Seeing one person be rude to another can stunt a person's creativity, impair their mental performance and make them less likely to be civil themselves. Christine Porath and Amir Erez, who made this finding, say it has profound implications for the workplace, where rudeness has been described by some as a modern epidemic.
Across three studies, Porath and Erez recruited undergrad students to take part in what they were led to believe was an investigation into personality and task performance. Porath and Erez contrived situations in their lab so that the student participants witnessed either a researcher be rude to a student for turning up late, or one student be rude to another student for taking so long over a consent form.
Witnessing an act of rudeness, whether committed by a researcher or student, led the participants to solve fewer anagrams, come up with fewer uses for a brick (and to come up with more aggressive uses!), made them less likely to offer to participate in another study, and lowered their mood.
A third study showed that the harmful effects of witnessing rudeness were greater when students were enrolled in a collaborative group task, compared with when they were enrolled in a competitive group task where they had something to gain from the rudeness victim's ordeal. Although the harmful effects were lower in the competitive scenario, they were still present.
Porath and Erez said this is the first study to their knowledge that has investigated the direct effects of merely witnessing rudeness as opposed to being the target of rudeness. Future research is needed to explore the mechanisms by which witnessing rudeness leads to the harmful outcomes reported here.
"The conclusion that rudeness may not be contained within the instigator-target dyad and that it affects performance is theoretically and practically significant because it implies that the organisational functioning and climate could be affected by isolated rude incidents," the researchers said.
Porath, C., & 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 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.01.003