The Stress/Rudeness Vicious Circle

The December 10 Wall Street Journal had an interesting article on secondhand stress in the workplace. That is ancillary stress generated by stressed colleagues rushing around the office. That rushing, it seems, can have a negative effect on coworkers.

The article introduces Ray Hollinger who rushes around his office. His rushing affects his colleagues negatively, making them feel uncomfortable. Their discomfort is a clear sign that they see Ray’s rushing as rude. So, when Ray is stressed, he rushes around, a behavior his coworkers perceive as rude.

In my business etiquette seminar, one of the key points I discuss is the relationship between stress and rudeness. That relationship looks like this:



When you are feeling stress, you are more likely to act rudely toward others. And when you are acting rudely towards others, you tend to feel more stress, which leads to more rudeness which leads to more stress in a never-ending circle.

Interestingly, the relationship becomes more complex as evidenced by Ray’s lack of awareness about how his stress was affecting people around him. Stress can cause a person to be unaware of how his actions are affecting others. That lack of awareness leads to rudeness, which, in turn, makes the person feel more stressed—and on and on. The relationship between stress, lack of awareness, and rudeness looks like this:


How can the vicious circle be broken?

In a word: awareness. I don’t believe that people are intentionally rude. None of us consciously goes around thinking about how we can to be rude to the people with whom we interact. Ray certainly didn’t think his scurrying around was rude. But it was to others. It was only when he became aware of how his actions were affecting others that he could alter his actions and break his stress/rudeness vicious circle.

The key to breaking the rudeness/stress vicious circle is to think before you act. That means taking a moment to consider how others are going to perceive your behavior. It only takes a moment to stop and consider before you act. Yet that moment’s hesitation is all you need to assess how others will see you and adjust your actions so you are seen in a more positive light.


One of the clearest examples of the benefit of thinking before you act is when your cell phone rings while you are already involved in a face-to-face conversation with someone. The impulsive action is to answer the call, yet the person you are with very well may see that action as rude. Thinking for a moment and then choosing to send the call to voice mail avoids the rudeness and the perception of you as a rude person and instead helps strengthen your relationship.

That’s it. Being aware will reduce rudeness which, ultimately, will reduce stress and enhance your relationships.


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