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The Incivility Bug

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@GrandCentralPubGrand Central Publishing

When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency. — Samuel Johnson

Remember the nightmare job I had launching a sports academy at a global athletic brand? Back in those days, the academy had a well-equipped gym (among other facilities) where professional athletes and academy members would work out. I used to show up early to exercise at the gym with friends and colleagues, including coaches, trainers, and management staff. Some days, our uncivil leader showed up, and he would immediately blast the fitness director for piping fast-paced workout music over the loudspeaker system: Why wasn’t the leader’s favorite music playing?! (By the way, the leader’s favorite music was Barry White — not exactly the kind of music that peps you up while you run or pump iron.)

The leader’s verbal lashing of the director seemed to go on forever. It took place in front of everybody, including the director’s wife, who also worked out there. The director raced back to the office and fumbled with the music, trying to correct the situation as quickly as he could. In a matter of moments, Barry White’s velvety voice echoed throughout the building.

That didn’t assuage the leader, though. He was still upset, so he continued to rant and rave at the director. It was awkward for everyone. When the leader finally left, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Yet none of us had our usual energy. Our day had soured, and it wasn’t even 6:30 a.m.

I often brought athletes to the fitness center for specialized workout sessions. On the days when the leader was uncivil, I noticed that the coaches and trainers who worked with these athletes weren’t at their best. They were unfocused, unmotivated, and in foul moods, even though the leader’s tirade hadn’t been directed at them. This, in turn, colored the athletes’ experience. Their workouts weren’t what they could be, and their moods soured. Sometimes they went off on the managers who shadowed them or they were nasty to the cafeteria staff. The people who were eating lunch with the grumpy athletes picked up on the unpleasant vibe, and their moods also began to darken.

Many people think of rudeness as a self-contained experience, limited to one person or interaction. In truth, incivility is a virus that spreads, making the lives of everyone exposed to it more difficult.

In a typical corporate headquarters, incivility might start in one office, and before you know it, it’s down the hall, up three floors, and in the break room, infecting someone who may have contact with clients and customers. Left unchecked, incivility can drag down an entire organization, making everyone less kind, less patient, less energetic, less fun — simply less.

The Making of an Emotional “Plague”

We each have a much bigger effect on one another’s emotions than we might think — for better and for worse. In their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler show how happiness spreads not only among pairs of people but also between a person and his friends, his friends’ friends, and their friends.1 If a friend of a friend of a friend of yours becomes happier, this can positively affect you. Research with a professional male cricket team shows that a player’s happiness influences the happiness of his teammates; when teammates are happier, overall team performance improves.2 Happiness in this context doesn’t depend on deep, personal connections; frequent, superficial, face‑to‑face interactions can also powerfully influence happiness.

Civility and incivility spread the same way.

A seemingly small act of kindness or rudeness ripples across communities, affecting people in our network with whom we may or may not interact directly.3

On a non-conscious level, people become aware of the concept of rudeness when they’re around it in any form, even when they aren’t the target of it directly.4 A node in the brain is activated, and this activation rapidly spreads across the neural network to nearby nodes.5 In practical terms, a rude e‑mail you read might activate nodes in your brain associated with memories of other encounters in which you experienced or witnessed rudeness. In your mind, the activated concepts — in this case, rudeness and incivility — become more accessible; they come to mind and can shape your judgments and decision making.

An experiment conducted by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer during the 1970s illustrates why some people may be more sensitive to rudeness than others. Loftus and Palmer showed one group of participants a series of videos depicting car accidents and then asked participants how fast the cars were going when they hit each other. They then asked the other set of participants a similarly worded question but replaced the word “hit” with words of a harder tone, such as “smashed,” or “collided.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the participants whose questions contained verbs associated with high speed judged the speeds as faster than those whose questions contained verbs associated with lower speeds. Loftus and Palmer hypothesized that the wording made concepts associated with high speeds more accessible in people’s minds, influencing the way they judged the situation.6

In an office setting, if someone recently experienced rudeness, they will likely perceive greater rudeness while working on subsequent projects than a teammate who didn’t experience rudeness recently. They are tuned in to incivility — not because they are “sensitive people” but because past experiences have primed them to pick up on incivility more acutely.

Sneaking into Our Subconscious

In general, our minds are very sensitive; it doesn’t take much for incivility to affect us — even a single word thrown our way can make a big difference in how we behave. In one study, Charles Carver of the University of Miami and his colleagues told participants that they were taking part in a “learning experiment” in which they would be “teaching” another participant (actually a member of the research team) by administering rewards for correct answers and punishments for incorrect answers. To dole out punishments, they would deliver an electric shock at a length of their choosing. (Obviously these were not real electric shocks. No researchers were harmed in the making of this experiment!)

