When I was younger, I once read a book called, I think, “The Smile That Went Around The World.” It told the happy story of a kid who came outside with a happy grin and smiled at a stranger, who then smiled at another stranger, who smiled at another — and on and on, until the smile reached every country and world was one big happy place. It was a nice thought to instill in small children, who could cling to the idea that they could change the world just by smiling.
Of course, when we reach adulthood we realize that often it takes more than a smile from a stranger to turn someone’s mood around. But what about the opposite kind of behavior? How does behaving like a colossal jerk affect others in the vicinity?
New studies are indicating that rude behavior does, indeed, spread like a kind of disease. The studies reveal that being the target of discourtesy, or simply witnessing ill-mannered conduct, tends to induce more rude behavior. The psychologists posit that seeing loutishness or abusiveness activates parts of our brains that are sensitive to rudeness and triggers an increased likelihood of an impolite response on our part. Our ungracious response, in turn, can provoke escalating rudeness in others.
Unlike the happy but unrealistic concept of the smile traveling around the world, this research matches our experience in real-life scenarios. How many times have you been cut off by a thoughtless person who is driving like a jerk and felt a surge of anger and a sudden wild desire to retaliate? If you’re standing in a line and some jerk tries to cut in front, it’s not unusual to see surly reactions or even a breakdown in the queue. How often have you seen perfect strangers telling each other off because of some ill-advised conduct, or the mean actions of a supervisor then mimicked by his subordinate?
It’s sad to think that rudeness is so easy to provoke in others — but as we move into the Thanksgiving weekend, we can all be on guard. We might not be able to send a smile around the world, but at least we can exercise some self-control and stop the spread of boorishness in its tracks.