Along a lone path in a woodland in rural Canada, you notice a bear in the far distance standing outside a cottage surrounded by wildflowers. Suddenly the door of the cottage flings open and out hops a girl singing gaily before conversing with the bear who she befriends at the door. Now compare this enchanting scene to the world of digital communication, to the blunt, rude, short, critical, passive aggressive, manic, dismissive, manipulative, or deeply offensive emails and messages you read every day.

Trevor Foulk at the University of Florida thinks that rudeness is contagious, in that the more times we encounter rude messages and people in our lives, the ruder we become ourselves. To prove his point, Foulk set up an experiment where a group of people were shown a video of a workplace where one colleague was especially rude to another. A second group were shown a video of a perfectly polite interaction between two co-workers. Afterwards, both groups were asked to reply to a standard email. Not surprisingly, the group that had witnessed the rude interaction on video were more likely to reply to the email with hostility. Not only did those who experienced rudeness become ruder themselves, it impaired their ability to think and to complete basic tasks. Rudeness, it’s found, makes us distracted, unproductive and less uncreative. It lowers trust, sparks anger, fear and sadness, and can cause depression. Some studies have shown that rudeness at work can be brought home to bear on family, leading to a fall in marital satisfaction.

"What is so scary about this effect,” writes Foulk about the findings, “is that it's an automatic process — it takes place in a part of your brain that you are not aware of, can't stop, and can't control.” Though it does help us explain why emails, and social media communication, is so vitriolic.

More chilling, however, is a study by Trevor Foulk and management professor Amir Erez on 39 neonatal intensive care unit teams. In the training simulation, infant medical mannequins were treated for emergency conditions. In the study, which lasted an entire day, an actress playing the baby’s mother yelled either at the teams, or treated them with respect. The teams were measured on how successfully they responded to the emergency, such as how quickly and accurately they diagnosed the condition and treated it. The team that experienced the rude mother performed worse in all measures, frequently misdiagnosing the condition and giving the baby the wrong medication. “[Rudeness] is actually affecting the cognitive system, which directly affects your ability to perform,” writes Erez. The sour effects of rudeness - once in your system - can simmer for an entire day, perhaps prompting us to assess what messages and voices we engage with online, and who we deal with in daily life.

(Artwork by Canadian artist Prudence Heward)

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