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Studies show a rudeness epidemic in the US, and that people are profoundly affected when they experience or even witness it occurring to someone else. Two experts discuss.

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Dr. Amir Erez, Professor of Management, Warrington College of Business, University of Florida

Dr. Christine Porath, Associate Professor of Management, McDonald School of Business, Georgetown University and author, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace

Links for more information:


Dr. Amir Erez bio


Nancy Benson: 10 years ago, two colleagues in higher education were in a heated debate about a surprising topic; the affects of rudeness. One of them claimed that rudeness doesn’t pack much of a punch; people encounter it often and get over it quickly with no ill effects. The other colleague believed that people are much more affected by a rude encounter. So they made a bet, then conducted some studies to prove who’s right.

Dr. Amir Erez: I discovered very very quickly, many many studies later that she was right and I was wrong about it. We published two studies; actually one about experiencing rudeness and the other one was about even witnessing rudeness. And we found that it influenced their performance of cognitive tasks. So people basically cannot think well. Then I conducted other studies that show that it directly influences our cognitive system. So people cannot function when they’re being insulted.

Benson:That’s Dr. Amir Erez, Professor of Management at the University of Florida, Warrington College of Business. His colleague, who said people are profoundly affected by rudeness is Dr. Christine Porath, Associate Professor of Management at Georgetown University’s McDonald School of Business and author of, “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.”

Dr. Christine Porath: Even when people are just around rudeness, so it doesn’t mean that they experienced or even witnessed it, if they’re working in a culture or primed with it somehow then they are far less likely to perform as well, they’re less creative, they’re also less attentive to information, and they process information more slowly. Unfortunately, it’s very prevalent and it’s growing. So over the last couple decades I’ve seen a rise in it within organization in particular, so I think it’s a problem that unfortunately we have not tackled.

Benson: Porath has conducted several studies to track this spread of rudeness. Her first in 1998 showed that only a quarter of people experienced a rude encounter at least once a week.

Porath: When I performed the survey again in 2005 that number had risen to nearly half, when I repeated it again in 2011 it was more than half.

Benson: And today, many of us encounter rudeness every day. Why is that? Is it because rudeness pays? Sometimes it seems that rude people get ahead in the world. But Porath says, for the most part rudeness does not pay.

Porath: You’re always gonna have outliers but I think that there’s very strong research within organizations that shows that 3 of the top 5 reasons people fall off of, you know, their career success. The Center for Creative Leadership has found 3 out of the top 5 ties to rudeness or incivility. So, I think that there’s strong evidence from multiple sources that shows rudeness does not pay and in fact, my most recent research has show that civility pays.

Benson: Porath says that whether you’re an MBA, a member of a consulting firm, or an employee at a biotech company, if you’re polite and civil – others will perceive you as a leader.

Porath: People are much more willing to share and seek information from them and people perform better. So for example, in the biotech firm, those that were perceived as more civil performed 13% better than others, as rated by bosses.

Benson: But if being civil can help you get ahead in the world, why is rudeness spreading?

Porath: Over the years I’ve realized that it’s really about a lack of self-awareness for the vast majority. 4% say, they’re rude because it’s fun and they can get away with it, but I think the majority they’re simply not aware of how they’re perceived by others. So, giving them feedback about the effects that they’re having on their employers and peers and so forth is really a crucial step.

Benson: Porath says another reason for rudeness is stress.

Porath: I think that that’s a big issue for most people is attentiveness now. You know, we’re just being pulled in a lot of directions, so when I survey people about, “why are you uncivil?” The number 1 reason by far, over 60% of people, say because they’re overwhelmed or stressed. Many will report that they don’t have time to be nice.

Benson: But if getting ahead isn’t enough to convince you to be polite and civil, here’s a sobering fact: about 250,000 die annually from medical errors. Factors such as sleep deprivation account for a portion of those errors, but Erez found that being the victim of someone who’s rude or even seeing it happen to someone else could account for even more of them.

Erez:  For example, you think that residents sleep deprivation will explain a lot of medical error, and it does – it’s like around 20%, but in our studies we found that the small insults explained 40% of the reduction in performance.

Benson: Small insults in the OR for example, may reduce a persons cognitive abilities and their ability to pay attention, even to things that are right in front of them.

Erez:  What happens in medical setting where you have like somebody in their surgery and lets say that their surgeon insults the anesthesiologist, and then the anesthesiologist is missing critical information that is in the center of their visual field, that happens very very often in medical settings. Like in the first study we found that it’s devastating to performance and in the second study we found that when patients are rude, it has the same effects. And this is what I’m finding of also consistently in my studies; that it doesn’t matter even if you do not experience it, if you just witness it the effects are the same effects on our cognitive system.

Benson: So when you’re the patient, even though you might be feeling angry, or frightened, or under a lot of stress, you definitely don’t want to take it out on your doctors and nurses by being rude to them.

Erez: Or it could be that they think that they actually can get more from the doctors if they’re being rude, and if this is the case what we are finding is that it actually has the opposite effect. And it’s not only that they are damaging the treatment of their own children, but also of other patients because in this study, in the second study, what we found is that it lasts throughout the day when they treated 5 other patients. So now we need to start thinking about how to help doctors and nurses get over these effects because this is going to affect peoples lives.

Porath: There’s a quiz on my website that gives 32 suggestions for “How Civil Are You?” and ideas for how to improve your civility, so I think that is one resource for people, but you know I think it starts with the basics – saying “please” and “thank you,” smiling at people, acknowledging people – so if you’re a leader you acknowledge people, you give out credit, you show gratitude towards others, so you know that’s worth the investments and things like that. Listening, I think is probably the biggest thing now that people struggle with that I would say is fundamental, very hard to be attentive given that we’re tethered to our phones and always being ‘on’ as far as technology, so I think that is one of the biggest challenges to showing up and treating people respectfully nowadays.

Benson: And since we usually can’t control someone else’s rudeness Porath says the best strategy is to focus on our own behavior.

Porath: For example, this is taking a toll on you identifying areas for growth and pursuing your own development such that you’re building yourself up. I think it’s very important that people take care of themselves, so managing their energy whether that’s sleep, exercise, good nutrition, or stress management. I think it is very important for people to find meaning or a sense of purpose in their work and also to seek positive relationships. We know that these negative or de-energizing relationships really pull people down; they have a so much stronger affect than positive relationships. So, thinking about building up your reservoirs of support and positive relationships is great and then also focus on thriving outside the workplace. That’s a really important element because you will bring a positive energy and sense of moving forward back into your professional life.

Benson: And just as rudeness is contagious, Porath says, so is civility. You can learn more about Dr. Amir Erez and Dr. Christine Porath and the book “Mastering Civility” by visiting our website, RadioHealthJournal.net. Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. Our Production Director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.

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