The bias in “please” and “thank you”

Being polite is an evident bias, but often seen as a minor one – at its worse, equivalent to a white lie. But politeness has a more sinister side, biasing people’s perception of the truthfulness of other (see for instance why some groups failed in this study).

Especially in critical situations, politeness has a detrimental effect. When dealing with doctors reporting their medical opinions, perceived politeness is the issue:

The more severe the condition, the greater the chance that the listener construes the [use of a probability qualifier such as “possible”] as a politeness marker rather than as an uncertainty marker.

In other words, “you may have cancer” is taken as “you certainly have cancer, but I’m being polite” while “you may have a cold” is accepted at face value. The expectation of politeness clouds clarity at a critical juncture, and exaggerates the risks.

Conversely, politeness can also decrease people’s perception of risk. When companies decide – or are forced – to publish a product recall notice, their aim is to give consumers clear information and to warn them of a possible danger. But they also deploy various politeness strategies within the recall notice to protect their corporate image. These strategies don’t bias customers’ perceptions of the dangers if the risk is low. However,

[in high risk situations] the use of politeness strategies […] seems to have a negative effect on the acceptability of the recall message.

Politeness, whether present or absent, looked for or unexpected, is a source of potentially dangerous bias.

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  • Stuart!

    All I can say is that Miss Manners will have a word with you after recess from etiquette school in the detention hall…

  • Bee

    Guess who scores as the most polite city of the world ?

  • Interesting study at – although the main conclusion was that rudeness was correlated with non-success, if anything contradicting the main point here. If we interpret causally, rudeness distracts, but politeness is neutral. (Not a major fan of politeness myself, but that’s what the paper seems to say.)

  • Scott W

    Does this say that our society is biased against those who don’t conform? (certainly this is not the only example) Is politeness simply a nonconformist bias?

    This has always bothered me. If we are taught to always be polite, then what meaning do “please” and “thank you” have anymore? It seems that not being polite signals that you don’t understand (or abide by) the social norms. You are some kind of outcast (in fact, I think the first trait depicted of outcasts or rebel-types in novels or movies is impoliteness). Does the use of meaningless words bother anyone else? Am I alone here?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    although the main conclusion was that rudeness was correlated with non-success

    Yes, but the reason rudeness was correlated with non-success was because other people in the group were less trusting of the rude speaker than they should have been.

    In unsuccessful groups, rude behaviors […] by the previous speaker negatively predicted agreement

    But this behaviour was not noted in successful groups. So it doesn’t seem to be the rudeness per se, but people’s reactions to it.

    There are other papers by the same authors and (probably based on the same study, though I couldn’t access the texts). The abstracts, though, claim that politeness biases people’s evaluations in other ways as well – that more politeness on the part of a speaker will bias people towards believing him, but more rudeness will cause them to respect him more as a leader, so more likely to follow him.

    The ways of rudeness and politeness seem subtle and manifold. Which probably isn’t surprising, seeing as most people devote more of their lives to politeness and rudeness in social circumstances than practically anything else (academics being slightly exceptions).

  • Stuart Armstrong

    All I can say is that Miss Manners will have a word with you after recess from etiquette school in the detention hall…

    Just got back from my meeting with Miss Manners… My ears are still ringing… You wouldn’t believe the language she used!

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Scott W,

    Yes our society is biased against non-conformists – in certain ways. And politeness is part of it – the average person can’t afford to be rude. Politeness is signaling – signaling, at the minimum, that you aren’t insulting your hosts, that you respect their conventions, and that you’re culturally close to them.

    I feel that people can be non-polite, but only in some situations. People will only put up with someone who defies the conventions if there is something there that makes it worth their effort to really look at the person. So to be non-conformist, you have to appear exceptional. Either powerful (bosses are famously rude), or brilliant, or maybe `artistic’ (totally non-conformist). I feel that being generally conformist but also rude is the worst social position anyone can be in.

    Does the use of meaningless words bother anyone else?
    On a bias level, it does. On a human level, I’ve got used to it – it’s so prevalent, that it’s one battle you can’t win.

  • Doug S.

    Meaningless words? How about “the” and “a”? They’re basically meaningless, but we use them all the time anyway.

  • Yes, we are taught to always say “please” and “thank you”, that’s why not saying them says so much.
    Politeness is not just a convention. On the politeness axis, around the zero point, we first need to reserve space for non-recognition. How else to express that you are taking people for granted, that they are invisible, that they are like appliances, that they are not worth two seconds of your time? Routine politeness raises the baseline slightly above zero in order to make room for non-recognition underneath. If a person holds a door for you, and you want express to them that as far as you’re concerned you just walked through an automatic door, then your only option is to leave out the “thank you”. I can’t think of another way to do it. (Recognition cannot be negative.)