The story of rude minor officials

We’ve probably all experienced this: an official, separated from us by a desk or indeed a glass partition, talks to us in rather patronizing and rude tones; or keeps us waiting after finishing with the last member of the public even though they can see – or maybe because they can see – that we are in a hurry. Then there is the official from whom we need something – say, an authorization – and who looks ever more likely to turn us down the more they see how important it is to us.

So, is that just a lot of unjustified stereotyping? Perhaps not. A study carried out by researchers from the University of Southern California, Northwestern University and Stanford University has revealed that persons with ‘high power and low status’ have a tendency to demean others. This is partly driven by the frustration of knowing that they do not themselves enjoy respect or admiration, and this prompts them to want to inconvenience or demean others. A solution, the researchers found, is for managers to assure and convince the people in question that their roles carry status and that they are respected.

I suspect this is also connected with the consequences of having a hierarchical society or organisation.

So there is little point being angry with the rude official. It is better to reinforce their sense of self-esteem.

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5 Comments on “The story of rude minor officials”

  1. Steve Button Says:

    Respect for others is all. Its a lesson most Academic Institutions could learn from with their structures.

  2. bethduff Says:

    Respect, a smile and “thank you” go a long way.

  3. Oisín Says:

    I wonder if there is also a minor anonymising effect due to the nameless, identityless nature of the interaction with the official. It’s not important who they are or what they’re called, just that they stamp the right forms. There’s often a feeling that they’re an impediment between you and your goals.

    The effect of hiding behind a mask and not being personally regarded for your contributions may encourage passively abusive behaviour like we see on web forums, Youtube comments etc.

    Perhaps people in these “high-power, low-status” roles should wear nametags so people could address them by name and help humanise the interaction a bit more?

    • Jilly Says:

      I doubt that being required to wear a name-tag would make such workers feel better. I agree with Bethduff, just smiling, good manners and – very importantly – eye-contact go a long way. From my own time working behind shop-counters, I was astonished by the number of customers who wouldn’t have been able to pick me out of a police line-up 5 mins after I’d served them, because they never once looked at me during the transaction. Perhaps because of that experience, I’ve always been careful to treat people behind desks/counters as people, and I rarely find that they’re rude in return, so I suspect cause and effect.

      • Oisín Says:

        Indeed, it should go without saying that good manners and eye contact go a long way.

        I try to be respectful and human when dealing with everybody, and I also rarely find that they’re rude. However, occasionally it will happen, and the linked study attempts to explore why.
        Places like the Garda National Immigration Bureau and other (bureaucratic) government offices are prime examples of the problem. Many times I’ve heard a friendly, hard-working person try to deal with a trivial matter politely and receive neednessly harsh and aggressive responses (“I could have kicked out of this country for failing to fill in that box”).

        I’m not suggesting that being required to wear a name tag would by itself make these workers feel better, merely that being addressed by name and recognised as an individual might help to mitigate the problem.


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