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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 19-Aug-11


Friday 19-August-11

Repercussions of rudeness

Have you ever watched one person act rudely towards another? Isn't it embarrassing? You may well feel sorry for the target and maybe wonder if you should intervene or something. But did you know that it can also damage your mental performance, stunt your creativity and make it more likely that you will be less civil towards others? And the shocking thing is that you are not the target of the rudeness, just a witness.

Researchers Christine Porath and Amir Erez maneuvered students into situations where they witnessed rudeness (apparently real) or not, then were given problems to solve. In subsequent tests, those who saw the rudeness solved less problems, came up with fewer creative ideas and were less likely to volunteer for other activities.

So what's going on? When we see others being threatened or in distress, we tend to perform a threat assessment, wondering what harm may be done. We may well empathise with the victim, feeling their distress and perhaps wondering if we should intervene in some way. We may also worry about what we would do in their position. Maybe also we side with the aggressor, thinking that the target deserved the rude comment (though such thoughts seem less likely). Whatever goes through our heads, it takes cognitive effort and can be emotionally draining, all of which distracts us from the task in hand and may make us more reticent about sticking our necks out in future.

The implications for workplaces where rudeness is commonplace are very significant. It is not just the victims but everyone in earshot and even those who hear about it second-hand who are affected. And the bigger sufferer is the employer, customers and shareholders.

Reference: Porath, C. and Erez, A. (2009). Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (1), 29-44

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