How Rude!

It’s not your imagination: rudeness appears to be on the rise. Witnessing rude behavior — whether it’s coming from angry customers berating a store clerk or airline passengers getting into a fistfight — can have long-lasting effects on our minds. But behavioral scientist Christine Porath says there are ways to shield ourselves from the toxic effects of incivility. 

Additional Resources:


Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life, by Tasha Eurich, 2017.

Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, by Christine Porath, 2016.

The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, 2009.


Trapped by a First Hypothesis: How Rudeness Leads to Anchoring, by Binyamin Cooper, et. al, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2022.

Make Civility the Norm on Your Team, by Christine Porath, Harvard Business Review, 2018.

The Key to Campbell Soup’s Turnaround? Civility, by Christine Porath and Douglas R. Conant, Harvard Business Review, 2017.

How Rudeness Stops People From Working Together, by Christine Porath, Harvard Business Review, 2017.

Does Rudeness Really Matter? The Effects of Rudeness on Task Performance and Helpfulness, by Christine L. Porath and Amir Erez, Academy of Management Journal, 2017.

An Antidote to Incivility, by Christine Porath, Harvard Business Review, 2016.

The Hidden Toll of Workplace Incivility, by Christine Porath, McKinsey Quarterly, 2016.

Catching Rudeness Is Like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors, by Trevor Foulk, Andrew Woolum, and Amir Erez, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2016.

Does Civility Pay?, by Christine L. Porath and Alexandra Gerbasi, Organizational Dynamics, 2015.

The Impact of Rudeness on Medical Team Performance: A Randomized Trial, by Arieh Riskin, et al, Pediatrics, 2015.

The Price of Incivility: Lack of Respect in the workplace hurts morale-and the bottom line, by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson,  Harvard Business Review, 2013.

Creating Sustainable Performance, by Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath, Harvard Business Review, 2012.

Toward Human Sustainability: How to Enable More Thriving at Work, by Gretchen Spreitzer, Christine L. Porath, and Cristina B. Gibson, Organizational Dynamics, 2012.

Overlooked But Not Untouched: How Rudeness Reduces Onlookers’ Performance on Routine and Creative Tasks, by Christine L. Porath and Amir Erez, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2009.


Why Being Respectful to Your Coworkers is Good for Business, by Christine Porath, TED Talk, January 2018.

Do Nice People Finish Last or Best? by Christine Porath, TED Talk, February 2018.

Christine Porath’s Georgetown University webpage

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Parents, at least of a certain era, used to tell their kids, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Such advice might seem quaint today. No matter where we look, it can feel as if we are living in a time of mounting incivility. Smartphones and social media amplified this feeling. It used to be that when two people got into an argument in a parking lot or on an airplane, only a few people heard it. But today, thousands of people witness rude interactions among people they'll never meet. It's become the stuff of viral videos and memes.

Man 1: We're not talking to you. We're talking.

Man 2: Why don't you mind your own business?

Man 1: We're not talking to you.

Man 2: We're not one of these people that work here, so get out of my face.

Shankar Vedantam: We often tell ourselves to ignore insults and slights, yet psychological experiments show that this is not easy to do and that rudeness has a long lasting malevolent power.

Christine Porath: We're flooded with emotions and that's when this fight or flight gear kicks in. One way that I think about this is like the storm inside your brain.

Shankar Vedantam: The surprising effect of instability and how to protect yourself from its toxic influence, this week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Rudeness and incivility seem to be showing up everywhere these days on airplanes, in supermarket aisles, in restaurants. What effect does this tide of nastiness have on all of us? According to the old adage, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. But is this really true? At Georgetown University, Behavioral Scientist, Christine Porath, studies the effects of incivility on our communities, our careers, even our capacity for creativity.

Shankar Vedantam: Christine Porath, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Christine Porath: Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to start by having you tell me about a moment in your own life, Christine, where you saw the effect of incivility firsthand. You were still a student in college when you received word that your dad was in the hospital. Can you describe the scene for me when you got there?

Christine Porath: Well, I remember vividly walking up to the hospital room and being in the doorway and seeing him lying there in the hospital bed with electrodes strapped to his bare chest and it was shocking for me to see him like that because he was an otherwise very strong, vivacious athletic guy and I had never envisioned something like that happening to him.

