Whether it is clicking their fingers at the waiter, talking loudly on their phone or letting the kids go feral, there are few things as unappealing as a rude dining companion in a restaurant.
But mistreating the staff is perhaps the cardinal sin of eating out, and has long been seen as indicative of a poor character. And this week, the talkshow host James Corden has found himself in hot water after such an allegation.
Corden has been accused of being the “most abusive customer” to have crossed the threshold of a New York restaurant, Balthazar, in its 25 years of existence.
The restaurant’s owner, Keith McNally, claimed on Instagram that he had temporarily banned Corden after he was “extremely nasty” to staff on two occasions. Corden has not given his version of events, although he told the New York Times: “I haven’t done anything wrong on any level. I feel so zen about the whole thing.”
McNally, who described Corden as a “hugely gifted comedian” but a “tiny cretin of a man”, said he had rescinded the ban after receiving a “profuse” apology, adding: “All is forgiven.”
Psychologists say restaurants are some of the best laboratories for observing human power dynamics at play. “Social hierarchy has a big role in whether individuals are rude to others,” said Dr Daniel Redhead, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
Among peers, social status relies on a person being perceived as bringing benefits to others – typically through being cooperative, generous and likable. Rude, arrogant and aggressive behaviour does not tend to win friends.
In restaurants, though, hierarchies are formalised and fixed, which can explain the phenomenon of the apparently genial dining partner turning toxic once the waiter makes an appearance.
“Waiters may be thought of as taking a subservient role and where clientele may have power over them,” said Redhead. “These asymmetries in power can lead certain people to act more dominantly – behaving more rudely or selfishly, and being manipulative – because they believe that this clear hierarchical structure legitimises such behaviour and do not believe that they will face any repercussions for their actions.”
Factors such as extreme wealth, a high-powered job or fame can increase this sense of invincibility. And for some this is the first step towards feeling that a tantrum is an appropriate response to a lukewarm bowl of soup or an imperfectly prepared steak.
“You become accustomed to getting away with things that otherwise you wouldn’t if you were an ordinary person,” said Prof Christine Porath, a psychologist at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “There are fewer boundaries for how you act.”
Porath’s research suggests that, more generally, people tend to put their own rude behaviour down to feeling stressed, ill or overwhelmed, and that circumstantial factors are probably more significant than personality in determining whether an encounter will be civil. However, her research also identified a small contingent who appear to actively relish being unpleasant.
“In our studies, about 4% say being rude is fun and they can get away with it,” she said. “There may be an element of narcissism – it’s almost a sport. They’re on a power trip and it makes them feel bigger and that someone else is smaller.”
There is evidence that rudeness is contagious and can spread like wildfire in a workplace and become normalised among colleagues unless high standards of behaviour are upheld by management. And studies suggest the negative impacts of rudeness extend to witnesses.
“We wondered why seeing rude behaviour is so upsetting to people when you go out for a nice meal,” said Porath. She and colleagues got groups of students to observe rude encounters in bookshops and banks and, after some analysis, concluded that people mostly dislike rudeness because they share the view that “everyone should be treated with dignity” even if they have made a mistake.
Being on the receiving end of rudeness, especially when experienced in public, is a humiliating and stressful experience that often brings out the worst in people.
“If someone feels they’ve been wronged by others, they’re likely motivated to spitefully reciprocate in kind,” said Redhead. For waiters, constrained by the professional requirement to remain polite, getting even might be achieved indirectly through providing slow service – or worse. “We’ve all read the horror stories,” Redhead said.
Even for the most consummate professional, maintaining smooth service when faced with an obnoxious customer can be a struggle due to the mental toll of processing a rude encounter. “Something we find consistently in the research is that rudeness affects our cognitive system. We actually can’t think properly,” said Prof Amir Erez, of the University of Florida.
“We had several studies with doctors where we did medical simulations and they made diagnostic mistakes, procedural mistakes, they couldn’t resuscitate a person properly, prescribed the wrong medication,” he added. “In restaurants getting the wrong order is not a big deal, but in the doctor’s office it is.”
So, even from a purely self-interested perspective, rudeness is not a wise way to respond to an unsatisfactorily cooked omelette. “It’s absolutely the worst strategy,” Erez said. “You think you’re screaming at them and you’ll get what you want – it’s the opposite.”