The Cost of Rudeness

We’re not here for a long time. So let’s at least make it a good time.

The teacher announced a spelling practice in class. She said each student had to come forward, say what his father did for a living, and spell his occupation.

Mary was first. She said, “My dad is a baker, b-a-k-e-r, and if he were here, he would give everyone a cookie.”

Then Sheila announced, “My dad is a banker, b-a-n-k-e-r, and if he were here, he’d give each of you a nickel.”

The third student, Jimmy, said, “My dad is an electrician.” But after struggling through a number of attempts to spell the word, the teacher asked him to sit down and think about it for a moment while she called on someone else.

She turned to Herbie. He said, “My dad is a bookie, b-o-o-k-i-e, and if he were here, he’d lay you 8 to 5 that Jimmy ain’t ever gonna spell electrician.”

Now that’s rude. Unfortunately there’s a lot of rudeness in today’s workplace. You may see it in the boss. If, for example, your boss won’t even listen to your suggestions, that’s rude. If your boss says “I’ll get back to you” and never does, that’s rude.

In a survey by the research firm, Watson Wyatt Worldwide, they found that only 19% of managers say they consider employee input when making policy. That’s rude.

In another study by the same firm, some 4300 workers were surveyed. They found that only 1/3 of them believed their companies listened to them or acted on their suggestions. Obviously, those employees thought there was a lot of rudeness in the workplace.

There seems to be a disconnect in many organizations. For all the talk about participative management, empowerment, and team building, the data still says workers have a hard time getting through to their leaders. That’s rude.

Are you unknowingly guilty of rudeness? If you give a customer poor service, that’s rude. If you give your team anything less than your very best, that’s rude.

Ronald Reagan was guilty of such unintentional rudeness when he was governor of California. He was speaking in Mexico City and relayed this report: “After I had finished speaking, I sat down to rather unenthusiastic applause, and I was a little embarrassed.”

Reagan continued: “The speaker who followed me spoke in Spanish–which I didn’t understand–and he was being applauded about every paragraph. To hide my embarrassment, I started clapping before everyone else and longer than anyone else until our ambassador leaned over and said, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. He’s interpreting your speech’.”

Of course, there can be some cultural differences as to what is considered rude. I was a bit shocked when I read the November 22, 2000 edition of the Bangkok Post newspaper. They reported the story of a nurse in Shanghai, China who was fined 50 Yuan ($6.00) for failing to wear lipstick on the job.

As journalist Shen Yaohong wrote in his editorial, “When I was in the hospital a few weeks ago, some of the nurses looked dreadful…so a bit of makeup is good for a patient’s health.” And the hospital administrators imposed the rule after one patient complained that “Some of the nurses’ faces looked even worse than sick patients.”

In many cultures, such rules would be considered highly sexist and discriminatory. In their culture, however, the lack of make-up was considered rude.

The point is, there’s lots of rudeness in the workplace, and it’s costing us a lot of money. Take, for example, the CEO who loses a billion dollars and then gets a $50 million bonus.

Christine Pearson, at the University of North Carolina, documented the costs of rudeness. When employees felt the boss was rude, 53% of them said they lost several hours of productivity fretting over “what will happen the next time” the boss is rude. 43% considered changing jobs because of the boss’ rudeness. 37% said they were less committed to their company, and 22% deliberately got even by cutting back their efforts.

With a challenging economy or tough competition, you can’t afford rudeness at work. So if you see some rudeness or are a victim of it, here are a few things you can do.

REPEAT WHAT WAS SAID. When you hear a rude remark, say something like, “Let me see if I understand you correctly. Did you mean to say…?” Sometimes people don’t realize they’ve been rude until they hear what they actually said.

If, on the other hand, the person knows he’s been rude, your repetition of his comment may stop him in the future. He realizes he can’t get away with it. He can’t slip in a subtle zinger once in a while and not be called on the carpet.

You could also WAIT A DAY. If a particular coworker isn’t usually rude, you could assume she’s having a bad day. Take a day off before discussing the incident with your coworker. Then you can decide if the incident was a fluke or part of an unacceptable pattern.

STEER THE DISCUSSION TOWARD SOLUTIONS. In other words, rudeness tends to be personal and it tends to block productivity. So you could ignore the question of “who is doing what wrong” and focus on “how will we make things better.” The first approach, the “who” approach, produces defensiveness, while the “how” approach encourages teamwork.

But my favorite suggestion is to HAVE A POSITIVE PARTY FUNDED BY NEGATIVE PEOPLE. Establish a new ruling. Whenever you catch someone being rude, the offender has to put $1.00 in the kitty. When you’ve accumulated $25, you throw a pizza party for the team.

The way I see it, there are plenty of reasons and plenty of times that frustration, anger, and other negative emotions might be justified, but there is never a time that rude behavior is acceptable. Let’s stomp it out.


Action:  The next time you hear or see rudeness at work, do more than simply ignore it. Try the repetition strategy I outlined above. Repeat back what you heard. It will help the other person to change his behavior.