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Rudeness Begets Rudeness!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

I conducted a mediation the other day in which both sides professed that they wanted to settle the matter as the trial would be a “big distraction” but were stymied in their efforts due to personality conflicts. (They both wanted to settle as they did not want to have anything further to do with the other: to each party- the other was not to be trusted.) It reminded me of a divorce in which both parties want the result but are so busy hating each other that they cannot get past the hatred to work towards the mutual goal of ending the relationship. The hatred of one seems to feed off of the other.

I note this because I heard about a study from the University of Florida that reached the very common sense conclusion that rude behavior begets rude behavior. Or, to quote Science Daily, “Encountering rude behavior at work makes people more likely to perceive rudeness in later interactions.” (Id. )

The researchers, Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum and Amir Erez published their findings on June 29, 2015 in the Journal of Applied Psychology (“Catching Rudeness is Like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors”). To reach this conclusion, they had 90 graduate students negotiate with classmates. They found that, “…those who rated their initial negotiation partner as rude were more likely to be rated as rude by a subsequent partner…” (Science Daily, supra.) This effect continued even when the researchers allowed a week to pass between the first and second negotiation sessions.

The researchers also tested 47 undergraduate students to determine if “rudeness directed at others can also prime our brains to detect discourtesy.” (Id.). The found the answer to be “yes”. The researchers requested the undergraduates to distinguish between real and nonsense words on a list. But before giving them the list, the researcher primed the undergraduates for rudeness or a lack of it, by having them observe one of two staged interactions between a “participant” who apologized for being late and the study leader. When the leader was rude to the tardy actor, “… the undergraduates identified rude words on the list of real words significantly faster than participants who had observed a neutral interaction.” (Id.)

The researchers also discovered that merely witnessing rudeness – bystander rudeness- can cause us to be rude as well. They had participants watch a video of rude workplace behavior and then had the participants respond to an email that was neutral in tone. They found that watching the rudeness rubbed off as the participants tended to be more hostile in their response to the email than those who had viewed a polite office interaction before drafting the response.

I suspect that the above behavior has a lot to do with the mirror neurons in our brain which causes us to mimic the behavior we see in others. While this study focused on workplace behavior, without doubt it applies to everyday life, and especially to negotiations and resolving disputes.

I started this post discussing a mediation in which the parties are playing Tit for Tat with their hatred, lack of trust and otherwise quite ill feelings towards the other. They are feeding off of each other! Just think what would happen if one started to act cordially to the other? The mirror neurons might just take over causing the recipient of the cordial behavior to reciprocate by being cordial back. After a few rounds of this, and lo and behold, before the parties know it, their personalities are no longer an impediment to resolving the dispute…. And they settle!

But trying to explain this to highly emotional people is easier said than done. I first have to stop their left brain from being kidnapped and taken over by their right brain!

…Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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