Rudeness and Performance Effects

In another post, LaurA mentioned this article in comments, but I think it deserves its own post, so here it is.  The article, “Rudeness in Medical Settings Could Kill Patients,” relates a study done to assess performance effects from rude interactions in perilous medical contexts.  Among the notable findings:

  • rude comments appeared to cause a 52 percent difference in how well teams diagnosed the disease, as measured by three independent judges who were blind to the study’s thesis, and a 43 percent difference in how well they treated it.
  • rudeness could contribute to many of the preventable deaths caused by medical error in U.S. hospitals each year, which, according to a Journal of Patient Safety study, is between 210,000 and 440,000 people.
  • Because [rudeness occurs with some frequency in urgent medical situations, lead researcher] Erez said he expected that the experienced medical teams in his experiment would get over the rude comments and keep working effectively — especially given that their task was diagnosing a newborn in an emergency situation (albeit a simulated one). “But we found consistently and dramatically that rudeness isn’t something people can easily get over,” he says. “It’s not something that you can postpone emotionally to a later time because it affects the cognitive system.”

This sort of study and result would suggest that we really do miss something significant in not attending to issues of manners (and rudeness) in moral philosophy.  It’s not just that the consequences limned here seem so potentially dramatic – though this is huge – but that expectations we might have about developing resilience in repeated exposure to rudeness don’t seem borne out.  The issues here are several but the main one seems to be that there is a heavy cognitive-emotive tax exacted by rude interactions and it’s one the draws off energies and attentions we wish to direct elsewhere.

Philosophy of Etiquette

BP Morton has an interesting blog post arguing that we need a philosophy of etiquette, here.  I wholeheartedly agree, but would add that were the profession even a bit more broad minded, it would discover that multiple such philosophies exist in early Chinese philosophical traditions, complete with full-throated advocacy of etiquette and some of the funniest philosophical etiquette skeptics that ever blew raspberries at all (i.e., Zhuangzi).  My own sense is that developing a robust contemporary philosophy of etiquette would require shifts in how philosophy understands itself and how it approaches its subject matter.  For something in this vein, see here.

The Absences

Eric Schwitzgebel writes in the LA Times about the lack of Chinese philosophy in philosophy classes and, by extension, the profession at large.  He rehearses the familiar depressing statistic:  “In the United States, there are about 100 doctorate-granting programs in philosophy. By my count, only seven have a permanent member of the philosophy faculty who specializes in Chinese philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers are more commonly taught in departments of history, religious studies, Asian studies and comparative literature than in departments of philosophy. The same is true — even more so — for Indian and other non-Western philosophers.”

Of course it’s hard not to wonder where we’d end up if we start to inventory all that philosophy programs are missing.

Whether and when to flip off your baby.

Rebecca Schuman of Slate has been taking selfies while flipping off her infant.  She converses with Jill Delston of University of Missouri – St. Louis about the moral advisability of this.  It strikes me that analysis of how humor works might help here.  On Ted Cohen’s (fun) account of humor, one of the ways we find relief in humor is by mocking powers we cannot defeat.  That’s why jokes about death work as they do.  So, maybe infants and death just go together – both are rather unrelenting.

My initial thought on seeing this was that any distress it provoked (for those who would find such images distressing) would likely arise from gendered social expectations, such that the gentle nurturing expected of mothers is violated here.  But I doubt that images of a father doing the same would play better on this score and indeed might awaken worries about the menace and threat such a gesture could suggest.  So, while the images would play differently for mothers and fathers, it’s not clear to me that any of us are well free to flip off our babies in the way they so often richly deserve.

Benevolent Sexism

A new study reports that:

Men who open doors for women are as guilty of sexism as those who are rude to them… Psychologists found that a friendly or chivalrous attitude can mask chauvinistic and patronizing views because the men see females as weak creatures in need of their protection.

For more, see here.  And for philosophical analysis that anticipates these results, see Linda Bell’s “Gallantry” (1984).

Campus Visits

The season for campus visits has begun, so perhaps it’s useful to share strategies search committees can employ to make these as humane and fair for candidates as possible. Below are a few things that occur to me, but please add more in comments!

1. Be aware that departments establish performance conditions for candidates that can influence how well people do and what comfort they achieve. Avoiding establishing conditions likely to provoke stereotype threat or placing candidates in solo status is a good start to avoid undermining performance.

2. People, especially job candidates, need rest. And sometimes even solitude. So make sure that your candidates get a chance to breathe outside the performance setting. At the very least, offer some down time to candidates so they can have time to collect their wits if needed.

3. Make sure to introduce candidates to all of the people they encounter, giving their role/status in the introduction. Don’t make them guess if they’re conversing with a search committee member, graduate student, or rogue sociologist who just happened to stop by your department.

Read More »

Dickheads and Assholes

My impression is that it is more acceptable or at least commonplace in philosophy blog discussions to deploy derisive and often, dare I say it, vulgar name-calling than to call someone rude. This is *only* an impression – part of the purpose of this post is to see if others share it. If it’s right though, I wonder why.

At issue in this is how we choose to frame disapproval of others’ poor social behavior. It may well be the case that there is a kind of informal taxonomy of disapproval, such that “asshole” or “dickhead” picks out something richer and more psychologically elaborate than “rude” would. I suspect I would often find common ground with those who despair of assholes and dickheads in the profession, yet I also despair of words such as “asshole” and “dickhead” being the mode of disapproval.

