Thou Speakest the Purest Nonsense! – On Politeness and New Media

On: October 25, 2011
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About Roos van Tongerloo
I am Roos, I like robots, loads of shiny gadgets I cannot afford, philosophy, my own cats, the smell of an old book and words. I hate numbers; namely math, statistics, databases and phone numbers. Actually all kinds of numbers. And, although in real life I might seem like a pretty decent person, please do not try to phone me; I get nervous on the phone and will most definitely make an ass out of myself.


Even though most of our parents have taught us the basic rules of how to be a civil and polite person, we seem to apply these rules in a completely random way. No one has ever told us to be polite to animals or to technological devices but it seems like we got used to being so by the paradigm of our civilization and the social norms, which we do not quite seem to understand.

In the introduction of his essay ‘Etiquette Equality: Exhibitions and Expectations of Computer Politeness’ (Nass, 2004), Clifford Nass comes up with a neat example of what I have tried to explain above:

When my son Matthew was two years old, I told him “It’s not polite to eat so fast.” He asked, “How come you don’t yell at Honey (our dog)? She eats much faster than me.” “Dogs don’t have to be polite,” I answered. Matthew replied “Then why do you tell Honey it’s bad when she barks at someone?”

Later that day, Matthew and I were walking along the street when he pointed and said, “Look at that ugly dog.” I told him “You shouldn’t say things like that.” He said “Do I hurt a dogs feelings when I say bad things about it?” Once again, a teachable moment presented itself; like many parents, I resorted to “Let’s get some ice cream and eat it slowly.” (Nass 26)

This example clarifies my point: Politeness is the standard, but it is not clear to us under which conditions we should live up to it. In times like ours, computers fulfill more and more human functions, take over many of our tasks and the online world has become an important part of our civilization. The rules of politeness have become unclear. The recent paradigm has caused confusion. In this essay I would like to point out a few issues to do with politeness that have been influenced by the recent (technological) paradigm.

I am fine darling. Fine!

To clarify the possible confusion, we have to agree on a going definition of politeness and how it is applied. Also we should look for a reason for as why being polite is such an important value in recent society. Luckily, Zizi Papacharissi pointed out several views on politeness in her essay ‘Democracy online: Civility, Politeness, and the democratic Potential of online political Discussion groups’. According to Papacharissi, politeness can be defined as follows:

Firstly, politeness can be nothing more than a social norm. ‘Polite behavior adheres to rules of etiquette and rude behavior contradicts these norms.’ (Papacharissi 2004, p. 261) We try to be polite by adopting certain behavior such as style of speech and choice of words. The formality of the words and sentences depend on the rank of the others in conversation. The more formal the style of speech is, the more polite the speaker.

The second view on politeness could be described as the conversational-maxim view. It is based on the belief that people in conversation are rational individuals who are primarily interested in efficient communication. Therefore they will always try to suppress their emotions and opinions to minimize conflict and to promote smoother conversation. In this view, politeness means to immolate all possible causes to prevent conversational escalation. For example always answering ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ when someone asks you how you are. Or, as stated by Nass:

One of the most fundamental rules of politeness is that when one asks a question about oneself after stating one’s own opinion, the respondent is supposed to agree. (…) If the question is asked by a neutral third party, one can give an honest answer rather than be polite. (Nass 2005, p. 36)

Then there is the face-saving view. Here the person in conversation wants to be desirable, at least to one of the other people in conversation. Desirability can be achieved by polite behavior, which increases ‘positive face’. Adaptation of rude behavior causes ‘negative face’.

The fourth view incorporates elements of the former but is quite different; it states each person entering a specific conversation brings an understanding of ‘an initial set of rights and obligations that will determine the expectations of all discussants.’ (Papacharissi 162). By doing this, a social contract is formulated; the others will automatically adapt these norms. This adaptation is what makes a person polite.

All these forms of politeness are applied in everyday life, without us being consciously aware of them. However, as I stated before, the framework in which they are applied is unclear. This confusion is shown clearly in the results of a recent study by Clifford Nass:

If people apply the same politeness rules to computers that they do to other people, a computer that asked about itself would receive more positive evaluations than a different computer or paper-and-pencil inquiry about the original computer’s performance. (Nass 36)

Are you being served?

