Georgetown professor: Rudeness can damage the productivity and intelligence of its targets

Christine Porath, professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, author of “Mastering Community”

When someone takes credit for your idea at work or cranks their airplane seat back into your personal space, their rudeness doesn’t just have a potential impact on your mood. It could also temporarily decrease your productivity and intelligence.

Christine Porath, a business professor at Georgetown in D.C., studied how rudeness negatively affects task performance and helpfulness.

Her work implies that if you feel less creative or having trouble solving problems after someone is rude to you, it’s not in your head. Though in a way, it kind of is. When someone is the target of rudeness, Porath said your brain function could be temporarily damaged.

And this pattern held true in the study whether the rudeness was direct or indirect. It held up even when participants just imagined a rude scenario.

Why this happens

In response to rudeness, some people experience negative emotions such as anger or desire for revenge.

“We tend to go into fight-or-flight mode, where really our emotions kind of bubble up in a way that makes it very tough to think straight,” Porath told WTOP. “I call it the storm in your brain.”

This storm makes it harder to respond in an intelligent, timely way, according to her study, which can be found online.

Performance decreases 30% when people are subjected to rudeness, Porath said. It can divide attention, potentially damaging job performance or the ability to accomplish tasks in general as people dwell on the situation.

Porath’s study finds targets of rudeness also have a harder time learning and remembering things and are less helpful.

“We tend to perform worse we make more mistakes; we’re less creative,” Porath said. “It stops us from bringing our best selves to whatever we’re doing, or the people that we’re interacting with.”

Preventing negative responses

How people respond to rudeness can be influenced by genetics. Porath said some people have a gene that makes them more sensitive to threats, stress and embarrassment

But it’s not all predetermined by genes. Porath suggested some ways to lessen negative effects from rudeness:

  • Working out to reduce stress.
  • Eating healthy to prime for success.
  • Sleeping to regulate how you respond.
  • Finding activities that bring joy and building positive relationships outside of work.

These tips are meant to increase a person’s resiliency so that when rudeness does arise, they respond better and the opinion of the person being rude doesn’t dampen their day.

Rudeness stems from lacking awareness

One issue in solving rudeness is that plenty of people don’t realize they’re being rude. A study by Tasha Eurich suggests that even though most people believe they’re self aware, only 10 to 15% of people actually fit that criteria.

“I have found that most of this stems not from people wanting to be jerks, or mean to other people. But rather, we just don’t understand how we’re affecting others,” Porath said.

Porath recommends people take little steps to be kind to others by thanking them, saying hello or listening attentively.

“We want to be the change that we’re looking for,” Porath said. “I think it’s easy to point the finger nowadays to others, particularly those that may be on the other side of issues.”

This positivity can go a long way, especially given a quarter of people Porath survey said they were rude because their leader is rude.

“If we’re lifting each other up or valuing people, we tend to do that to the next person, even if they’re strangers,” Porath said. “Our actions matter more than we might think they do.”

WTOP’s Dimitri Sotis contributed to this report.

Jessica Kronzer

Jessica Kronzer graduated from James Madison University in May 2021 after studying media and politics. She enjoys covering politics, advocacy and compelling human-interest stories.

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