Shankar Vedantam: Why was he in the hospital?

Christine Porath: Well, he had had a heart attack and this stemmed from working for a very toxic boss. He had actually worked for two toxic bosses for over the course of a decade and it was really coming to a breaking point and it wasn't until about a decade later or more, that he shared some of the particulars and really spoke openly about that. The truth was it was painful for him to relive that stuff.

Shankar Vedantam: Christine's father was a salesman. His boss would insult staff members in meetings and blame them for things beyond their control. He even belittled clients.

Christine Porath: During a visit to a client's store, my dad heard his boss tell the owner, "I see you're carrying on your father's tradition. The store looked like (profanity) then, and it looks like (profanity) in your hands." The idea of people being put on the spot was something in a meeting. You know, "You don't know what you're doing here." Screaming certainly took place, which I would say crosses the line of what I tend to study.

Shankar Vedantam: So some years later you were working at your first job. It was at a sports academy in Florida and an incident took place early one morning before work at the company gym. Can you paint me a picture of what happened, Christine?

Christine Porath: My friend who ran the Performance Institute, he would open it up early for us to work out before the gym was open to athletes and he would have music playing in the background, kind of energetic workout music and we'd all be doing our thing on the treadmills and somewhere lifting weights. Ironically, the person whose name was on the sports agency showed up and oftentimes he was out of town traveling the world, so this was unexpected and he just started screaming at the performance manager, saying, "You know that I love Barry White. Why isn't my music playing?"

Christine Porath: So, my friend went in the back and changed the music to Barry White and then we all kind of put our heads down and people's minds were swirling a little bit in terms of what they had just witnessed and why that happened and what did that mean for them during the day? But the biggest thing I think was just the way that it affected people's emotions and moods and they weren't themselves. They didn't bring the same energy to the athletes, or the customers, or the people that they were dealing with that day.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about one of the stories that reveals what it feels like to be directly on the receiving end of incivility. Some years after you left the sports academy in Florida, you became an academic, you were a junior professor at a school and you had an encounter with a senior professor at a holiday party. Can you tell me what happened?

Christine Porath: We were talking, just kind of over in the corner, and he said that he thought my book had a stupid f-ing title. I didn't really know what to say in response to that. I just kind of took it but I really just wanted to escape the situation and I certainly didn't ask for his opinion about the title. It really took me off track because I remember days afterwards, kind of sitting in my office, staring at the computer screen and just thinking about that and what it meant for the prospects of my career, because I was up for tenure. In our profession, that means like you're up or out. You either have a job or you are to lose that job and need to uproot yourself and your whole life from that place. So, I felt like I had a lot riding on it and given that he had a lot of power and status and everything else, I just wondered what that meant for me and my future.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering how you behaved around the senior professor. You must have bumped into him in the hallways or past him at meetings. Did it change your behavior and how you interacted with him going forward?

Christine Porath: Yeah, it definitely changed my behavior. I really tried to avoid him and work with my office door closed. I really almost timed when I would go to the bathroom, to avoid people. I think that I kind of became a shell of myself around him and other people.

Shankar Vedantam: So that single moment of incivility stayed with you for a long time and it makes me think about the long term effects of all the rudeness we see around us. It does seem as though there has been an increase in incivility, perhaps as the COVID pandemic has worn us all down. In January, 2022, a customer at a smoothie shop in Fairfield, Connecticut, received the wrong drink. He claimed it contained peanut butter and he said his son had had an allergic reaction and needed to be hospitalized. The man confronted two young employees at the smoothie shop, calling one of them an immigrant loser. The exchange, which is really quite disturbing to hear, went viral on social media.

(Audio of people yelling from viral video) :

Shankar Vedantam: Christine, it could be that we are hearing about incidents like this because of social media, but it does feel like almost every other week brings a new example of people simply losing it. Do you think there is more incivility around us these days?

Christine Porath: I do unfortunately and our, and other research, would suggest that. The number one reason for incivility is that people feel stressed or overwhelmed. I think that, unfortunately, that kind of negativity even around the pandemic, around politics, around uncertainty, leads us to feel more stressed and is a reason that at least people say, caused their rudeness or responding negatively in moments like those.

