A child stands in a field with its tongue stuck out at the viewer.

Rude Behavior

A middle-aged man in a t-shirt is frowning at a cell phone and appears to be yelling at it.

Joe Pyne was one of the first rude disk jockeys. Callers found themselves off the air when he interrupted a comment that he didn’t like with “Take a hike”. Many others followed, though the genre is in decline.

We still find rudeness entertaining, as long as it’s someone else who gets hurt, though it can be mortifying to discover our unintentional rudeness, perhaps when friends take an unkindly view of cooking fish in the office microwave at lunchtime. Oddly, the embarrassment loses its sting as we rise in the hierarchy.

Rudeness is not a single behavior, and there are no universal standards.  Spitting in the street may be rude where you live, but maybe not where I live. Is rude behavior increasing? It’s hard to distinguish effrontery in a jerk from wounded sensitivity in the victim and tell which is increasing when most of the evidence comes from surveys or other forms of self-report.

Rudeness is not inherited in any specific, culture-free manner. Neither does any culture provide an absolute standard. Magazines will not persuade us that American customs are the touchstone of civility, and there is no gene for rudeness nor any biomarker to identify at-risk children.

However, a rapid transition from civility to rudeness in one person, observed by many others, can give a clue to the etiology of social clumsiness. If either the person’s behavior becomes permanently rude over time or is judged as rude upon any contact with a different culture, we have a clue.

BIO: Historians might tell us that the rudest person in history was William d’Alton Mann, but an example that is much more familiar to any psychology student is Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who suffered brain injury when a tamping iron was driven through his frontal lobes by an explosion, leaving him amazingly alive but increasingly rude.

In some other people, nerve cells in the frontal lobes die and the frontal lobes shrink, leading to behavioral disturbances including rudeness. The disorder is called frontotemporal dementia, and displays several variations.

Whether from traumatic brain injury or degeneration, declines in frontal lobe function can be associated with increases in rude behavior. Why should this be?

When Dacher Keltner found decreased empathy among higher-status individuals, he noted its resemblance to frontal lobe syndrome. The frontal lobes of the brain help us to get along with other people. Frontal lobe injury may be accompanied by impulsiveness and insensitivity to others that bring about profound changes in personality. The frontal lobes are not homogeneous lumps but highly organized brain regions, and three or four distinct frontal lobe syndromes have been described. As the functions of the frontal lobes are still being teased apart, we should perhaps resist the tempting and longstanding simplification that the frontal lobes are inhibitory, and injury that disinhibits impulses causes the rudeness.

There must be many causes of rude behavior and there is no specific brain mechanism for it in normal people, yet health may provide one defense against it.

PSYCHO: Some degeneration of the frontal lobes is common as people age and find that they have increasing trouble juggling tasks and planning for next year. Lacking fear of retaliation, older people blurt out uninhibited speech. A similar lack of accountability may be responsible for the  uninhibited viciousness of speech on social media and Internet forums, although the modeling of outrage that is demonstrated by some broadcasters may also have a large effect. Anonymity is more than lack of eye contact, but eye contact is sometimes enough to restore civility.

SOCIAL: Uncivil celebrities affect us powerfully because behaviors can be contagious, and rudeness passes easily from one person to another. A superficially similar effect is seen when someone coughs in a concert, yawns in class, or throws up on an airplane. Some researchers have found that rudeness is only one of a number of “negative behaviors” that are contagious. I will leave instances of gossiping and mass psychogenic illness for the reader’s consideration.

Contagion is only one of the social consequences of rudeness. We could dwell also on the vigor of revenge that can be provoked by rudeness. Like rudeness, revenge varies from one culture to another. At least in Western cultures, it seems not to restore equanimity among the insulted, but may instead be the disease vector of contagious rudeness itself.

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