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Thomas De Moor for X-Team

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How to Counter Rudeness in the Remote Workplace

We are a social species. Ever since humans have existed, we have had no choice but to rely on cooperation and community to survive. We have always been weak alone, strong together, and our bodies reflect this. Strong, positive relationships contribute significantly to better physical and mental health.

So we are both socially and biologically incentivized to be good to the people in our most important communities, including our work community. But we're often not good to our colleagues. Sometimes, we're downright rude. Do you have to think long before you find a moment where a colleague was rude or incivil to you?

Probably not.

For all the benefits of remote work, it's also easier to be rude. Because we're physically on our own, there's less peer pressure to act within the boundaries of respect. There's also a higher chance of miscommunication. But now that remote work is firmly cemented as a way of working, it's important to look at rudeness in the remote workspace:

  • What is rudeness?
  • What are the effects of rudeness?
  • What can you do about rudeness?

What is Rudeness?

Someone is rude or incivil when they violate the minimum standard of respect as a community defines it. What that means can vary dramatically based on the community you're in.

For example, tipping in Japan is considered rude, but it's common practice in North America. And honking in Norway for any reason other than an emergency is rude, but in Cairo drivers honk to say thank you, screw you, and I love you.

It's a little easier to understand what rudeness means in the workforce, because companies worldwide tend to have organizational standards of respect that are fairly universal. Most companies—remote or not—would consider it rude to:

  • speak over a colleague
  • interrupt a colleague
  • act condescendingly
  • deride a colleague
  • ignore a question
  • swear
  • yell

But it needn't be this obvious. In a remote company, rudeness can mean canceling a Zoom meeting right before it was meant to happen, replying sarcastically to a Slack message, sending long voice messages instead of short text messages, assuming people work late hours too, and so on.

What Are the Effects of Rudeness?

The problem with rudeness is that a single rude act doesn't do much damage. Sometimes, it's barely noticeable. But if someone is continuously rude to you, you'll end up with:

The most natural response to rudeness is to avoid the people who are rude to you. But that's not always possible at work. Sometimes, you have no choice but to work together.

And because reporting rudeness can sometimes feel as if you're making a big deal out of something small, your body will be on edge constantly, particularly when you're with the colleague who's rude to you.

What Can You Do about Rudeness?

As a Company

Much of rudeness happens because the social or cultural features of a company prevent people from being nice to each other. Hyper-competitive work environments are often toxic and full of rudeness, because they encourage employees to be dominant and show no weaknesses. The company is always put before the individual.

If you're serious about minimizing rudeness as a remote company, make respect, empathy, and civility a core aspect of your culture. Don't consider any of these values as a given. Instead, create specific rules. For example, give credit where credit is due, don't interrupt your colleagues, treat your colleagues like you want to be treated, etc. Write these down and place them somewhere visible (like your remote company handbook).

Of course, these rules will only work if management embodies them. Managers should set themselves out to be the prime example of humility, empathy, and respect. How a manager acts on Slack or on a video meeting will decide how well employees stick to the values that reduce rudeness in the remote workforce.

Another way to reduce rudeness from an organizational perspective is by tightening the bonds between employees that may never have physically met each other. X-Team does this with its Seasons and Games (among other initiatives), but it could be something as simple as spending a few minutes at the start of a meeting talking about something good that happened since everyone last met.

As an Individual

The best way to counter rudeness is by assuming the other person means well. Most often, they do. Remote companies tend to have employees all over the world (X-Teamers work in over seventy countries). What's considered a slight for one person might not be a slight for the other.

For example, someone might interpret “You understand?” as questioning their intelligence, while the other just meant it as a genuine question. Give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they don't mean any harm.

Of course, if that same person is frequently rude to you, you'll want to address it. Confronting them aggressively is a big no-no and will only worsen things. Avoidance isn't a good option either, because it can lead to social isolation and loneliness. Instead, you'll want to repair the relationship and recruit support.

Repairing the relationship can be done on your own or, in case the relationship is quite damaged, with a mediator. It's an honest chat about the way your colleague's behavior makes you feel and why it's in both your interests to improve your relationship. The trick is to find values that you both share and build a healthy relationship from that common ground.

Additionally, think about recruiting support. Speak to your manager, a close friend, or a relative. Tell them about your troubles. It will feel good to air your grievances and you won't feel as if you have to tackle this alone. A strong support system can keep you going until the rudeness stops.

In Conclusion

A rude act breaks a standard of respect as defined by a particular community. It's easier to be perceived as rude in a remote environment, because there is less informal chatter to clarify things and because technology hides much of the body language we use to convey meaning.

Rudeness has strong effects on the mental and physical health of an employee, so it's in every remote-first company's interests to deal with rudeness. They can do so by placing empathy, respect, and civility at the core of their culture. Managers should embody these values in their everyday actions.

As an individual, you can tackle rudeness by assuming the other person means well or by trying to repair the relationship and recruiting support. Above all, avoid head-on confrontations or plain avoidance, as that will either exacerbate the problem or isolate you.

While the above won't ever fully eliminate rudeness, they will help create a positive remote workplace where everyone can be at their most productive and engaged.

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