Christine Porath: Healthcare systems, in particular, it's just terrible these days. And CEOs of hospitals, some of them have reached out to me and said, "Do you know how bad it is right now?" I think just like this clip alludes to, a lot of this is mixed with racism and politics, so they are on the front lines of getting this and it's just become really, really hard for them.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, the surprisingly powerful effects that incivility has on our brains and what we can do about it. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. If you recently had a stand in a long line at the airport, or waited for a bus that never showed up, or had to deal with an incompetent customer service rep in a call center, you may have felt a rising level of impatience. It may have taken all your effort to keep your frustrations under control. Many of us can think of situations where we lost it, or where we saw others lose their cool. Social media is full of videos showing people screaming at each other in stores, in restaurants and in workplaces. At Georgetown university, Behavioral Scientist, Christine Porath, studies the effects of this tide of incivility. Christine, when you were in high school, you played on a boy's soccer team and I understand that at the time, you felt that the best way to deal with rudeness was just to shake it off?

Christine Porath: Yeah, well I think just coming from that background, it's the idea that you should be strong and rise above it and just power through. We're shaped by our background and our experiences and so that's what I brought to the table and especially when it came to me and those that I was close to, it was like, "Come on. Suck it up." Or just, "Rise above it. Get over it." But definitely like playing boys high school soccer, I did stand out, even had the long ponytail and all and so in some ways I felt tested, that I definitely should be strong and hold my own within that environment.

Shankar Vedantam: So we discussed how, when a senior colleague disparaged your book title, you found that the hurt lasted a very long time and you yourself were studying the phenomenon of incivility, along with your colleague, Christine Pearson, you've asked people about their experiences with rudeness and incivility. What do people tell you about the effects that mistreatment has had on them?

Christine Porath: What we found is that it stuck and was much more painful than we would've anticipated. I remember incidents, like there was one person who had worked in a little league baseball concession stand and he remembers being belittled afterwards. He actually had to go to the owner of this team's house and explain a mistake and got screamed at and 17 years later he's writing about it and says he thinks about it. So those were the kind of things that stuck. I think we had someone report something from 1988 when they were sitting around a table with 12 peers and got treated in a way that they felt dismissed and belittled. And so you had people that were on to these experiences for not just months or years, but decades.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to examine both the immediate effects of incivility on the mind, as well as some of these long-term effects that you're talking about. You say that instability can hijack the amygdala. What do you mean by this, Christine?

Christine Porath: Well, I think it means that we're flooded with emotions and that's when kind of this idea of fight or flight gear kicks in. And it leads to us, for many people, being paralyzed almost in terms of not being able to respond to things, or not being able to react or make changes that would help us in that moment. It's almost as if we can't cope with the situation because we're struggling to process things. And so one way that I think about this is like the storm inside your brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Christina has conducted many studies into the effects of incivility, one of them builds on a famous psychological experiment. Volunteers are asked to watch a video of people rapidly passing a basketball. Right in the middle of the game, a person wearing a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the frame. Many volunteers fail to notice the gorilla because they're so focused on the ball being passed.

Shankar Vedantam: In Christine's experiment, she exposed a subset of volunteers to incivility before they watched the video.

Christine Porath: They were five times less likely to see the gorilla on the screen and that really surprised us but also with other studies, what we found is that it took people a lot longer to answer questions, to solve anagrams, word jumbles, to create words. They had much more difficulty doing that kind of thing, so cognitive performance went on significantly, roughly about 30% across different studies. And even their physical moves to answer questions, that was slower. It seemed to be affecting people in all sorts of ways and what's interesting also is that people weren't aware of this.

Shankar Vedantam: There's been some work that you and others have done looking at the effects of incivility on memory. What do you find?

Christine Porath: We find that when people witness rudeness, they are far less likely to be able to remember things. They make a lot more errors. We measured this with math errors. We measured this with performance errors on cognitive tests and the differences were really stunning with just seeing this or being around it.

Shankar Vedantam: Hmm. You've even found that incivility has effects on our creativity, which I found really surprising. What do you find, Christine?

Christine Porath: Yeah. We find again, whether you experience incivility, whether you witness it, it decreases your ability to come up with creative ideas. In some of the tests, we give them this study where they come up with as many ideas for what to do with a brick as possible, and we code it for dysfunctional ideas as well as how creative the ideas are. What we find is the people that were exposed to rudeness, they come up with really dysfunctional responses for what you do with a brick. They'll say things like, "break someone's nose," "smash someone's fingers," "beat or crush a person to death," "sink a body in a river," "throw it through a window," "place it on the floor to stub people's toe," or something like that.

