Does it always pay to be polite? Dear reader, the answer very much depends. Academics in the US have analysed hundreds of thousands of answers on the Q&A website Stack Exchange, where users ask such vital questions as: “What is to the west of Westeros?” and “Are there any German nonsense poems?” They discovered that polite answers are more highly rated by the asker, something that determines how prominently they are displayed. But they may not actually be the most clear, authoritative or helpful.
The measure the researchers used was a simple one: the frequency of the first-person pronouns “I” and “we” versus the second person “you”. This may not seem like an obvious proxy for politeness, but it works. According to linguistic theory, being addressed directly, while it improves clarity, is often perceived as a “face-threatening act” – something that imposes on the addressee and may feel too much like a barked order.
You (forgive me) can see this in the many strategies used by languages around the world to avoid directness. In Farsi, for example, a polite alternative to “you” (shoma) is the rather more indirect “your presence” (hozuretan). In Japanese, the bare pronoun is usually avoided, and a person’s name or title plus an honorific suffix is used instead.
When someone lays it on with a trowel, we don’t judge their contribution objectively. We are likely to be seduced by attempts to spare our feelings, even when the quality of the information we are getting isn’t as high.
This, it is argued, is evidence of a “politeness bias”. What the authors weren’t expecting was that, while they pleased askers, indirect answers weren’t appreciated by other readers of the site. They found them less useful and rated them down.
There are broader lessons here. Can you think of anyone who plays up their good manners in order to make a flawed message seem more palatable? Someone who maybe uses the very indirect pronoun “one” a lot?
I’m not going to mention any names (OK, I’m going to mention Jacob Rees-Mogg. You might be able to think of others). Granted, a surfeit of civility is perhaps not the most pressing issue of our time. But concerned citizens might want to keep an eye out for politeness bias, all the same.