From swearing to insults, most of us have experienced rudeness in some form or another at work, out in public, or online. Much of the research examining rudeness has focused on its negative effects and with good reason—there are plenty of them.
We know that rudeness is a stressor with adverse impact on wellbeing, job satisfaction, and work performance, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is both insidious and a wholly negative experience. But surprisingly, our recent study into the experience of rudeness within a mental health context found that it can also be viewed positively, or at least used in a positive way.
We interviewed 18 mental health professionals (including counsellors, clinical psychologists, and rehabilitation and family support workers) to explore their experience of rudeness at work. We asked them to identify uncivil behavior, discuss how they responded to it, and consider their coping strategies. The results indicated that mental health workers experienced a range of behavior they considered rude, from clients not turning up to appointments, to insults and swearing during sessions.
In addition to the negative impact this behavior could have, interviewees reported that dealing with rudeness could also have a positive influence on both professional development and client relationships. This finding led us to explore this further—could the experience of rudeness have benefits as well as negative consequences in certain circumstances? Our investigation identified five potential positive aspects of rudeness.
1. Professional development
Mental health workers indicated that they thought the experience of dealing with rudeness could aid their personal development. Specifically, they felt they gained important insights into why some clients behaved rudely, and learned techniques to defuse or deal with rude behavior. This led to increased confidence in their ability to work successfully with a range of clients. Viewing rudeness in this way aligns with the idea of stressors as challenges that can be used as learning opportunities.
The extent to which rudeness can be framed as a positive challenge is thought to be influenced by the attribution of the behavior—in other words, why has someone acted in this manner? Did they intend to cause harm or did some external force prompt the behavior?
Mental health practitioners in our study perceived that the rudeness was caused by the client’s illness, current situation, or traumatic events from the past. Understanding the root cause enabled the practitioners to view the behavior as part of the session and relationship development, rather than as an attempt to cause harm.
2. Enhancing resilience
Linked to the idea of interpreting rudeness as a challenge to be overcome is the development of enhanced coping mechanisms. Learning the skills required to develop emotional resilience is increasingly seen as important in the helping professions.
More widely, recent research reports that challenge appraisals of rudeness at work were linked to higher levels of job satisfaction and increased learning. This links to the theory that exposure to challenging stressors at work can help people build resilience. This can, in turn, help workers to develop coping strategies and increase their self-confidence. Dealing successfully with rudeness at work could therefore have a positive impact on workers’ confidence and coping, potentially reducing the stress of similar interactions in the future.
3. Building relationships
Developing rapport and understanding is an important aspect of relationship building within and beyond the workplace. A strong rapport is an important aspect of therapeutic relationships, has been linked to better learning in peer-tutor relationships, and can reinforce solidarity within social groups.
Although many relationships begin with politeness, that decreases over time as exchanges become more informal and rapport grows. Later on, communication can include insults, name-calling, and teasing—all designed to signal confidence in the relationship and an increasing level of trust.
4. Forming groups
Impoliteness, swearing, and insults can also be a sign of group membership. This tends to occur within organizations where groups or sub-cultures develop, each of which can have defined linguistic rules, such as swearing for emphasis.
This type of social swearing or insults—sometimes referred to as “banter”—can function as a stress reliever and can make groups closer, even improving worker motivation and morale. But this can only occur where the organizational culture and leadership permits this type of behavior.
In some of the examples above, the use of rudeness is acceptable because it is deemed humorous. The idea is not to cause harm but to make people laugh. Humor of this type can be a crucial part of an effective therapeutic process as well as relationship development. The important point is that this is mock rudeness, often directed at well-known figures, with the obvious intent of poking fun.
Although experiencing rudeness can often be upsetting and stressful, it is not always completely negative. In certain circumstances, it can actually improve and strengthen relationships. In terms of personal and professional development, it can also foster resilience and the capacity to cope confidently with difficult people.