Shankar Vedantam: It almost seems as if people are coming up with creative uses for the brick that are somewhat aggressive.

Christine Porath: Yeah, scary aggressive. It was just stunning to see the ideas that people came up with because really all that they were exposed to was just one quick incident. It was like a fleeting moment that they were exposed to and somehow this is what they came up with.

Shankar Vedantam: Why do you think rudeness has these effects on creativity, both in some ways limiting how creative we can be, but also perhaps exacerbating this kind of aggressive creativity?

Christine Porath: I think it ties to the hijacking people's focus and attention and the lack of awareness around that. People become much more self-focused, much less other-focused and I think our mind is wrapped up on replaying the incident, where they're not focusing on the task nearly as much. They're overwhelmed by other thoughts and so it's very hard to think about anything else.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. We've looked at several effects of incivility at the level of our personal psychology but you found that incivility also affects organizational functioning. Can you tell me how rudeness affects loyalty and commitment in the workplace?

Christine Porath: When people are around cultures where rudeness is prevalent, they're much less likely to want to stick around. So, 12% of people who experienced incivility say that they changed jobs as a result of that experience. But also I think that what we saw is customers that witness this kind of behavior, even among an employee acting rudely to another employee, they were far less likely to want to use that restaurant or that bank and they were far less loyal to the brand moving forward.

Shankar Vedantam: When incivility is present, people who work together are also less likely to trust one another. Can you talk about this idea? The effects of rudeness on trust?

Christine Porath: When you see rudeness, we tend to think really negative thoughts about that person. I think in many cases we question their character and their integrity, like we generalize to a lot of different negative traits because of that one incident, and so that really hurts that person. Then I think we also tend to become less trusting in our own environment. Like for example, we're less likely to speak up in a meeting, maybe even when a person isn't present, because it kind of has shut us down and we operate much more from a place of fear. We don't offer up ideas. We don't speak up about errors or potential mistakes because we're afraid of the pushback on us.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, rudeness doesn't just have consequences for us. It can have downstream consequences as well on other people. The psychologist, Amir Raiz has found that incivility can affect the performance of medical professionals. Can you describe what he's found?

Christine Porath: Yeah. Well, one of the studies that I love that they did was surgical teams in Israel that were exposed to rudeness, meaning they overheard that they were not doing a procedure well enough. Those medical teams performed worse on all of their diagnostics and all of the procedures they did and they found that this was mainly because they stopped sharing information as much, and they stopped seeking help from the people on their teams, performing the surgery.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand this research also found that even watching someone else get treated badly, reduced the ability of some of these medical professionals to think flexibly about a patient's condition.

Christine Porath: Yeah. And so that's some of their recent research that shows that they get anchored almost on an idea and when they've been exposed to rudeness, they have a really hard time pivoting to consider anything else. It almost is this idea of lack of creativity. They can't even be open to any new information because they're stuck and so moving forward and performing well, considering other ideas, they're just not capable of.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, what strikes me from the example you're giving about the study here in Israel, suggests that here are downstream effects of incivility and rudeness, so it's not just the people within the workplace who are affected, but the people now who are coming in contact with the workplace; the consumers, the patients at a hospital. It seems as if rudeness can have these spiraling effects on larger and larger numbers of people.

Christine Porath: One of the reasons I went into studying this is because I felt like it not only colored people's work lives, but they took it home with them. It affected their personal lives as well. You know, people just, they became a smaller version of themselves. They became probably more frustrated, more angry, more depressed. And so it affected their personal relationships in really important ways, so it definitely does flow through social networks and spreads in very powerful ways.

Shankar Vedantam: You know, Christine, we've seen YouTube and Twitter and Facebook are full of examples of moments that have gone viral, where people have behaved rudely and their behaviors, their actions, their words are basically spread far and wide on the internet. But I think what you are saying is that there's a different kind of virality that rudeness and incivility can have. It can have downstream effects on the people who witnessed that incivility and then further downstream effects on other people whom they come in contact with.

