A fascinating article published in 2011 showed that we infer how powerful a person is by their degree of rudeness. A series of studies looked at the relationship between one’s perceived power and their tendency to follow norms – socially accepted but unspoken rules, such as facing forward in an elevator, or not talking in a movie theater. Specifically, when people violate a social norm, or engage in socially inappropriate behavior, even though we think their actions are negative (whether rude, improper, or impolite), we still attribute some level of power to the person.
For example, in one study, participants read a scenario in which a person takes from the “employees only” coffee machine while waiting in a busy waiting room. In another study, a bookkeeper engages in unethical business practices. In each case, a control group read a similar scenario minus the social wrongdoing. In both scenarios, the wrongdoer was perceived as violating a social norm, as well as being more powerful than his counterpart who followed the rules.
In another study, a man at an outdoor patio table puts his feet up on a chair, and repeatedly drops his cigarette ash on the floor. He is rude to the waitress and ultimately receives the wrong order. The participants perceived him as violating social norms and as being more powerful than the polite man in the control group. Additionally, he was also seen as being more likely to be angry about the mistaken order, more likely to "get to make decisions" and able to "get people to listen to what he says."
The authors also had participants interact with a norm-violator and a norm-follower. The norm–violator arrived late, threw his bag on the table and put his feet up. He was then perceived as being more powerful than the norm-follower, and more likely to "get others to do what he wants."
The authors argue that norm violators are perceived as having the freedom to act as they please, a freedom that is associated with increased power. Essentially, what matters is not that the person broke a rule, but that they had the strength of character to do what they wanted. So what does this mean? Be more aware of the influence that an individual’s behavior and attitude has on the perceptions you have of them, and be sure that you are judging the person by their actual intentions and actions instead of making assumptions. Finally, do not use rudeness as a means of gaining authority. While this study certainly shows that it may be effective, at least in the short term, the long-term effects of rudeness and discourtesy can be disastrous.
So, think about someone you know in a position of power. What personality characteristics do they possess that allude to their position of authority?
G. A. Van Kleef, A. C. Homan, C. Finkenauer, S. Gundemir, E. Stamkou. Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2011.