Why we are ruder at work than we are in the street

Last Tuesday on my way to work I was waiting to cross a road when a middle-aged woman next to me dropped some coins on to the pavement. Six people bent down to retrieve them for her. A man in a smart navy suit fumbled in the gutter to find a 1p piece, which he proceeded to hand over. The only person nearby who didn't help was me - but that was because I was holding on to my bicycle.

Instead, I found myself telling the group that what I'd witnessed made me pleased to be a Londoner. Everyone was in a hurry to get to work. Yet everyone instinctively paused to be nice to a stranger who had lost less than a quid in small change. The good Samaritans looked at me doubtfully. Being kind was one thing; talking to strangers quite another. As soon as the lights changed, they bustled off to their City offices. I bustled off to mine.

When I arrived I walked to my desk straight past various colleagues staring at screens, some of whom were wearing headphones. I didn't greet any of them. I dumped the previous day's dirty tea cup in the communal sink and took a clean one from the cupboard. I sat down, looked at my e-mails and resolved not to reply to any of them. I went up to the canteen, bought myself a greasy pastry, which I ate at my desk, scattering crumbs all round me.

This is my routine every morning at the office; I wouldn't have been at all surprised if some of the Samaritans were doing something similar at theirs. How people behave at work isn't all that nice. We are more thoughtful to perfect strangers in the street than we are to our office colleagues. At work we ignore people, we stink them out with our lunches, we arrive late to meetings. We talk loudly when others are trying to work, or we whisper distractingly when we don't want everyone to hear.

Management experts call this "workplace incivility", which they define as "low-intensity deviant behaviour" that is not necessarily intended to harm its target, but does so anyway. I didn't set out to be uncivil to my colleagues by not saying hello or by ignoring so many e-mails. This is just how office life has become.

Research suggests such rudeness is rampant and doing real harm. It makes people hate their jobs, it makes them less creative and more stressed. It might even (though I'm doubtful) make us more prone to heart attacks.

It isn't immediately obvious why offices are becoming less civil. Human nature hasn't changed much. In my experience, when something big goes wrong in the office, people are very nice. But six things have changed that may have made us all ruder in little ways.

The first is e-mail. As there is far too much of it to reply to we've learnt not to - or to send terse one-word answers - both of which are rude. And having mastered the art of ignoring e-mails we are now learning to ignore anything we don't feel like doing. Answering the phone at work is becoming optional - which is rude not only to the caller but also to the colleagues subjected to endless ringing.

The second invitation to incivility is the smartphone, which has made appearing to listen when someone else is talking - hitherto a mainstay of good manners - no longer required. This month I was at a conference at which not only was three-quarters of the audience (me included) staring at their phones, but half the people on the panel were openly tweeting or WhatsApping as the man at the lectern droned on.

Open-plan offices are also made for incivility. Now that we are herded together in public spaces, what would have been fine in private offices (eating noisily, talking loudly on the phone) becomes less so. It is thanks to such offices that we have the rudest office invention of the lot - headphones. These shout: I'm here, but I wish I wasn't.

Hot desking and flexible working have made things worse. When you are not sitting with the same people every day, and may not even know the person seated next to you, there is no incentive to be nice as you won't see him or her tomorrow.

Possibly worse than any of this is the cult of busyness, which has made rudeness not just acceptable but admirable. If it is impressive to be busy, then it is good to keep people waiting, good to turn up late to meetings and good to be so preoccupied that you end up blanking people in the corridor.

All this is pretty fundamental, and it isn't clear how to get civility back.

The only way that might work is rude in itself: it is secretly to video people behaving badly and send it to them, or share more widely. Almost everyone is decent really. Few people like to think of themselves as rude. A 10-second video of someone cutting a colleague dead or eating disgustingly might have an agreeably corrective effect.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'Why we are ruder at work than we are in the street'. Print Edition | Subscribe