Christine Porath: Yeah, that's what we find in our research is both within the workplace, as well as outside of it, when you witness incivility, you pass it forward and so if you're seeing it anywhere, online, on the media, you will likely become a carrier of this virus and pass it forward, with whoever you come in contact with and a lot of that is unintentional.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, is there a way to put the genie back in the bottle? You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Behavioral Scientist, Christine Porath, studies incivility. She's found it has powerful and long lasting effects on our thinking, on our emotions, and on our wellbeing. Although it's difficult to get precise numbers on this, it's hard to escape the feeling that incivility is on the rise. What can we do about it? When people treat us rudely, our first impulse might be to respond in kind. But Christine says, it's a good idea to reflect that, at least sometimes, rudeness can be unintentional.

Christine Porath: When we ask why people are rude, only 4% said because it's fun and they can get away with it. I think the vast majority of people have no idea that what they're doing is hurting people or making them feel small in some way and so I believe it stems from a lack of self-awareness.

Shankar Vedantam: In her walk with groups and organizations, Christine sometimes draws on an old idea from psychology, the Johari Window. The psychologist, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram, divided a square into quadrants, like a four-paned window. One pane represents things we know about ourselves that others know as well. A second looks at secrets, things that we know about ourselves that others do not know. Another looks at elements of ourselves that are unknown both to us and to others. Christine focuses on a final pane. Things that others know about us, that we don't know about ourselves.

Christine Porath: The Johari Window is really this idea of what we know about ourself. What we do not know about ourself. What others know about us and what others do not know about us. And so we're really trying to uncover our blind spots around what's known to others, but is not known to ourself because these blind spots are really what's affecting how we're behaving in ways that are often hurtful to others.

Shankar Vedantam: You've collaborated with the organizational psychologist, Tasha Eurich, and she studies how self-aware people are. So, how self-aware are people? I mean, relative to how self-aware they think they are?

Christine Porath: Yeah, not very self-aware. So she has... Not at all. There's a huge gap. She has found that 95% of people believe that they're self-aware. We have a good sense of our strengths and how we're perceived. However, she has found that only 10 to 15% of people actually are self-aware and so 80% of us are fooling ourselves on any given day about what people think of us. We tend to bias us at all in the positive direction. Marshall Goldsmith, who coaches a lot of leaders and he talks about this idea of, we like to play a highlight reel of our successes in our minds, and so we kind of anchor in on the positives and how we affect others and our blind spots are usually on the negatives and how we're affecting people in harmful ways or ways that may even hurt us.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand Christine, that you once had an encounter with a friend who revealed to you something about your own behavior that you were not aware of. What did he tell you about your conversational style?

Christine Porath: So he told me that I had a tendency to interrupt or to jump in when someone else was speaking and that was something that I didn't realize that I did. If there was a pregnant pause in our conversation, I was happy to help him along, finish his thoughts or insert my question. And so when I got this feedback, I was really surprised.

Shankar Vedantam: And did it feel like there was any truth to it?

Christine Porath: It did. And in fact, I think the funny thing was, as he was telling me this, I was ready to jump in with the why or the defensiveness, which had him laughing and me laughing. And you know, if there was any doubt, that was cleared up right away in the moment,

Shankar Vedantam: Christine talked earlier about the educator and coach Marshall Goldsmith. He was a pioneer in what's called 360 Degree Feedback. It's a structured system some leaders have used, to solicit the opinions of a wide range of colleagues and subordinates. As it turns out, even people who teach others to overcome their blind spots have blind spots of their own.

Christine Porath: So he actually collected 360 Degree Feedback, the consulting firm he ran, and he is a reputation for being a great guy and a giver and so he was really upset by the fact that the feedback he got was he had a tendency to talk badly about people behind their backs and he felt terrible, but he also couldn't think of any times where he had done this. He challenged his employees. He said, "$10, anytime you call me out on this." On day one, he said he was down $50 by lunchtime and he locked himself in his office and decided that's enough. No more for today and then he said he improved. It was then $30 and then $10. So his point was not that we have to put a tax on our own behavior, but even the leading coaching guru that came up with 360 Feedback and everything, he wasn't aware of behaviors that he certainly wasn't proud of. I mean, it was the opposite of the effect that he wanted to have and yet he was completely unaware. He couldn't think of a time where he had done it. So, it even showed that we need the help of others to try to uncover some of this awareness for us so that we can improve.

