Many in our modern society bemoan the loss of politeness. It is so rare that people are often surprised or even suspicious when someone else shows them what used to be called “common courtesy.”
A Famine Where There Should Be Plenty
Politeness or courtesy appears to be in ever-shorter supply for many reasons. Automobile traffic brings out the worst in many of us. Internet platforms like Facebook abound in disrespectful and vulgar language. Some feminists dismiss common courtesies as leftovers of patriarchal oppression. Some even see impoliteness as a manifestation of power and control over those who have no choice but to accept bad treatment.
The root cause of impoliteness, however, is our society’s slide toward ever radical manifestations of egalitarianism. All are equal, the theory goes, therefore there should be no social distinctions. What some call politeness is simply a way to perpetuate old and harmful power structures.
Politeness is much more than just formula and practices. It is something that touches upon human dignity and respect. Politeness can be defined as the display of respect that is appropriate to the relationship in question. The level of deference owed to parents is different from that owed to children. Neighbors, colleagues, friends, the children of friends, and strangers are all owed politeness, but the exact actions will vary according to the dignity of office, or closeness of the relationship.
Humanity is starving for want of politeness; so much that in one situation, politeness is something of a problem.
The tech-oriented website, Stack Exchange, is that place. According to the site, it is “the largest, most trusted online community for developers to learn, share their knowledge, and build their careers.”
Stack Exchange works straightforwardly. Those web developers who need solutions can post their questions on the forum. Others reply with solutions based on their experience in the field. Users vote on one of the proposed solutions and then determines it as the “best answer.”
The site reports that polite answers are given more credibility than impolite ones. Therein lies the problem. The most effective solution is not necessarily the one that is presented politely. The tendency to place more credibility in the polite answer has a name – “politeness bias.”
This bias is the topic of a report titled, “Is Best Answer Really the Best Answer? The Politeness Bias” by Shun-Yang Lee, Huaxia Rui, and Andrew B. Whinston and published in MIS Quarterly.
In the abstract to the paper, the authors say, “quality assessment is subjective by nature… Our analyses, based on both the Stack Exchange dataset and the randomized experiment, lend strong support to the existence of a politeness bias, which affects question askers’ subjective evaluation of answer quality.”
Thus, readers are more willing to accept polite answers as accurate, even if more crude yet productive choices exist.
Politeness and Human Dignity.
The lesson of Stack Exchange is profound. When an informed person is courteous, that person respects the human dignity of someone who needs information.
That is why politeness is so important and naturally leads to a bias. One way we can help return to an ordered society is to accord to each person the respect that is deserved. The sign of a brilliant professor is not the amount of knowledge he may have but also an ability to communicate those that learning clearly, respectfully and without undue condescension.
Thus, Our Lord Jesus Christ provides an excellent example of how He treated all, even His enemies, with due courtesy and respect. He was polite to notorious sinners – Matthew the Publican and Mary Magdalene as His Grace secured their conversion. He maintained His demeanor even when met with hostility.
To emulate Our Lord, we must often say that which our hearers do not want to hear. That is all the more reason that we must do it with all the politeness that we can summon. Perhaps those who are starving for courtesy might hear the truth and be converted to it. This is a task of all who call themselves Christians.