‘Don’t push in – I was being rude first!’ Are we enduring an uncivil epidemic?

Whether we’re at work, in a bus queue or online, too many of us use rudeness as a first resort instead of showing consideration to others. Anna Moore investigates an uncivil epidemic.

It wasn’t a big deal – just an everyday incident of parking rage,’ says Fiona Smith, 49, from North London. ‘I was reversing into a space at my local supermarket when I heard a continuous car horn behind me. A man had nipped around in his BMW and was manoeuvring into the same space from the front. I braked and froze. He wound down his window and unleashed a string of horrendous abuse. I was so shocked, my brain went blank. I just drove straight home without doing any shopping.


‘It happened nearly a month ago and I haven’t been back to that supermarket since,’ Fiona continues. ‘I keep thinking about it – what I should have done, what I should have said. The guy was so aggressive – but I’m disappointed in myself for just scurrying away. I let him win. Even now, thinking about it still makes my blood boil.’


Fiona is not alone. Research released in June shows that 80 per cent of British drivers have been victims of road rage in the past year – and although only six per cent of these incidents were reported to the police, one in five drivers remained fearful of going back on the road.Though what happened to Fiona was over in seconds, it was enough to alter the way she felt about herself and her neighbourhood. (A report by the Young Foundation has found that ‘civility’ is more important than crime statistics in influencing how we feel about where we live and our sense of belonging.) When one small incident of parking rage is added to the thousands of similar interactions around the UK, does it make up what some are calling ‘the new rudeness’? Has impulsive aggression become the new norm?


At the very top, President Trump’s vitriolic tweets and outbursts set a belligerent tone. Closer to home, Theresa May’s former chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were described by colleagues as ‘breathtakingly rude’ – they even sent abusive texts (‘f*** off!’ ‘So there!’) to senior cabinet members.


On TV, in newspapers and online, rudeness seems to have become something we applaud, seek out and reward as ‘telling it like it is’. We have celebrities for whom rudeness is a stock in trade – Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay, columnist Katie Hopkins. The internet has become so toxic that every day in the UK five people are convicted for sending offensive messages – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez suggested that Jane Austen feature on the new £10 note, she received 50 abusive messages an hour for several days via Twitter – or as she put it, ‘24 hours of rape threats’.


TV presenter, columnist and author of Yes Man Danny Wallace: 'We¿ve got a good system of rules that really work for us. When we chuck them out of the window, everyone¿s life gets a bit worse'


TV presenter, columnist and author of Yes Man Danny Wallace: ‘We’ve got a good system of rules that really work for us. When we chuck them out of the window, everyone’s life gets a bit worse’Ed Sheeran is one of the latest celebrities to stop using the social media site because, he claims, it’s ‘nothing but people saying mean things’. Even Salman Rushdie, who endured years of death threats following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, has abandoned Twitter, condemning it for ushering in an era of unprecedented rudeness: ‘I think somehow we’re bringing up a generation of rude people because of the ease of it, and the lack of accountability.’


In ‘real life’ too, incivility is all too evident. Whether it’s the man on the train ‘spreading’ into your seat space, the woman looming over you while having a full-on row into her mobile or the teenager pushing ahead of you in the queue – each interaction tells you that you don’t matter and leaves you feeling a little diminished.


Writer and presenter Danny Wallace explored the new rudeness in his recent book I Can’t Believe You Just Said That! The book was triggered by an incident in a small middle-class town on a typical British bank holiday weekend. Wallace ordered a hot dog for his son at a café; the woman behind the counter insisted he pay up front, then left him waiting for more than an hour. His polite enquiries were met with indefensible rudeness and culminated in Wallace being thrown out.


‘The incident bothered me the next day, and the next,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t stop talking about it, and the more I questioned myself the more I started thinking about the thousands of tiny things that happen every day behind every steering wheel, every computer screen and over every counter.


‘We’ve got a good system of rules that have evolved through time and that really work for us,’ he continues. ‘When we chuck them out of the window, everyone’s life gets a bit worse. When I started the book, it felt like a new level of rudeness was “on its way”. By the time I’d finished, it was a deluge at the door.’


Though the academic study of rudeness and its impact is in its infancy, research is beginning to accumulate which is surprising everyone – even those working in the field. Study after study has shown that rudeness is contagious – hence the spread. If you are the victim, or even if you merely witness rude behaviour, you’re more likely to act rudely yourself at home, out and about, maybe even a week down the line. You become primed for it so you pre-empt it, meaning you’re quicker to judge and faster to snap. You view the world a little bit differently and adjust your behaviour for the worse, almost as a defence mechanism.


This ‘contagion effect’ begins to explain the current downward spiral. Daniel Buccino, director of the Civility Initiative at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, also blames other factors. ‘Major causes of incivility are stress, lack of time, insecurity, fear – all of which surround us,’ he says. ‘Another factor is anonymity. In the past, people you met on any given day knew who you were and helped make your reputation. Now, families and communities are spread out. The people you interact with often don’t know who you are, they may never see you again – and it’s much easier not to consider someone as a human being if that person is at the end of the Twitter feed or sitting behind a steering wheel encased in metal.’


