4.4 Politeness and Social Performance

Politeness is considering the other in a social interaction, and its predicted effect is more pleasant interaction. In general, politeness makes a society a nicer place to be, whether online or offline. It contributes to computing by:

  • Increasing legitimate interactions.
  • Reducing anti-social interactions.
  • Increasing synergy.
  • More software use.

Programmers can fake politeness, as people do in the physical world, but when people behave politely, cognitive dissonance theory finds that people feel polite (Festinger, 1957). So if programmers design for politeness, the overall effect will be positive even although some programmers may be faking it.

Over thousands of years, as physical society became “civilized”, it created more prosperity. Today, for the first time in human history, many countries are producing more food than their people can eat, as their obesity epidemics testify. The bloody history of humanity has been a social evolution from zero-sum (win-lose) interactions like war to non-zero-sum (win-win) interactions like trade (Wright, 2001), with productivity the prize. Scientific research illustrates this: scientists freely giving their hardearned knowledge away seems foolish, but when a critical mass do it the results are astounding.

Social synergy is people in a community giving to each other to get more than is possible by selfish activity; e.g. Open Source Software (OSS) products like Linux now compete with commercial products like Office. The mathematics of synergy reflect its social interaction origin: competence gains increase linearly with group size but synergy gains increase geometrically, as they depend on the number of interactions. In the World Wide Web, we each only sow a small part of it but we reap from it the world’s knowledge. Without polite computing, however, synergy is not possible.

A study of reactions to a computerized Chinese word-guessing game found that when the software apologized after a wrong answer by saying “We are sorry that the clues were not helpful to you,” the game was rated more enjoyable than when the computer simply said “This is not correct(Tzeng, 2004). In general, politeness improves online social interactions and so increases them. Politeness is what makes a social environment a nice place to be. Businesses who wonder why more people don’t shop online should ask whether the World Wide Web is a place people want to be? If it is full of spam, spyware, viruses, hackers, pop-ups, nagware, identity theft, scams, spoofs, offensive pornography and worms then it will be a place to avoid. As software becomes more polite, people will participate with it more and avoid it less.