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Mean People Suck But They Are Often Successful

03/13/2015 08:40 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015
Ljupco Smokovski via Getty Images

I don't know John Boehner or Ted Cruz personally. They might be nice guys. But I don't think so.

As a T-shirt I've seen often on the streets of Manhattan says: "Mean people suck." And yet they seem to pop up everywhere: in the airplane seat in front of you, in the line at the market, in the parking lot, in the workplace, on blogs, and certainly in the halls of Congress.

In fact, it may be that we're all more abrasive than we used to be. A 2014 poll by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research found that most people think America has a raging civility problem. Blame for that differs across generations. Millennials and Gen-Xers say it's the Internet and social media. Boomers and older blame the tone set by politicians. Most think incivility will get worse. Millennials -- starry-eyed bunch that they are -- think it might get better. But only a little bit.

This onslaught of incivility is undoubtedly a crackling current through emotional wiring that's already there. In other words it's in our genes. Research generally agrees on five big personality traits, known as the OCEAN model. We are all constructed of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (or emotional instability).

Abrasive people light up the board most consistently in agreeableness. Agreeable people are friendly, kind, trusting, and helpful. Disagreeable people think agreeable people are a joke. If the most agreeable people live in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. The most disagreeable people would let it burn down. They don't care about the well-being of others. They don't tend to go out of their way to help others and they don't particularly care about being liked. One big pulsing vein in their abrasiveness is their lack of trust in human nature, to be on the safe side: "Do unto others before they do unto you."

And yet their callous disregard for the feelings of others is often a hallmark of highly successful people. (Also serial killers.) And, it turns out, the not-so-well. An analysis of dozens of studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed a direct link between anger, hostility and heart problems.

But a study in the Journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the ruder or more disrespectful someone acts, the more he's able to convince everyone around him that he's powerful -- and above the rules. In that way, abrasive people may command more respect, even if it's largely grounded in fear.

It just might be all in our head, and abrasiveness is pure perception. In a July report for Fortune.com, linguist Kieran Snyder collected nearly 250 performance reviews from nearly 30 tech companies to look at whether the notion that a woman is abrasive undermines her career in technology. Indeed, Snyder found that although the word "abrasive" never appeared in any of the men's reviews, it was used 17 times to describe 13 different women. While the critical feedback men received was mostly constructive, similar feedback delivered to women was largely personal.

Either way, you know what research has also proven? That kindness has a place. Which may be why companies spend more on smoothing down executive abrasiveness than on any other failing. The lesson? The best way to deal with the rude and the hostile isn't to become one of them.

Instead, try creating a few rules of engagement. Like asking them to repeat that insulting thing they just said because you want to make sure you understand. And refusing to put aggravating conversations on your personal replay loop. As millions of four-years-olds now say, let it go.

After all, if somebody in an abusive situation has to be upset, why should it be you? And if you're ever in doubt when dealing with a difficult personality (or perhaps being one yourself) remember that when there's no urgent reason not to be nice, be nice. It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it.