“Let us learn to live with kindness, to love everyone, even when they do not love us.” (Pope Francis)
Wallace Falls State Park, Aug. 2015
It’s going to be a long 14 months until our next presidential election. Many other countries have very different approaches to their elections:
- In Canada, the minimum length for a campaign is 36 days, and the longest ever—in 1926—was 10.5 weeks;
- In Australia, the campaign must be at least 33 days; the longest ever was 11 weeks in 1910;
- In France, the official election campaign usually lasts no more than 2 weeks;
- In Japan, campaigning is permitted for 12 days.
In our wisdom, we Americans draw out the process longer than the War of the Roses. And, to add to the fun, our candidates engage in incivility that would cause them to have their mouths rinsed out with soap, or at least an extended time-out, if they were really the 8-year-olds they act like.
But they are adult men and women, and for many of them, name-calling, lying and rudeness are standard operating procedures. And, sadly, their supporters cheer and egg them on, giving tacit approval for boorish behavior. Recent research indicates that this is likely to be the beginning of an epidemic of incivility.
According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Florida, rudeness is contagious. Really, it spreads like a cold or the flu—it’s passed from one person to the next until most everybody’s got it. Not only do people who are subject to rude treatment themselves subsequently behave rudely, even those who only witness rudeness succumb to rude behaviors.
The study, published in late June in The Journal of Applied Psychology, asserts that, “Just like the common cold, common negative behaviors can spread easily.” Lead researcher Trever Foulk further stated, “It’s very easy to catch. Just a single incident, even observing a single incident, can cause you to be more rude…. Rudeness is contagious, when I experience it, I become rude.”
We Tolerate Bad Behavior
“Part of the problem,” he adds, “is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful.” Where outright abuse and aggression are far more infrequent—and less readily accepted—rudeness is something people face daily, and its effects can be widely devastating.
“Rudeness is largely tolerated,” Foulk said. “We experience rudeness all the time in organizations because organizations allow it.”
Maybe our presidential candidates should come with a warning label: Caution: listening to this man could be hazardous to your humanity.
Perhaps most concerning: the study revealed that all of this happens at an unconscious level. “What we found in this study,” said Foulk, “is that the contagious effect is based on an automatic cognitive mechanism—automatic means it happens somewhere in the subconscious part of your brain, so you don’t know it’s happening and can’t do much to stop it.”
Does that mean that those people who abhor what Donald Trump says and stands for, but who watch him for his entertainment value only, are nonetheless “catching” his rudeness? Sounds like it to me…. Also sounds like my friend Kris is wise in declaring a news fast.
Responding to the study, Barbara Mitchell, human resources consultant, and author of The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, says rude behavior can be stopped if it’s clear to all that such behavior will not be tolerated. “To me it starts from the top…. How does the leadership behave? What kind of culture do they want? And how do they live their own values within the organization?” She further notes that bad behavior must be addressed immediately. It must be made clear to everyone the moment it surfaces that rudeness will not be tolerated. While she is talking about workplace incivility, it stands to reason that the same factors exist at a broader, cultural level: How do our leaders behave? What values do they model? What are we—as members of that culture—willing to tolerate?
If being treated rudely, or even just witnessing rude treatment, causes people to behave more rudely themselves, over the next 14 months we are likely to see an escalation of discourtesy of unimagined proportion.
If we want to advance a kind and courteous culture, we need to take a stand. We need to politely say “no” when a politician speaks disrespectfully of an opponent, a celebrity, or a mere dissenter. Or when the media or political pundits engage in name-calling or deceit. We need say “that’s not acceptable” and turn our backs if they persist. That’s how the contagion is countered.
Fortunately, It Works Both Ways
The news isn’t all bad. There’s also been research that kindness can spread like a contagion, too. Scottish scientist David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., has done considerable research into the health benefits of kindness. He asserts that just as colds and flu (and as we now know, rudeness) are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. “When we’re kind,” Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” As an example of that ripple effect, Dr. Hamilton cites the story of an anonymous individual who donated a kidney to a stranger. It triggered a ripple of family members donating their kidneys to others, the “domino effect” ultimately spanning the breadth of the U.S. and resulting in ten people receiving kidneys as a result of one anonymous donor.
Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.
So, as cold and flu season approach, not to mention the malady known as campaign season, we can choose what sorts of bugs we will expose ourselves to. We can choose to breathe the air of reckless incivility or of well-mannered courtesy. If only there were a simple shot to protect us from election affliction….
More election comparisons: In Germany, political parties release just one 90-second television ad. In the U.K.’s last major election (2010), British political parties spent just about the same amount as the American presidential candidates spent on expenses related to raising money in 2012. Sigh.
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)