Just before researchers finished giving out the instructions, another experimenter entered the room and explained that she was almost finished with her master’s thesis project, but some of her participants had failed to show up. She asked participants if they would complete a form for her study. All the participants agreed and completed the form. Little did they know that the researchers had manipulated the document: Some of the forms contained hostile words (such as “rude” or “aggravating”), while others didn’t contain hostile words. Participants then engaged in the alleged “learning experiment” in which they gave “shocks” to a “learner.”

What do you think happened? The participants researchers had primed with hostile words were more likely to give much longer shocks to the learner.7

When you’re exposed to hostility or aggression, you behave differently. Incivility sneaks into your subconscious. It’s easy to see how plagues of incivility can take shape and spread.

Now, most of us don’t have the opportunity to shock other people during the course of our workdays. We do, however, have many opportunities to interrupt other people as they’re speaking. In my surveys, interrupting is the rude behavior most often attributed to bosses.8 Researchers in another study wondered if people exposed to words related to rudeness (e.g., “bother,” “disturb,” “annoyingly,” “interrupt,” “obnoxious”) would more often interrupt someone during a lengthy conversation than someone exposed to words related to politeness (e.g., “courteous,” “polite,” “considerate,” “appreciate,” “graciously”). The results were stunning: While 67 percent of participants exposed to rude words interrupted the conversation — some more aggressively than others — only 16 percent of participants exposed to polite words chose to interrupt.9

Just because someone exposes you to rudeness doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be uncivil to others, though. When you follow a rude experience — like the one at the gym — with a polite one, the polite one “overwrites” the rude one, loosening the hold it has on your mind. So next time you witness or are a victim of rudeness, “reprogram” your mind by purposefully exposing yourself to something more positive. At the sports academy, I’d talk to my friendly civil colleague for a few minutes or I’d read an e‑mail or text that evoked a spirit of kindness. Such experiences don’t merely serve as a kind of balm; they inoculate you against the “virus” of incivility. (Please see chapter 14 for how to handle uncivil situations.)

Brain Burn

Don’t think of the bubble strategy as the perfect fix for incivility, though. While an incivility bug may be knocked into submission, it also may lie dormant within us, tattooed on our brains. As Dr. Edward Hallowell notes, bad memories can stick around for years — what Hallowell calls “brain burn.”10 When someone experiences difficult or unpleasant rudeness, a rush of emotions can cause physiological responses (e.g., increased heart rate, erratic breathing) and a flooding of intense emotions. Anger, fear, and sorrow may arise simultaneously, overwhelming the target or witness of incivility and leaving a scar that is both psychological and physical. High levels of adrenaline pump through the body in these situations, burning a hole in the brain, creating a permanent “tattoo.” Once this happens, the overwhelming emotions are never forgotten; the simple sight of the offender or the place where the incident occurred may rekindle these feelings.

Recently, when I returned to the gym where I used to work, I vividly recalled all the unpleasant mornings I had suffered there. Even though my colleagues and I had had lots of fun together — great workouts, Thanksgiving pick‑up football games, memorable celebrations of birthdays and other events — my mind still drifted to those episodes of rudeness. And I hadn’t even been the target! Yet somehow, over twenty years later, I could still tell you exactly what had happened.

Scientists have long known that the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped sector in the brain, triggers emotional responses.11 If an employee’s cubicle is near her boss’s office and she frequently overhears her boss treating others badly, that pattern can hijack her amygdala, burning a negative emotion into her brain. Every time this employee looks at her boss’s door, she might experience negative emotions.

As a result, it may not take much for the incivility bug to rear its ugly head, even after an offender has been placed inside a bubble. Relatively minor incidents — when people thoughtlessly put down others, for instance, or question their capabilities publicly — leave an imprint, whittling away at them, their performance, and their well-being. As a mathematical model developed by Yale psychologists Adam Bear and David Rand showed, people who are typically surrounded by jerks learn intuitively to be selfish and also not to deliberate over their actions. They wind up acting selfishly even when cooperating would pay off, precisely because they don’t stop to think.12

Our environment rubs off on us, and if our environment is toxic, we can expect to stay somewhat sick and to pass it on to others.

To beat the bug, we need to take steps to detoxify ourselves (a subject I’ll cover more fully in chapter 14).

Primed for Politeness

If incivility can spread rapidly, its effects lingering long after the initial instance of rudeness, then civility can too. In a study of a biotech firm, my colleagues and I documented that when employees are civil in small ways (e.g., being attentive, smiling, not interrupting), their behavior is likely to be reciprocated and spread between colleagues.13 But I don’t need a formal study to prove this; I see it happening all the time in my daily life.