Overall, says Buccino, we’re living in a society that’s focused on ‘me’ not ‘we’. We value individual achievement, not collective – even if it was ‘achieved’ through flouting the rules, pushing others out of the way, and putting them down.


Christine Porath, professor of management at Georgetown University, has spent 20 years studying incivility and she’s in no doubt that its effects on our health are far-reaching – weakening the immune system, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease and other nasties – and also our work performance. ‘An unexpected act of rudeness literally takes people’s focus,’ she says. ‘If you’re a witness or a victim of rudeness, you’re thinking, “Should I respond? What are the implications?” You feel confused, disrespected, smaller, devalued. In the immediate aftermath, it clouds judgment, stops our brain from processing, shuts us down.’


In tests, groups given set challenges performed 50 per cent worse in cognitive tasks after witnessing an act of rudeness. Even medical teams, given a (simulated) exercise involving the diagnosis and treatment of a sick baby, forgot basic instructions when they’d received a rude message at the outset (they misdiagnosed and performed 50 per cent less effectively than the team who’d received a perfectly normal message).


So how can we turn things around? ‘The good news is that while incivility is contagious, civility is too,’ says Porath. ‘Just as a toxic working environment involving one badly behaved person can put the whole office in a bad mood, offices where people behave well spread politeness.’


Within the workplace, this needs to come from the top down, with managers setting the tone. Porath stresses the importance of turning off phones during meetings, paying attention to questions, smiling and saying thank you.


When it comes to building a personal ‘buffer’ against incivility, Porath has found the most resilient people tend to be the group she calls ‘the high thrivers’. ‘These are people who have a sense of thriving inside or outside the workplace, where they feel they’re learning and growing and able to shift the focus to something else, whether that’s a part-time MBA, a skill or a hobby,’ she says. ‘Taking good care of yourself, eating, sleeping and exercising all make you less likely to respond badly to incivility. It’s also crucial to build up plenty of positive relationships in your life. A negative, de-energising relationship has four to seven times more effect on you than a positive, energising one. So you need to spend time with those people who make you laugh and lift your spirit.’


Danny Wallace found that summoning up a bit of empathy for the person behaving badly can also help, even if it’s imagined. (‘He must be having a really bad day’; ‘Maybe she’s rushed off her feet and the person before me was horrible to her.’)


Empathy and the ability to humanise proved powerful when Wallace himself was given the rare opportunity to confront someone who’d sent him a deeply offensive tweet. (‘You are the worst writer in history and if I ever meet you I will punch your **** face. #Danny-WallacedeservesAIDS’.) Incredibly, Wallace’s wife recognised the sender’s name; they identified who he was – another writer – and several months later, while Wallace was drinking in a pub, he spied him across the bar.


Wallace went over to him, keeping his voice even and calm, and – using the man’s name as much as possible – confronted him with his own words. he man appeared mortified and panic-stricken. He explained that he sent the tweet after he’d had a bad day, that he’d been to an awards ceremony and come back empty-handed. He apologised. Wallace has stayed in touch with him since.


‘When he fired off those awful words to someone he didn’t know, it might have made him feel good in the moment but I think meeting me helped him realise it was a bit like walking into someone’s living room, shouting abuse at them and then disappearing,’ says Wallace. ‘He saw that I was an actual person – and we both understood each other a little better at the end.’


Buccino believes there’s only one way to stop the new rudeness – and that’s to lead by example. Refuse to pass it on, whether in the office, in the car or on Twitter. ‘The rule has to be that we stay civil not because others are, but because we are,’ he says. ‘We can’t be civil only when others are civil to us. In fact, if someone is uncivil towards you in any setting, you need to redouble your efforts. It comes down to a question of how we want to carry ourselves and what world we want to live in.


‘It helps to imagine the rewards,’ he adds. ‘Being civil is good for your health; it’s a key component of successful relationships and a happy home life. It’s good for business, better for everyone. Maybe there’s evidence you can get ahead without it. But if you judge success by the people you have around you, how you get along and whether anyone wants to spend time with you when you’re old and unwell, it certainly helps to be civil along the way.’


The New Rudeness: How to stop the spread

-Witnessing rude behaviour makes us more likely to be rude ourselves – so resolve to redouble your efforts to behave well and lead by example.

– Summon up empathy for the person behaving badly. (‘They’re stressed/late/ frightened…’)

– Be mindful of the dehumanising effects of technology. Studies show that eye-to-eye contact makes you 50 per cent less likely to say something hostile. Similarly, being lost in your phone can create a bubble and make you unaware of the discomfort of those around you, or the movement of a queue or the flow of a pavement.

– Be a ‘high thriver’ to create a buffer against other people’s rudeness. Eat, sleep and exercise well and have areas in your life where you’re learning and growing, whether that’s through work, volunteering or studying.

– Fill your life with positive relationships. The more people you have to treat you well and make you happy, the quicker you’ll bounce back from incivility.

By Anna Moore