Cecille Hansen works with a great guy who has an extremely irritating habit. Whenever someone speaks to the account executive, he makes a "hurry up" motion with his hand, winding his wrist as if to say, "Hurry up. Get to the point, already."
"He didn't even know he did it until someone brought it to his attention," says Hansen, a records manager for an insurance broker in Bellevue, Wash. "He's the nicest guy. He just goes at a higher speed than most of us."
Hansen's generous view of her colleague's rude behavior is due, in part, to her awareness of her own sins: She often fails to look at people when speaking with them, and is sometimes mortified to realize she has carried on an entire conversation with co-workers without even glancing up from her computer screen.
"I just get focused on what I'm doing and an 'interruption'--i.e., a human being who needs to talk with me--gets only a portion of my attention," she says.
In offices across America, good people are engaging in some extremely obnoxious behavior: talking over each other in meetings, failing to respond to e-mails, showing up late to appointments or blowing them off entirely with a hurried text message. What gives?
Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., says that the issue isn't that the human species is devolving into ill-mannered automatons. Rather, the accelerated pace of office life has us made us lose touch with common courtesies once taken for granted, like saying, "Good morning."
"We don't have a sudden epidemic of rudeness," says Hallowell, the author of "CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap!" "It's just that without meaning to we have allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed."
Your brain on tech
Hallowell says that much of the problem can be attributed to our relationship with technology, and the unrelenting stream of incoming information--from e-mails and IMs to cellphones and texts--that it offers. In order to cope, we screen things out. And all too frequently, it's the people around us who don't make the cut.
Technology, of course, was supposed to make life easier and give us more time. And it does enable us to do many things more quickly than before: type documents, send invoices, find out the year "Surfing Safari" made the Billboard Top 100 (1962). But there is a price. It has also created an expectation that all tasks can be accomplished as quickly as it takes to check a Wikipedia page.
The problem is our brains aren't wired any differently than they were 30 years ago, and tasks that require concentration and creativity (say, writing a Beach Boys song) take the same amount of time that they always did.
"The brain hasn't changed," says Hallowell. "We still can only handle so much. But we're asking our brains to process exponentially more data points than we ever have before in human history, and that mental energy has to come from somewhere."
Unfortunately, human relationships are often the casualties of this mental exhaustion. We have so much to do and so much information to process that we don't even realize we are interrupting each other, failing to listen, subtly or not-so-subtly saying, "Hurry up. Get to the point, already."
Understaffed and overwhelmed
Adding to the techno-mania is the anxiety and overwork caused by the recession. "The stress level is so high, not just for those laid off or the people worried about layoffs, but also for the people who are left doing a lot more work," says organizational psychologist Henry L. Thompson, author of "The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions--And What to Do About It."
It quickly becomes a vicious circle: You're under the gun to get that quick-turnaround project to the boss, which makes you late for the meeting, which annoys your coworkers. Each incident builds on the last and the stress level ratchets, making you--quite literally--unable to think.
Stress, Thompson explains, impairs our ability to use our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that organizes, plans, and processes information. The result is you become more disoriented--and more likely to ignore the e-mail or forget the lunch date. "There's a whole series of things that is exacerbated by stressful events," says Thompson.
Establishing Rules, Creating Boundaries
Obviously, all this technology isn't going away, and for the foreseeable future many offices will continue to run on skeleton staffs. So how do we wrest back control and start being civil to each other again?
Etiquette expert Barbara Pachter, a coauthor of "New Rules @ Work: 79 Tips, Tools, and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead," says that a lot of technologically inspired rudeness is ultimately self-correcting. "There is a learning curve with technology," she says. "Your mother couldn't teach you how to be polite with a cell phone, because they didn't exist when she was growing up. But over time people learn from their mistakes. I don't have to remind people to turn off their cell phone in my seminars anymore, but I still have to talk about the BlackBerry," she says.
Hallowell says employers are starting to recognize that information overload is also bad for the bottom line. Companies like Google and SAS are taking steps to factor more breathing room into their employees' schedules. At SAS, for example, employees are told to leave the office at 5 p.m., and they have on-site health care, day care, and dry-cleaning, as well as a fitness center.
"It's the idea of taking good care of the brains that work for you," says Hallowell.
Even without in-house elliptical machines, Hallowell says that executives need to recognize the importance of down time. "If everyone is available 24-7, as some mangers want them to be, performance suffers, as does morale and health," he says. "When you begin to re-create boundaries--turn off e-mail, close the door, and have time for thinking and working--mental energy is replenished and politeness improves."