Better Nice Than Right*

The word “civility” is a zombie, returning to life after being brutally murdered over and over. Most people, judges in particular, use it incorrectly, in lieu of some vague expectation that people will address each other kindly, gently and with respectful appreciation of each other’s opinion, disagreement notwithstanding. The definition of “civility” is much simpler: politeness. It means using the formal norms of polite society in discourse and behavior.

The problem is that civility is used as a dodge. Remember UNC prawf Bernie Burk’s polemic against the group Law School Transparency in 2013 because, he cried, of their “toxic tone“? Only moderated rhetoric that meets the listener’s approval for “measured and thoughtful” compels a substantive response. If they’re not sufficiently civil, as per the respondent’s sensibilities, he is relieved of any duty to take the substance seriously and can rely on their incivility as reason enough to reject them.

While the heated and angry rhetoric that pervades online discourse offends many, one might think it has become sufficiently ubiquitous that we’ve gotten past the cries for civility. Sure, it’s nicer, but norms of politeness have broken down on all sides, and more importantly, isn’t it more important to get things right than get things nice?

No, according to new research from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

This “politeness bias” was uncovered by Andrew Whinston, McCombs professor of information, risk and operations management, and his collaborators and former Ph.D. students, the University of Rochester’s Huaxia Rui and the University of Connecticut’s Shun-Yang Lee.

They said in their paper they hoped to raise awareness about “how this type of cognitive bias could affect people’s decision-making processes.”

Even though people might not be polite to others, they nevertheless prefer it in return.

The researchers looked at how answers are rated on Stack Exchange, a highly popular network of more than 170 Q&A sites covering a broad range of topics. By analyzing more than 400,000 sets of questions and answers, they discovered that askers prefer responses written in respectful forms, even when the content isn’t objectively the most useful.

“If you want to give advice to someone online, you should do it politely,” says Whinston.

The politeness bias elevates form over substance. The problem isn’t that it’s just a bias in favor people receiving polite responses, which would seem too obvious to be worthy of a study. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to be informed in measured and thoughtful tones that “No, a fringe on the flag does not mean the court has no jurisdiction over you”?

On the other hand, politeness doesn’t seem to matter to the platform members who did not ask the original question. Those readers based their votes for best answer on more objective terms, the researchers say.

Stack Exchange rates answers to questions in two ways — the “best answer” chosen by the questioner and the “best answer” chosen by audience votes. The researchers found that audience members were not influenced by whether the responders were polite, probably because they did not take impolite responses personally. The questioners, however, apparently did. The researchers found one notable exception to that rule of thumb. Question askers were willing to excuse an impolite answer when the responder had high ratings on Stack Exchange, based on the number of votes that person’s previous answers had received.

This two-tier rating allowed for researchers to study the disconnect between the person who asked the original question, for whom a response was personal, and outside observers for whom it was not. The former cared more about the tone of the response, preferring a civil reply to a correct one. The latter didn’t care if a response was “impolite,” but that it was accurate.

One possible take-away is that people responding to online questions could be both accurate and polite, thus enjoying the bias of being believed based on their moderated language and simultaneously not informing the questioner that he can jump off the roof and it will all be fine. But is it that simple?

First, people often respond to questions with misinformation, not because they don’t mean well but because they have no clue what they’re talking about. We see that in Twitter Law constantly, with people vehemently asserting positions that are completely wrong, often dangerously so. And even a civil reply that their opinion might not be correct will often produce a lengthy strong of inane arguments or, more likely, an attack on your mother’s nationality. Who needs that?

Second, this discourse isn’t happening in the quiet confines of our conference room, where a person has come to you for your expertise and where you assume a duty to provide competent counsel. Somebody out there, unknown to you such that you have no clue who they are, why they’re asking, what they know and how capable they are of processing a response, has thrown out a question to the ether.

If you take it upon yourself to reply, you’re doing the “asker” a favor. You have no duty to reply. You get nothing for doing so. And, in fairness, the responder may know less about the subject than anyone else in the room, and the asker may well not be able to distinguish whether the response is reliable or utter nonsense.

Granted, rarely does calling someone a mean name evoke a pleasant show of appreciation or establish the credibility of a response. But civility isn’t just a matter of not calling jerks “jerks.” What constitutes the requisite level of civility, and avoids Bernie’s “toxic tone,” is left to the perception of the recipient of information. Are they peculiarly sensitive? Are they the sort who use the academic’s “interesting” as a substitute for “what you said is mind-numbingly stupid”?

In a rather banal twit the other day, I used the words “intellectually vulnerable” when talking about the Reid Technique, which evoked an angry reply that I was being ableist against people with intellectual infirmities. So do I tone down my words to meet the lowest common denominator? What about the lowest uncommon denominator? It’s not to suggest that being impolite is fine, even if it occasionally can’t be avoided, but that people would rather receive responses that are civil but wrong, even if means they’re going to land hard when they jump off the roof.

*This post started as a “short take,” but ended up not so short. Sorry.

15 thoughts on “Better Nice Than Right*

  1. phv3773

    At least in the parts you quote, the author of the McCombs article doesn’t seem to understand that the rudeness on some StackExchange forums is not just meaness, but functional. It began on the StackOverflow which is a tool for advanced programmers. The rudeness was intended to keep the a valuable research site from being swamped by elementary, newbie questions. This is pretty much the same as disparaging Twitter Law and referring commenters to Reddit. Understanding this goes a way to explaining why other site users don’t take exception to the incivility; they just look past it.

    StackExchange has more than a shred of enlightened oversight, and they started separate sites for the easy questions to which moderators can redirect questions, at least for programming and mathematics.

    1. SHG Post author

      The question, then, is whether this is unique to Stack Exchange (or any site crafted for high level discussion by knowledgeable people rather than dumb questions by n00bs, who are deliberately chased away) or politeness bias is a bias of general applicability.

    1. Guitardave

      Jake, Please meditate on this quote…think about how lines 2,5, and 8 counter your second sentence.
      I highly recommend reading Mr. Gurdjieff. You can thank me later.

      Faith of consciousness is freedom
      Faith of feeling is weakness
      Faith of body is stupidity.

      Love of consciousness evokes the same in response
      Love of feeling evokes the opposite
      Love of body depends only on type and polarity.

      Hope of consciousness is strength
      Hope of feelings is slavery
      Hope of body is disease.
      G.I. Gurdjieff

  2. Guitardave

    Discovered this gem a couple minutes ago, I immediately thought…Scott’s new theme song. Say it all.

    1. SHG Post author

      An excellent choice for theme, perhaps even better than my old theme song.

      (Or something by Warren Zevon)

      1. Guitardave

        Just wondering, are you going to Hershey this wknd? I was thinking about spending $10 to see how the other half plays….

  3. Pedantic Grammar Police

    On geek forums such as stack exchange, the regular participants all understand that the smartest geeks may lack social skills. People who are smarter than everyone else tend to be easily annoyed by stupid questions.

    When I started learning about computers, I was sometimes offended by rude answers, but over the years I learned that in general, the ruder responses tend to be more correct. A seasoned tech professional will be overjoyed by a rude response that correctly answers his question. Newbies, not so much. I feel sad for today’s snowflakes trying to become tech geeks. The learning curve steepens at a rate inversely proportional to skin density.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some have said I tend to be a bit terse. If there’s a one word answer to a question, that’s what I want rather than 100 nice but worthless words surrounding it. I’m busy. I do a lot. If empty formalities can be avoided, it’s not only fine with me, but preferable.

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