What Does It Mean to Be Rude at Work?

Is brusque rude, and what exactly is brusque? Is it ending all written sentences, even the greetings and closing salutation, with a period, as in “Hello, Margery.” And, “Thanks.”? It would be a stretch to call that rude, but when a former boss switched from commas to periods in his e-mails to me, I was offended. It seemed like he was sending a signal that I had overstepped a friendliness/familiarity line, and he was tamping it down with periods and hard stops.

Most definitions of “rude” vary from person to person. I find brusqueness rude, while others find it a natural, refreshing mode. When I say “brusque,” I mean a person who doesn’t bother with greetings or closing salutations. I like a good “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” As long as a communication, whether verbal or written, has those elements, I’m happy. 

On the other hand, some people think I’m rude because I don’t like small talk when it’s forced. That means I would not ask a co-worker how they’re doing if I’m coming over to ask to borrow the stapler or if I have a question about a joint project. I would smile; say, “Hello”; ask my question with a “please”; say, “Thanks,” and leave. Is that rude?

I saw an article last week about whether rudeness in the workplace is increasing, and it made me wonder about the definition of “rude,” and whether there’s anything we all can agree on. “Rudeness occurs between two people. It requires an offender and a victim, comprising what researchers refer to as a ‘dyad,’” Shannon G. Taylor writes in Nextgov.

I’ve started forcing myself—sometimes—to ask people how they’re doing before asking a work-related question. It would come naturally to me if I were friendly with the person I had approached, but it seems like a cursory, insincere question when I don’t have a relationship with the other person. It seems that people in front-line service roles, like the barista at the coffee shop or the person at the check-in desk in a hotel, expect to be asked how they’re doing. It no longer is enough to say, “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” Yet that brief exchange was more than enough when I was growing up in the 1980s. I remember my mother teaching me to reply, “Fine, thank you,” when asked by a stranger how I was doing. I don’t remember the part of the lesson where I then was supposed to ask the person in return how he or she was doing. It’s possible my mother never taught it to me because, like me, she had no desire to get into exchanges about how she was doing with people she had no relationship with. Have people come to expect personal inquiries in the workplace where years ago few would have expected or wanted it?

The old joke is to consider what would happen if you sincerely answered the question of how you were doing before answering a co-worker’s question or minor request. Boy, would they be sorry he or she had asked! Then who would be rude? In that case, you might say the person who over-shared in answer to a cursory question was rude.

Over-sharing in the workplace can come across as rude, and can take many forms. How about those people in an office who are dying to tell everyone in passing what they did over the weekend? To fill an emotional need to share who they are with co-workers and strangers, they volunteer information many of us have no interest in, like that they just broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or that they ate at a hard-to-get-into restaurant, which turned out to be a disappointment. Not surprisingly, many of these over-shares are humble-brags. They are designed to make an impression on not only the person they are talking to, but on all those within earshot. 

In open-plan offices, which I wrote about last week, there is often a psychological need for boundaries. One way of erecting that boundary is to never introduce yourself. I have never introduced myself to the man sitting next to me. Is that rude? And he never introduced himself to me. Is that rude? Or is this just a tacit agreement to mind our own business and maintain privacy? New York City apartment buildings are well-known bastions of half-smiles and nodded heads in lieu of introductions and handshakes. You could live for 20 years down the hall from someone and never introduce yourself. And many of us like it that way.

Some organizations offer training courses in business etiquette. I’m not sure what a business etiquette course for our current era should include. Before the Millennials entered the workforce, I remember articles warning managers that many of these young people don’t know how to use dining utensils. That has mostly turned out to be hyperbole, but I wonder how different the youngest generation’s definition of business etiquette is from the older generations’. I was taught to never bring up religion or politics. Is that still a valid rule? What is no longer a valid rule? How about not airing your dirty laundry in public? Is it now acceptable business etiquette to detail recent medical procedures and divorces? 

Do you know rudeness in the workplace when you see it and hear it? What guidelines, if any, do you give employees on how to interact, and communicate, with co-workers and business contacts?


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