4.7 Politeness and Etiquette

It is a mistake to define politeness as “being nice” to the other party, as some do (Nass, 2004). Nass gives the example where someone says “I’m a good teacher; what do you think?” and argues that polite people respond “You’re great”, even when they do not agree. He calls agreeing with another’s self-praise one of the “fundamental rules of politeness” (Nass, 2004, p36). Yet one can politely refuse, beg to differ, respectfully object and humbly criticize, i.e. disagree politely. Conversely one can give to a charity in a rude way, i.e. be nice but rude. Being polite is thus different from being nice, as parents who are polite to their child may not agree to let it choose its own bedtime.

To apply politeness to computer programming, we must define it in information terms. Given the current definition of considering others, then as different societies consider others differently, what is polite in one culture is rude in another. In one culture it may be polite to kiss on the cheek, while in another that could be taken to be rude. There is no universal polite behavior, so there seems no basis to apply politeness to the logic of programming. Yet while different countries have different laws, the human goal of fairness that lies behind the law can be attributed to every society (Rawls, 2001). Likewise, different cultures could have different etiquettes but a common goal of considering others, i.e. politeness. In Figure 4.1, the physical practices of vengeance, law and etiquette derive from human level concepts of unfairness, legitimacy and politeness.

So while societies implement different practices of vengeance, law and etiquette, the aims of avoiding unfairness, enabling legitimacy and encouraging politeness remain the same. It follows that just as legitimacy is the spirit behind the law, so politeness is the spirit behind etiquette. So just as legitimacy lets us generate new laws for online cases, so politeness lets us generate new etiquettes for online cases. Etiquette and law are the information level reflections of the human level concepts of politeness and legitimacy.

If politeness can take different forms in different societies, to ask which implementation applies online is to ask the wrong question. This is like asking a country which of another country’s laws they want to adopt, when laws are generally home grown for each community. Countries do not copy laws from other countries, they appropriate them, i.e. adapt them to their own case. Likewise the question is not how to copy customs like shaking hands to online meetings, but how to reinvent politeness online, whether for chat, wiki, email or other groupware. Just as different physical societies develop different local etiquette and laws, so online communities will develop their own ethics and practices, with software playing a critical support role. While different applications may need different politeness implementations, we can develop general design “patterns” to specify politeness in information terms (Alexander, 1964).