Shankar Vedantam: The researcher, Josh Misner, at North Idaho College, has another idea on how you can increase the amount of feedback that you get and his idea has now been taken and is being used by organizational psychologists. Tell me about the Dinner of Truth.

Christine Porath: The Dinner of Truth is that you ask a friend or a colleague out for dinner and you ask them, what's one of the most annoying habits that I have? Or, what is something that I do that hurts me or you, or it leads to my ineffectiveness? Ideally, you sit there and you take the feedback and you use it to move you forward. Although people like Tasha Eurich have told me that they thought I'm not going to get real feedback from this friend, that in fact they get super valuable feedback and it's a way to move them forward. But you know, it's not easy to do, in the sense that a lot of people are fearful of what they might hear.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to spend a little time talking about how we might respond to incivility that's directed at us. How we can keep it from hijacking our bodies and our minds. As we've seen, confronting rudeness with rudeness doesn't seem like a very good solution. Avoiding the perpetrator of rudeness often doesn't work very well. You say that one alternative is to change your own frame and to focus on the future. What do you mean by this?

Christine Porath: Well, I think it's important that you control what you can control and usually that means just yourself. The research shows, we found, that the one antidote to incivility is a sense of thriving, like a sense of feeling like you're moving forward. It's about getting unstuck and for a lot of people, it's focusing on taking care of themselves, for example, exercising or something like that. What you want to do is you want to do something that builds hope, that helps you focus on moving forward in a positive way, not getting dragged down about your past. The other aspect is a sense of vitality or energy. And so there are lots of ways to potentially achieve this. It could be activities like getting involved in your community, coaching, volunteering, choosing something that makes you feel smarter or stronger or more interesting, that really clears your mind or feeds your soul and we talked about a lot about incivility is a virus and your defense really depends, to a large extent, on your ability to manage your energy. My research suggests that many of the factors that help prevent illness, like good nutrition, sleep, stress management, can also help ward off incivilities noxious effects.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways to stick with the disease analogy, what I think I hear you say is if you're confronted by a virus, yes, you can go looking for the antidote to the virus, but perhaps the better solution is just to have a stronger immune system.

Christine Porath: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. There are ways that we can do that, including even building positive relationships inside or outside of work. Or if this happens to you at work, we encourage people to focus on thriving outside of work because by doing things that make you feel good outside of the workplace, you actually bring a stronger, more resilient self inside the workplace, so I think that's helpful.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that you're working with nurses to teach them strategies to thrive. Many nurses report dealing with a significant amount of incivility and rudeness in the workplace, especially perhaps during the COVID 19 pandemic. There have been Asian-American nurses who've been attacked by patients about bringing the virus from China and nurses report being regularly in the receiving end of bad treatment from physicians. Describe for me the work that you're doing with nurses and the effects that you're finding it has.

Christine Porath: One of the things that we're coaching them on that we've seen evidence and experiments that by what they call self-distancing, so this idea of kind of pulling back out of the moment, and it's almost like asking someone to step out and watch the scene as a movie unfolding, so trying to take a step back from the event and trying to get a better and bigger picture perspective on it.

Christine Porath: So for example, one way you can do this is ask, "Okay, in five years, what kind of effect is this going to have on you?" We found that self-distancing makes people more objective and less emotionally involved in the encounter and this can help individuals find better solutions in the moment and moving forward.

Christine Porath: So if they have the capability to distance themselves from the stressor, let's say this rude encounter, they're able to, let's say, serve the patient better in the moment or come back to the patient more quickly without taking it out on them or just being really wrapped up in what to make of the situation.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked earlier about how when you've experienced incivility, you've often found it hard to set it aside and to basically focus on other things. In some ways, incivility and rudeness can hijack the mind and make it very difficult to focus on other things. And so unsurprisingly, people who experience rudeness, end up perseverating on the thing that happened, on the rude thing that happened, on the rude thing that was said to them. And partly, I think what you're suggesting is actually so hard because what you're saying is that kind of perseveration, in fact, not useful. In fact, it's not helpful.

Christine Porath: Yeah. I think it is extremely challenging to get that advice but it leads to a lot better results. In the case of nurses, when patient safety is at risk, I think it's imperative that they find coping strategies so that they can attend to people in a way that doesn't take them off track, especially for long periods of time.

