Rude people secretly impress us, even if we don’t really like them

So cool.
So cool.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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We don’t like rude people.

At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. The reality is, we allow them to be rude. On some level, we are impressed by their rudeness. So impressed, in fact, that sometimes we ask them to be president.

I’ve spent a year studying rudeness in all its many forms. I’ve looked at its effects on our creativity, our health, and even how mere moments of rudeness can render us completely ineffective at our jobs (which is fine if you’re a writer… not so good if you’re a surgeon about to operate). And in amongst the many surprises I found along the way, was this one: the more financially secure someone feels, the ruder they are likely to be.

Is that you?

Let me explain.

Rudeness is one of the purest forms of power play; an effective way of controlling a situation, asserting your own superiority, and showing other people how very special you are.

Remember the kid at school who was rude to the teacher? You’d never do that, would you? But remember how weirdly impressed you were? Donald Trump’s schoolyard bravado was played out in an international playground, and every time he did it, he bought himself more fuel to keep going.

It didn’t impede him. It promoted him. It promoted him to the highest office in the world.

We’re impressed by rude people. We put them on a pedestal, and they let us.

But, in general, we don’t actually like them.

We don’t like them because, particularly at work, they make our lives worse.

Ninety-eight percent of Americans say that they have experienced rudeness in the workplace. That’s nearly everyone. That’s people working on Wall Street as well as in Buddhist retreats. Though I suppose if you’re going to be given the silent treatment anywhere, it’d be there. More than a quarter of people asked by a survey I undertook—the arrogantly-named Wallace Report—said that the last time someone was rude to them it was in the workplace. Nowhere in our lives is power more at play than at work.

The problem is compounded by ego. Ours, and that of the rude person.

Powerful people see themselves as “other” from the group. They’re an individual. Us, though? We’re just a group.

This has been shown to be a particular problem when it comes to the upper classes.

You know who I’m talking about.

In London, they hang out in Kensington and wear red trousers. Only the upper classes wear red trousers. That’s not a scientific fact, by the way, but it might as well be.

Psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley,1 studied our red-trousered friends and found what we had always merely assumed: that wealthier people do tend to be more selfish in their behaviors and consequently…rude.

Much of this important scientific work—like all the best scientific work—involved hiding in bushes.

Paul Piff—who despite his name is not a magician, but an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior—led the study.

In the first one, the psychologists concealed themselves near a crossroads in San Francisco and spied on drivers who were supposed to stop at the stop sign and wait their turn before moving off. They judged people by the model, age, and appearance of the car. Immediately, they found that those in less classy, or “normal,” cars broke the rules less than 10% of the time. More than 30% of the time, those in the most prestigious decided they didn’t have to wait their turn.

Then there were the pedestrian crossings. We all know the rules. You see someone waiting to cross, you politely bring your car to a halt and let them. In the US, you get a ticket if you don’t. Piff and pals found that people in the cheapest or oldest cars were most likely to obey the law and polite rules of society and stop. But people in the posh cars drove on, ignoring the waiting pedestrian, around 45% of the time.

In their heads, they are important. They’re on their way somewhere. You can wait.

Spurred on by these results, subsequent studies found out that the higher a person’s sense of “class” and power, the more likely they were to lie, to cheat, and even to steal sweets that had been left out for children in a neighboring laboratory.

Can I just say that again? The better off you feel, the more likely you are to steal from children.

When I speak with Piff, I am immediately struck by how passionately fascinated he is by rudeness, and how the way we feel about ourselves determines the liberties we take with others. How we behave in the wild. He’s done “40 or 50” different studies on how power changes us, and what causes people to be nice to each other, versus mean or rude. He’s found that “the more money people have, the less likely they are to share it. That poor people tend to be more generous. The wealthier you are, the more narcissistic you are. The more likely you are to think the world would be a much better place if you could just rule it.”

He’s found that the richer you are, the more likely you are to cheat at silly little games to win silly little prizes you really don’t need. To those people, “getting ahead of others is more moral than breaking the rules is immoral.”

This immediately reminds me of something.

Let me take you back to the evening of a friend’s 40th birthday party. He is a broadcaster and had invited all sorts of people. The great and the good. One such person was a well-known and glamorous woman you can often find in the newspapers. I will keep her anonymous, but let’s just say she is a very well-connected heiress and socialite.

My friend Marc was also there, who is neither well-connected nor an heiress, and probably thinks socialite is some kind of precious metal.

Marc was trying to take his place at the table for dinner, but the heiress was blocking his path. She was leaning back and sitting on the dinner table, talking to a couple of well‑to‑do men. The problem was, she was sitting with her arse on Marc’s plate.

The plate that Marc would soon be eating from.

Marc, a very polite man, tried quietly to draw her attention to this, mainly by apologizing for bringing it up.

The heiress looked at him, looked at where she was sitting, and weighed things up.

Was the fact that this man—whom she didn’t recognize so couldn’t possibly be anyone— was complaining about her sitting on his plate worth stopping her conversation for?

Or even moving?

She looked back at Marc, said, “I won’t be long,” then just went back to talking to her friends.

Marc had to stand there and wait until she’d stopped sitting on his plate.

(Months later, that anonymous woman’s brother ran for political office. Neither myself nor Marc voted for him, and it was in large part because of his sister’s arse. Rudeness can therefore now also be said to damage the democratic process itself.)

Excerpted from F You Very Much: Understanding the Culture of Rudeness—and What We Can Do About It (TarcherPerigee/Penguin Random House). Copyright 2018.