At Reagan Airport in Washington, DC, where I often go when I travel, there’s an Alaska Airlines employee who just radiates positivity and delights everyone around her. On some occasions, even when there’s frigid weather outside and passengers are impatient and demanding, this woman somehow still has it all under control. She handles everyone respectfully, with a smile. Not only do I feel better just watching her, but I also see people’s expressions change after a brief encounter with her. The Alaska Airlines crews and passengers head off to their destinations happier and primed for more politeness.

Passengers and crew are just a little nicer to one another. They help one another more readily. They are more patient with one another. And after their flights, they disembark their planes with less edge.

Louisiana’s Ochsner Health System, a large healthcare organization, appreciated the viral effects of civility so much they created a formal policy designed to harness it. Under Ochsner’s 10/5 Way, you make eye contact and smile if you’re within ten feet of someone, and you say hello if you’re within five feet.14 When this policy came into effect, the organization saw civility spread. Patient satisfaction scores rose, as did patient referrals.

As we’ve seen, incivility is not typically an isolated incident. It’s highly infective and invasive, a pathogen that can quickly and silently sicken a team, department, and organization as well as customers and other external stakeholders. Most people may not realize just how susceptible they are and the extent to which they are carriers of it. Fortunately, civility’s power to spread is just as great. It’s up to us to gird ourselves against rudeness, to fight back hard when it’s expressed, and to do everything we can to spread kindness and joy to those around us.

Each one of us, through even the smallest of actions, has the capacity to create an atmosphere that’s warm, affirming, and energizing.

We can do it today — right now. What’s stopping you?

Key Points

  • The effects of your words and deeds ripple far beyond the people working directly with you. If you’re uncivil to someone, expect that he or she will pass it on.
  • Placing offenders in a “bubble” can contain incivility, although not necessarily eradicate it.
  • When you’re civil, you contribute to a cycle that fosters greater civility across all your networks.

Do you practice civility at your workplace?

Take the assessment:

Excerpted from MASTERING CIVILITY by Christine Porath Ph.D., published by Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2016 Christine Porath.

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  1. N. A. Christakis and J. H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (New York: Little, Brown, 2009).

2. P. Totterdell, “Mood Scores: Mood and Performance in Professional Cricketers,” British Journal of Psychology 90, no. 3 (1999): 317–32.

3. T. Foulk, A. Erez, and A. Woolum, “Catching Rudeness Is like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors,” Journal of Applied Psychology 101, no. 1 (2016): 50–67.

4. Foulk, Erez, and Woolum, “Catching Rudeness Is like Catching a Cold,” 50–67; and C. L. Porath, T. Foulk, and A. Erez, “How Incivility Hijacks Performance: It Robs Cognitive Resources, Increases Dysfunctional Behavior, and Infects Team Dynamics and Functioning,” Organizational Dynamics 44, no. 4 (2015): 258–65.

5. M. L. Stanley et al., “Defining Nodes in Complex Brain Networks,” Frontiers in Computation Neuroscience 7 (2013): 169, doi:10.3389 / fncom.2013.00169.

6. E. F. Loftus and J. C. Palmer, “Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory,” Journal of Learning and Verbal Behavior 13, no. 5 (1974): 585–89; and S. McLeod, “Loftus and Palmer,” Simply Psychology website, last modified 2014,

7. C. Carver et al., “Modeling: An Analysis in Terms of Category Accessibility,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 19, no. 5 (1983): 403–21.

8. C. L. Porath, “No Time to Be Nice at Work,” Sunday Review, New York Times, June 19, 2015,

9. J. A. Bargh, M. Chen, and L. Burrows, “Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71, no. 2 (1996): 230–44.

10. E. M. Hallowell, Worry (New York: Random House, 1997).

11. L. W. Barsalou et al., “Social Embodiment,” Psychology of Learning and Motivation 43 (2003): 43–92.

12. B. Hathaway, “Do the Math: Why Some People Are Jerks yet Others Are Even Nice to Strangers,” YaleNews, January 11, 2016,; and A. Bear and D. G. Rand, “Intuition, Deliberation, and the Evolution of Cooperation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 4 (2016): 936–41.

13. C. L. Porath et al., “Civility as an Enabler of Social Capital: How It Spreads — and What Limits Its Potential” (working paper, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 2016).

14. Porath, “No Time to Be Nice at Work,”; and C. Porath and C. Pearson, “The Price of Incivility: Lack of Respect in the Workplace Hurts Morale — and the Bottom Line,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2013, 115–21.


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