Christine Porath: We're trying to find interventions or things that help them not only cope with it, but recover quickly and move them forward. I mean, I also think that the idea of thriving is really crucial for them because they've been under such challenging circumstances and strain for a long time, that it's really important that they take care of themselves. Just coming in as physically ready is possible because you know, it's going to help them be able to regulate and respond best to anything that they may deal with that day.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if people push back on you when you give them this advice, because I suspect that many people who have experienced incivility, seek justice more than anything else they actually want. They want the wrongdoer to make amends and you are telling them the best way to deal with this really is to not pay attention to it. To move on with your day. To try and find other things in your life that you are engaged with that make you happy. Do people respond to that advice well, Christine?

Christine Porath: You know, generally I think they do. The nice thing is you're betting on yourself and not betting on someone else changing. In the vast majority of these situations at work, even if they told the organization, the organization acted on that, which is rare, it still isn't likely that person's going to change completely. And so really what you're asking them is to focus on themselves and bet on themselves in their future and at least for myself, I like that message because that gives me some power in an otherwise really disempowering situation.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at some complexities when it comes to incivility. You've written, "What matters is not whether people actually were disrespected or treated insensitively, but whether they felt disrespected. Incivility is in the eyes of the recipient." Now I can see the virtue of taking people's concerns about incivility seriously, but I can also see some people saying, "Hang on a minute, if each person can decide for themselves what is rude and what is not rude, how do we come to a shared understanding of incivility?" I mean, so someone who's from a very polite culture, let's say from the US south, could come to a place like New York City and say, "Everyone in this town is really rude."

Christine Porath: Yeah. It's what makes it really tricky and that's why providing information to people about how things are affecting you, at least if that's someone you work with regularly, is helpful. But I mean, the US is such a big place and there are such differences behind how we communicate and then certainly if you think about globally. I think that's what makes it so challenging. Having worked with some firms like the UN or International Monetary Fund, where they have employees from 183 countries, I mean, that makes it really tough to come up with norms for communicating or how we treat each other.

Shankar Vedantam: So, some time ago I came by this clip of an incident that took place on a Delta Airlines flight between Tampa and Atlanta. A man and a woman got into a fight. It started when the woman was told she'd have to wait for the beverage cart to move before she could take her seat and then it quickly escalated into a fight about whether to wear face masks. Soon insults were flying back and forth and eventually the woman threw a punch. Whatever is striking about this clip, Christine, is that both parties seem to feel like they're victims of incivility. So if I think that wearing a mask saves lives during a pandemic, I can see your refusal to wear a mask, as the height of rudeness. If you think wearing a mask is not necessary, you can see me as being an obnoxious, busybody. I mean, is it possible that in many confrontations, both parties feel like they're victims of incivility?

Christine Porath: Yes because we may lack self-awareness or simply disagree with whatever we did that they thought was rude, there's definitely the likelihood of misperceptions. I think a lot of times this happens even more so over email. Because over email, you don't have a person's tone or their non-verbals and so I think that there's a lot of misunderstandings where you assume that someone may be being rude and may then respond with a rude email or an accusatory tone. And so then it kind of gets you in a negative spiral, when in fact some of it could have stemmed from a misunderstanding.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if there's a bit of a contradiction here because on the one hand, I think we want to take people seriously when they say, "I'm really feeling like I have been treated badly." You don't want to dismiss that. On the other hand, we're also saying that people are not very self-aware and not quite aware of what's happening in situations. There seems to be a disconnect between those two things. How do we simultaneously accept people at face value when they say, "I believe that I have been treated rudely," and also take into account that perhaps they are not self-aware about the role that they have brought to the conversation, like this incident that took place on the plane?

Christine Porath: I think feedback is crucial, meaning if you're in a workplace, let's say, providing people feedback around how they're perceived and what their role is in an incident, radical candor. I think if you can create cultures where people are radically candid with each other. The saying is, "clear but kind." I think that's a good thing to shoot for it. It doesn't solve the problem in the plane but I think if in communities or families, if we can come at it with that perspective, I hope that's helpful, otherwise it just seems like we're stuck in a negative cycle.

