“It appears to be the case that in these modern days many people have no time to be polite,” grumbled the New York Observer in 1899, though you can easily imagine those words coming from any cantankerous non-twentysomething newspaper columnist working today, a category from which I cannot exclude myself. “The fact is that we are living in a rushing, distracted age when the utmost that many seem able to do is barely to catch trains… without wasting time on formalities or pretty speeches by the way.” Rudeness does seem to be on the rise: according to the American civility researcher Christine Porath, writing recently in the New York Times, you’re about twice as likely to experience incivility in the workplace as in the 1990s. But the explanation for it hasn’t changed since 1899. Porath’s work shows that around 40% of us, across multiple industries, say we’re rude because we haven’t the time to be polite.
The notion that rudeness saves time, while politeness consumes time, is deeply embedded in our culture. (Consider the idiom “to be short with someone”: brevity as incivility.) Yet on closer inspection it’s bizarre. For one thing, many forms of politeness take no time at all: it’s no quicker to scowl than to smile, or to talk quietly into your phone on the train, rather than bellowing. Moreover, to judge by Porath’s research, rudeness at work is rarely a good time-saving tactic anyhow: when bosses treat employees rudely, it causes productivity and creativity to plummet, so in the end rudeness slows things down. Obnoxious jerks who attain power do so despite, not because of, their obnoxiousness.
One vivid example of how confused we’ve become about time and politeness is the horrifying rise of the email sign-off “Rgds”, which probably ought to be prohibited by the Geneva conventions. By all means eliminate the sign-off from your emails completely; I often do. But “Rgds” is a clumsy attempt to preserve a businesslike formality, while drawing attention to the sender’s unwillingness to invest the extra milliseconds it would take to add three more letters. You risk giving offence, while saving essentially no time: it’s rudeness without reward. (A bit like the emails I sometimes get from publicists, clearly sent to hundreds of journalists at once, that begin, “I hope you are well.” You clearly don’t, if we’re being honest – so why mention it?)
What this all ultimately reveals is that busyness-induced rudeness is much more emotional, and much less calculating, than it might at first appear. Nobody ever really makes a rational decision to scrimp on a few seconds over here, in order to spend them over there. Instead, the unpleasant sensation of being too busy triggers an impatient mindset, and thoughts of your to-do list distract you from whoever you’re talking to – and the end result is rudeness. Technology may make matters worse: some studies suggest that digital culture encourages a digital communication style, in which we dole out attention in discrete bits, paying attention to other people when we need to exchange information, then abruptly withdrawing it when we’re finished, with none of the smoothness of ordinary conversation. In short, it may feel like your rudeness is saving you time, but it isn’t. You’re just reacting to overwhelm by being rude. Understood? Thx.