Nass made a group of people work in room full of computers, one computer each. After a while the group were asked to fill out a form of questions about the computers functioning. Some of the people had to fill in the form using the same computer they had just used; others could work with pen and paper.

The results were striking: The people who had to fill in the questionnaire on the computer were pointedly more positive about the functioning of that computer then the people using pen and paper. According to Nass this is because people apply the same rules of politeness to computers that they apply to other people. The people using the computer to answer the questions were dealing with a computer that asked people things about itself, so it would receive more positive evaluations. The people writing the answers down op paper could be a lot more negative about the computer’s performance, since they were ‘talking behind the computers back’.

This study shows how weird our conception of politeness is. We even tend to like computers more if they are from the same brand as the one we have at home. If it would ‘ask’ us for help, we would feel personally addressed because the computer reminds us of ‘someone’ who has been of help in the past.

Of course, the question is why is it inappropriate to make negative comments on – or to adept rude behavior towards – an animal and computer that doesn’t understand what is being said?

By being polite to non-human subjects we tend to convince ourselves that the dog, or the computer, has feelings just like we do. Even though there doesn’t seem to be any proof of it. It appears we are tempted to behave like this in a situation in which the subject complies with the following characteristics:

  • Language;
  • Voice (including synthetic voices);
  • Face (including dog-like faces);
  • Emotion manifestation;
  • Interactivity;
  • (Perceived) Engagement with and attention to the user;
  • Autonomy/unpredictability and;
  • The filling of roles traditionally filled by humans (for example a teacher or a telephone operator)

So, even if a computer is just able to say ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’, a person will respond in a very polite way. Though this act seems to be completely unnecessary, this strange behavior can be of use; by applying rules of politeness on non-human subjects, we practice our communication skills.

I beg you Pardon?

Although apparently we apply the rules of politeness onto computers I can’t say whether the use of computers has done our politeness any good. However, it certainly changed the way we communicate. Before the digital revolution, people in literate societies such as ours had only two ways of communication: Either face-to-face communication or at a distance by writing a letter or sending a telegram. (Baron 133) There was no way to compromise ways of communication, like we do in recent years by, for example, talking on the phone; in real time and at a distance at the same time. Or by sending an email; written text, received immediately.

These new ways of communicating required a massive change in our use of language: The writer of an email, for example, had limited space to use because the message had to fit in the screen of the receiver; it was not yet possible to scroll up and down. Also he or she did not have the time to think the message over, for it would be sent right after it was written. The politeness of most handwritten letters could not be applied to the email, which had to be spontaneous and brief in order to fit the new medium. In the words of Marshall McLuhan: The medium is (indeed) the message. Or as Baron states:

Email is more a moving linguistic target than a stable system, thereby complicating the problem of constructing a unified grammar of email. (Baron 1998, p. 144)

Also, online, there is no centralized control. There is no prescription on how to behave online, neither is there one to tell us how to formulate our email messages. This means we might feel like we do not have to be polite, simply because possibly no one would mind if we wouldn’t. And, of course, no one other than the receiver of the email can respond to possible ‘rude’ conversation or so called ‘flaming’


My bit of research shows how the impact of recent technological developments on etiquette seem somewhat paradoxical: After all, we are inclined to be polite to anyone or anything (human or not), but politeness in terms of our own use of language seems to be woefully depraved.

New ways of communication have increased the number of opportunities for polite behavior; we even apply rules of etiquette to our dogs, mobile phones and computers. However, the new media forced us to restrict our use of etiquette to the much needed. Even though we no longer have to face the limits of a tiny amount of writing space or a time limit, polite behavior seems to be much less valued then in the olden days. We even seem to use new media as tools for being rude, as you can see in the first few minutes of the following video:


Baron, Naomi. “Letters by phone or speech by other means: the linguistics of

email.” Language & Communication. 18 (1998): 133-170

Nass, Clifford. “Etiquette Equality: Exhibitions and Expectations of Computer

Politeness.” Communications of the ACM. 4 (April 2004): 35-37

Papacharissi, Zizi. “Democracy online: Civility, politeness, and the democratic

potential of online political discussion groups.” New Media & Soc

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