One reason for this is that using “asshole” and “dickhead” distances the problematic conduct from breaches of ordinary manners, rendering those so labeled some especially objectionable species worthy of its own name and thus diverting attention away from how we all could do better at avoiding impolite gestures and slights. Assholes and dickheads often are just people who have done (or habitually do) rude things (or especially rude things). They breach ordinary good manners, but calling them by a special name elides the ways they do what we all sometimes do: behave rudely (or uncollegially, uncivilly, etc.).

I think the reason we eschew “rude” in favor of “dickhead” or “asshole” may be that rude has lost its cache as a term of disapprobation. It simply doesn’t say anything anyone is likely to care about. Being called a dickhead or asshole is, if not worse, then something to care about (or, in certain benighted circles perhaps, to brag about). But being called rude….? Meh. That is, perhaps part of why being called rude has little force is because manners themselves have little force or, worse, are counted deeply problematic. Call someone rude and you may be associated with pernicious deployments of civility standards; call someone an asshole or dickhead and you’re happily free of all that, simultaneously enforcing a judgment regarding appropriate conduct while also disavowing any association with more formal shared, conventional social standards for such. That seems to me part of what is lost by using “dickhead” and “asshole” – but is anything gained? Is it better (read: more effective, more useful, more…?) to call someone a dickhead or asshole than to call them rude?

[To send queries to Professor Manners, please use the contact tab.]

In Praise of Damns

Dear Professor Manners,
Some days the state of the profession gets me down. I know it’s Live Like a Stoic Week, but I just can’t seem to get my apatheia on, especially when I read the blogs.

Philosophus Feministus (who doesn’t know Latin and it’s a shame since that might help with the whole Stoic thing)

Dear Philosophus Feministus,
Alas, the profession does too often resemble a Roman spectacle. One goes to the blogs, as Seneca might say, in quest of “some fun, wit, and relaxation” only to find “pure murder” (in the strictly figurative bloggy sense only of course). Indeed, Professor Manners herself is often obliged to retire to her Roman couch, if not in despair, then in something like it. Still, she recommends (in addition to referring to oneself in the third person for kicks) borrowing from the regrettably obscure writer Mary McClain’s technique and giving oneself a therapeutic damn a day. To wit, McClain:

“I say on Monday, Damn the ache in my left foot; on Tuesday, Damn that rattling window – I hate it; on Wednesday, Damn this yellow garter – it’s too tight; on Thursday, Damn my futile life; on Friday, Damn the solitude; on Saturday, Damn these thoughts; on Sunday, Damn my two dresses… [T]he morale of my Damns remains perfunctory. But they are apt and useful… I begin each day with a Damn of sorts. I end each day with a Damn of sorts… Let my Damns be always brave, always contemptuous of disaster to me, and they will be first-water value though their kind alter never-so.”

Yours in damning the spectacle,
Professor Manners

Emulating Socrates

I recently assigned an undergraduate class reading the Apology to consider Socrates’ manner in presenting himself to the jury. Specifically, I asked them to evaluate whether Socrates’ condescension in his speeches to the jury and prosecution rises to insult and rudeness, and whether this matters in seeing him as exemplar for emulation. The results were mixed. Some concluded that Socrates was both rude and justified since the trial was rank persecution by the dangerously unthinking. Others thought Socrates unwarrantedly rude, remarking on how it was no credit even to noble purposes that he should be scornful or even arrogantly dismissive in his self-presentation. What was striking to me in all this was the gender breakdown of these responses in a class with almost equal enrollment of men and women.

Those who found Socrates rudeness warranted and worthy of emulation:
70% of the men enrolled
13% of the women

Those who found it unwarranted and not worthy of emulation:
30% of the men
87% of the women

I have myself long felt ambivalent about Socrates on this score, and I think this result may capture some of why. Many of the women students remarked in their responses what I would characterize as sympathy to human frailty, a sense that if others have to earn our respect rather than respect operating as a default given, then we’re all in trouble. They were not at all sanguine about Socrates’ rightness, which they acknowledged, giving more general permission to anyone in the right to express contempt or scorn for others. Put simply, they were far more skeptical that we can ever be sure enough that we are in the right or that another’s being in the wrong licenses breaking general respect.

I don’t want to over-assign significance to this outcome, but I do think Socrates casts a long shadow even still over how philosophy is practiced and that even if, in his own case, his manner is explicable or even sympathetic, it ends up conferring status and legitimacy on conversational tactics that, in far less dire circumstances, are quite problematic. It is perhaps tempting to conflate Socrates’ general bravery with the manner of his self-presentation, a willingness to “speak plainly” (i.e., often without regard to offense one may provoke) implicitly equated with courage. It’s perhaps too easy to imagine that one is “being like Socrates,” engaging in bold challenge against the unthinking rabble, when one is really but engaging in garden-variety rudeness and evincing arrogance. Put simply, the model of Socrates can alibi bad conduct and tempt all sorts of self-deception about one’s motives and manner. Calling out what one perceives to be the rank wrongness of others can just be power assertion heroicized as noble.