Impacts of Incivility

I was commiserating with some friends over the weekend about our recent interactions with rude people. A couple friends had just returned from a trip and had spent time in airports and on airplanes. They shared their experiences with difficult travelers at the terminals and on their flights. They witnessed instances of angry people shouting at flight attendants and yelling at gate workers. Another friend, who teaches locally, talked about the rude parents and students she’s been encountering. She regularly receives angry emails from parents and rude comments from her students. Another friend, who is still working remotely, shared that she’s been interacting with a difficult co-worker through most of the pandemic. Personally, I talked about my recent experiences with a couple of challenging colleagues and students who have sent rude or sarcastic emails to me. As we discussed these instances, we agreed that incivility seems to be on the rise.

Surprisingly, I pulled up my podcast app this morning to find Hidden Brain had dedicated its most recent episode, How Rude!, to the topic. Here’s how the episode was described in the app:

“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.”

After the weekend conversation with my friends, I felt compelled to listen to the episode. While the show echoed a lot of the experiences my friends and I shared, it also discussed the causes of the incivility and outlined some of the potential negative impacts from encounters with rude people. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the main cause is stress. And with the rise of stressful situations borne out of the pandemic, incivility is also increasing. While that emotional connection seems logical, it also depersonalizes the behavior a bit. For the most part, these aren’t rude, uncivil people doing awful things or sending mean emails. They’re just people under stress who may not be able to see the full impact of the stress on their actions. I know that might not make those rude encounters easier to navigate, but it does make it easier to understand. We’ve all been under stress lately. We’ve probably all said or done something that we didn’t intend. Stress is a challenging emotion.

For me, the interesting part about the episode was when the main guest, Dr. Christine Porath from Georgetown University, discussed the impacts of incivility. Porath is a behavioral scientist and the co-author of the book, The Cost of Bad Behavior—How Incivility Damages Your Business And What You Can Do about It. Porath likened stress to a virus that spreads from person to person, with rude and uncivil acts as being one of the main transmission systems. During the discussion, Porath shared her research that examined the cognitive impacts to encountering or witnessing rude behavior. In a study published in Organizational Dynamics, Porath and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments and found that:

(I)ncivility impairs working memory, which in turn negatively impacts both performance and creativity. Working memory has three main functions – the verbal function, the visual function, and the central function responsible for higher order cognitive tasks; incivility impairs all three. What’s more, this effect occurs in the absence of a specific uncivil event; simply having incivility on one’s mind has been shown to decrease working memory performance. This is important because it suggests that even being in a workplace that has a climate of incivility may impair workers’ creativity and performance. Incivility robs people of cognitive resources, disrupts all three components of working memory, and ultimately hijacks performance.” (p. 259)

That’s some pretty serious stuff, but it might also be the solution. Maybe recognizing the harmful impacts of rude behaviors could cause some people to act differently. While I’ve sent my share of harshly worded emails and angry texts under moments of stress, recognizing those impacts may help me to communicate less rudely in the future. Beyond that, I’m also going to work to put more positive energy into the world. While Porath spent most of the Hidden Brain episode discussing incivility, she has also researched the impacts of civility, too. She outlines some of her work on a post titled How civility matters for you and your network. She writes that just like stress spreads like a virus, research shows that “civility is contagious – the benefits spreading as friends and friends of friends reciprocate civility.” So, while incivility is on the rise, maybe we could spread some civility, too.

Porath, C. L., Foulk, T., & Erez, A. (2015). How incivility hijacks performance: It robs cognitive resources, increases dysfunctional behavior, and infects team dynamics and functioning. Organizational Dynamics. 44(4), p. 258-265.


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