State University, Sacramento, an MA degree from Michigan State University and a Ph.D from the University of Michigan where he served on the Wolverines’ alumni association.

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