Shankar Vedantam: Some people might say, perhaps we're setting the bar too high. If we are worrying so much about how the things we are going to be saying are going to be misinterpreted or over interpreted by other people, it'll cause people to walk on eggshells, so they'll be hesitant to say what's on their mind, to speak their... To actually offer feedback in a candid fashion, to tell people what's going on to make jokes, to be casual. How do you respond to this because I feel like there's a delicate balance here between essentially suppressing how people talk and walk in the world and basically giving people carte blanche to basically say and do whatever they feel like doing?

Christine Porath: Yeah. I think it is a tough balance to strike, in reality. I think that if you can create this culture, where there is care and concern for others, that idea of radical candor is so much easier and you don't get caught up worrying about, or processing the intentions behind something. You just let it kind of roll off someone's back. You just move forward. And so, I think the sweet spot is this idea of you care personally, and you feel comfortable challenging directly, because I think we want that feedback. I don't think we want to sugarcoat things. I don't think we want a situation where we're afraid to tell the truth or to speak up about potential issues. I think you've got to create these environments where people feel a sense of trust and respect, where they feel what's called "psychologically safe, "and that's where the magic can really happen. That people can be their most productive, creative, helpful, healthy selves.

Shankar Vedantam: We've looked at a lot of downsides of incivility, but as I was reading your work, I was wondering, do you ever think we should make exceptions for incivility in some cases?

Shankar Vedantam: I'm reminded of the famous line, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." The truth is that there are many activists, in many causes, who have behaved in ways that their opponents might describe as rude but in fact would argue that they were on the right side of history.

Christine Porath: Yeah. I'm sure that there are examples of that. I think that if you're strong in your convictions, then you know, that is something that you have to weigh the potential costs of how you're going to be perceived and move forward in the best way possible. I also think that some of this comes back to leading authentically. Some people are considered rude when they definitely don't mean to be. So again, improving your self-awareness around that could lead to you being most effective. But it's hard for me to kind of think about specific behaviors that I would say, "Oh, definitely never rude." Or, "Always worth doing it that way." I think that probably you're best served by weighing it in the moment and trying to explain yourself. I think some of the research that has struck me is if you preface negative feedback with something along the lines of, "I care about you and I think you can do better," than people are far less defensive. They respond, I think it's 40% better, to that. I think that if you have planted the seeds and shown people that you care about them and that you tend to be respectful, then you're much less likely to be really hurt if they slip up from time to time, or really hold it against them. They're famous leaders that have apologized for such incidents and been forgiven by people because they feel like they have a pattern of treating people respectfully. The truth is, we all slip up from time to time, but if we've invested in our relationships, usually these are things that we can recover from hopefully quickly and without too much effort,

Shankar Vedantam: It seems like very few people would argue with the idea that we'd all be better off if we could have more positive, affirmative experiences and relationships. I was struck by one idea that you've advanced. You've reached back to the work of an early 20th century scholar named Charles Horton Cooley. You find that he had an idea that is especially useful to think of, as we are thinking about incivility. What was his argument?

Christine Porath: So he talked about the Looking-Glass Self and the idea is that it explains that we use others' expressions, like smiles or behaviors, like acknowledging us and reactions like listening to us or insulting us, to define ourselves. So how we believe others see us, shapes who we are. We ride a wave of pride or get swallowed in a sea of embarrassment based on brief interactions that signal respect or disrespect. Individuals feel valued and powerful when respected.

Christine Porath: I believe that civility lifts people, whereas incivility holds people down. It makes people feel small and so we will be healthier, more productive, lead more fulfilling lives, when we are civil. That our communities will be healthier, more productive and more creative and you'll allow members to achieve their potential much more, if they live and work in more respectful cultures where people can really thrive.

Shankar Vedantam: Christine Porath is a Behavioral Scientist at Georgetown University. She's the author of the books, Mastering Civility, A Manifesto For The Workplace. And with Christine Pearson, The Cost of Bad Behavior. Christine Porath, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Christine Porath: Thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our Executive Producer. I'm Hidden Brains Executive Editor. Our unsung hero this week is Deena Amont of Lawrence, Kansas. Deena is a financial supporter of Hidden Brain. She recently sent a note to share that she discovered the show several years after it was recommended by a friend. She writes, "I went back and listened to every single episode. I never let myself get more than a week or so behind." Thank you so much for your interest in the show, Deena, and for your support. We're so grateful. If you'd like to join Deena in helping us make Hidden Brain, you can do so at Again, that site is I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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