By Alex Fradera
“She upset me.” Such a natural way to describe things, using the same causal language we use to talk about a racket striking a tennis ball. But is this the right way to frame our reactions to social situations? Unlike a ball, we have a say in how we swerve when struck, and what we bring to a social situation influences how it affects us. Case in point, from a US-based team headed by Andrew Woolum of the University of North Carolina Wilmington: in research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology they show how people perceive more workplace rudeness when exposed to notions of rudeness at the start of the day.
Woolum’s team recruited 81 people from an executive MBA course who worked in roles ranging from security, medicine and business. The participants completed surveys twice daily for ten consecutive workdays: they recorded their mood when they woke up, and in the evening they described the experiences they’d had at work that day.
The morning survey also linked to a short video of a workplace interaction that was supposedly material for a critical thinking task. In fact, the true purpose of the videos was to vary exposure to rudeness. On half the mornings the video incorporated an act of rudeness within the interaction, such as responding to a request with a lack of eye contact and unfriendly language; on other mornings the interaction was entirely cordial. Accompanying these videos were simple puzzles where words must be unscrambled and then ordered into a sentence. On the days where participants watched a video with rudeness, the unscrambling task was set up to reinforce the rudeness concept, with sentence solutions such as “she always bothered him.”
Woolum found that on the days that participants saw an act of rudeness in the morning video, they went on to report having seen more workplace rudeness during the day. In the evening survey, they also said they felt less able to get on with their daily duties that day, described making poorer progress towards their goals, felt less ownership of their responsibilities, and avoided speaking with other co-workers, all due to that sense of being the victim of more rudeness.
These findings were as the researchers expected based on the idea that threat-related concepts, if presented during (and particularly at the beginning of) a waking cycle, activate a network of related concepts and make it easier for subsequent events to become interpreted in the context of this threat.
However, not all participants were as susceptible to these effects as others. A few weeks before the study, participants had completed a questionnaire measure of “core self-evaluation”, which taps into multiple qualities related to confidence and emotional stability: self-esteem, self-efficacy (feeling capable), locus of control (feeling in control of one’s life) and lower neuroticism.
There’s evidence that this constellation of traits prevents people becoming strongly affected by threatening social stimuli, and this was borne out in the results: those one standard deviation higher in core self-evaluation were immune from the rudeness manipulation, neither perceiving more rudeness during their workday nor suffering the adverse effects that the rude video appeared to provoke in their less confident colleagues.
We’ve reported previously on how being the victim of rudeness can increase the chances you pass it on to others. But here we see that simply being exposed to rudeness in the abstract can sensitise you to experience it: seek and you shall find. Wooley’s team wonder if this effect may also be true of other social but ambiguous phenomena such as when people feel they have been the victim of injustice. The new findings also call to mind Scott Lilienfeld’s recent critique of microaggressions where he speculates that a propensity to feel victimised may contribute to the phenomena.
From a practical perspective, the findings suggest wise managers should take into account that team members lacking confidence may be especially vulnerable to a spiral of negative effects when exposed to habitual rudeness – such as when assigned a nightmare client. For all of us, the study provides a reminder that we are participants in, not merely subjects of, our social existence. That’s good news, because it gives us more say in how it turns out.