Is Social Media Making Us Ruder?

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The digital era. The time where instead of asking for personal recommendations, potential job matches are asking for your social media handles. The time where a mailing list has replaced the infamous address book. Where “Google” is now in the dictionary – as both a verb and a noun. And also, the time of online trolls or “haters”. The proud authors of those mean, insulting and down-right rude comments left on your social media. 

Between Twitter feuds and Facebook rants, rudeness has become our new normal. And with our interactions extending to the digital realm, it’s difficult to practice a reflective process. Precisely by asking ourselves why is this truly important? Should I really get the last word here? When a person is rude, is it about me or about her/him? And why is social media exacerbating this? 

“[Certainly social media has contributed to an attitude of rudeness.] People feel they have to share their opinions on everything, everywhere, at all times, even if backed up by scant knowledge”, says Danny Wallace, author of the book “F*** You Very Much: The surprising truth about why people are so rude”. “And then they have to broadcast that opinion, importantly, and in a forthright manner so that they cut through the noise. Rudeness cuts through.” His research on the psychology of rudeness can give us key insights as to what’s going on right now and what we can do to become more empathetic. 

The psychology of trolls 

A paper published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences was able to profile Internet users based on their online commenting frequency. The results from this research “revealed similar patterns of relations between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores.” They also found that there was a distinct difference between “cyber-trolling” and debating, the latter being completely unrelated to sadism. 

“[The anonymity factor contributes to online rudeness and trolls], but the latest research says that it’s actually a lack of eye contact that allows us to be particularly rude to people”, Wallace mentions. A recent study from the University of Haifa in Israel, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior has shown precisely that. Its results “suggested that of the three independent variables, lack of eye-contact was the chief contributor to the negative effects of online disinhibition.” 

But, why do online trolls affect us so much? Why do we take it so personally when – in reality – their trolling speaks far more about their mental health than ours? “People appreciate diplomacy. People appreciate being respected and heard. That’s why rudeness has such an effect on us psychologically”, Wallace explains. “We feel immediately dismissed, put-upon, disrespected. And we will go to some pretty dark places to gain that respect back, it turns out. Rudeness often leads to revenge.”

The effect of rudeness in our health

If you’re anything like me, you often struggle with confrontation. So, more than just yelling at the car who has cut in line, you’re not one for calling people out when they’re being rude. And this can sometimes backfire. “Rudeness spreads like a cold. Even witnessing rudeness is enough for us to become infected, psychologically, and for us to carry it with us after that. If someone is persistently rude to you at work, say, the psychological effects can lead to physical effects, just as we know stress can”, Wallace mentions. 

The reason why this spreads is that it is a neurotoxin, a poisonous substance that negatively affects our nervous system. As such, it affects the way we think, we act, and we feel. It affects our executive functions and has a direct relationship with our brain health. In Wallace’s words, “rudeness is an invisible killer and one we don’t yet take seriously enough because we are only just seeing the effect that bad or aggressive behavior has on the frontal lobes – which we need for working memory, concentration and problem-solving, for example. Lives can be at risk.”

When we take into account that social media has potentially doubled the exposure of rudeness for us, we can begin to comprehend just the type of epidemic we are faced with. Think about it. Before, it was just face-to-face interactions (which don’t be fooled, can sometimes have an even more lasting effect than digital ones). But now, we can be treated rudely in infinite scenarios – at work, getting our morning coffee, at the bus station, on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Sometimes it can become too much, and now our health is suffering the consequences. 

Gender differences in rudeness 

I mentioned before how I sometimes struggle to call people out for their rudeness. It turns out, it’s not uncommon for women to feel this way, particularly in the workplaceResearchers from the Lund University in Sweden found a relationship between workplace incivility and workplace dissatisfaction. Their conclusions are that “unpleasant behavior spreads if nothing is done about it.” For women, the plot thickens. 

“Rude men are often described as ‘driven, determined, aggressive’, but if a woman is described as ‘aggressive’, it’s seen as a very bad thing. Women themselves fear being branded that way because they’ve been raised to understand people don’t want to work with a ‘bitch’ or someone ‘abrasive’. Bastards have it much easier than bitches”, Wallace explains. 

There’s a fine line between being completely silent and turning to rudeness. Assertiveness, one comes to understand, becomes much easier said than done. And this is precisely Wallace’s recommendation for tackling rudeness. The “Looking Glass Effect”, a term coined by Horton Cooley explains that we can learn a whole lot from ourselves by the way we interact with other people. In that way, society plays an important role in the way we perceive ourselves. 

Following this premise, and Wallace’s future thoughts on the topic of rudeness, “we need to call out rudeness when we see it. Hold up that looking glass [to others].” But at the same time, “we need to pick and choose how we accept it and when we find it refreshing”. And above anything else: deep breaths and serenity never miss the mark. 

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