Best answer

How politeness and civility make people more persuasive. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Sometimes, time is short. You've got something to say, and you want to make it stick.

If so, you’ll want to know about a study in the journal MIS Quarterly that suggests a simple trick to make arguments seem more persuasive. It's called the “politeness bias.”

The researchers (Shun-Yang Lee of the University of Connecticut, Huaxia Rui of the University of Rochester, and Andrew Whinston of the University of Texas at Austin) studied conversations on Stack Exchange, which is a network of question-and-answer websites and communities.

The key thing they found: The more polite an answer was, the more likely it was to be rated highly and chosen as the "best answer."

It's not ironclad. If the person offering an opinion was perceived as a true expert, that could overcome an impolite response, the researchers said. But all other things being equal, impolite answers were less likely to be regarded as correct.

Here's an example, cited in a summary by Cornell University's Amy Newman. A gig worker had asked for advice on how to transfer earnings into his or her bank account. You’ll see the difference in the answers immediately:

  • Polite answer: "Based on the explanation in the worker platform instruction, one will need to specify the amount s/he would like to transfer. This amount should not be greater than what is available for transfer. If this is the first time transferring, then bank information, such as routing and account numbers, is also required.

  • Impolite answer: You need to check the worker platform instruction more carefully before posting the question, as the answer can be found there very easily. Just go to the Earnings page and enter the amount you wish to transfer (make sure this amount is not greater than what is available for transfer.) Just remember that if it's your first time transferring money to a bank account you will also need to enter your bank account information (routing and account numbers) otherwise AMT won't know where to transfer the money to.

The substance of the answers is almost identical, but the first one—the one that doesn't include the condescending recommendation that the person asking the question check the instructions more carefully before asking—wound up rated higher.

Newman linked this to another interesting study, that showed that well-written reviews increased product sales, even if the review took a negative view of the product being sold. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it does go to show that form sometimes beats function.

So, a few takeaways:

  • We're talking about a single website here, and written communications only. That said, it's a situation in which the people asking the questions and the people answering them don't know anything else about each other. So that should eliminate some other biases.

  • All else being equal, it seems to be a matter of tone, more than simply using polite words like please and thank you. Although, those don't seem to hurt.

  • I’ve written most of this from the perspective of someone who wants to be persuasive. I think it’s also worth watching for this tendency ourselves—meaning, guard against judging a friendly, polite, or well-spoken argument higher for non-substantive reasons.

I think we do that all the time in life. In the case of a website like Stack Exchange, where "politeness bias" is a problem (they want the best answers to rise to the top, not the most polite ones), they’ve now tried to adjust for that, by referring to top answers as “accepted,” rather than “best,” as Peter Coy at Bloomberg pointed out.

The whole thing reminds me of the classic debate over whether it's a good thing to teach people to be more persuasive, because inevitably some people who are incompetent or have indecent motives will use the persuasiveness techniques to spread wrong or malicious ideas.

But I don't know what to do about that. In the meantime, if you want to spread good ideas, all other things being equal: be polite, check your grammar, and don't insult the people you're trying to convince.

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7 other things worth your time

  • President Biden outlined a series of executive actions related to gun control Thursday, including efforts to crack down on homemade “ghost guns,” and to make it easier for family members to “flag” people whose mental state suggests they shouldn’t have guns. The announcement came a day after a mass shooting in South Carolina that took five lives (plus the gunman, a former NFL player), and a few hours before a gunman killed one person and wounded five others at an office park in Texas. (NBC News, Yahoo News, CNN)

  • “Federal investigators are looking into a Bahamas trip [Congressman] Matt Gaetz allegedly took … as part of an inquiry into whether the Florida representative violated sex trafficking laws. … Investigators are trying to determine if the escorts were illegally trafficked across state or international lines for the purpose of sex with the congressman.” (CBS News)

  • If your sleep is messed up during the pandemic, you are not alone. (I repeat, from personal experience: You Are Not Alone.) “Approximately 40% of the population has had sleep problems during the pandemic.” (WSJ)

  • This is a story that will mean a lot to a relatively narrow slice of people, specifically those who travel out of Reagan National Airport in Washington: the most-hated gate in the airport is no more. I guess I’m showing my odd parochialism, but since I was one of those people for about 10 years, it caught my eye. (WashPost)

  • The U.S. Forest service says more than 5,000 people showed up for a Facebook-organized party in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona that led to a bunch of DUI arrests, seven vehicle accidents, and one injured person being medevaced by helicopter. Even without the pandemic, you’re supposed to get a permit for a gathering of more than 75 people. (The Drive)

  • Good customer service story: Girl, aged 7, writes to Old Navy with a suggestion: “Would you consider making girls jeans with front pockets that are not fake? Thank you for reading my request.” In response, Old Navy sends her four pairs of jeans with front pockets (and graciously doesn’t mention that most of its jeans actually do have pockets like the girl wanted). Inspired by her example, I will soon be writing a letter to Ferrari asking them if they would please consider making cars with the engine in the back. (Good Morning America)

  • OK, after I wrote yesterday about squirreling away money and never doing anything with it until death, I have to share this. NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal was caught on video in an Atlanta jewelry store, after paying for a random customer’s engagement ring. He apparently does this kind of thing all the time. I am legally obligated here to make a joke here about how Sylvia Bloom might have been better from the free throw line than Shaq, but even people who’ve never watched an NBA game have to enjoy seeing something like this.


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library on Flickr. I’ve written about the study before at Inc.com. If you’re not a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. (Want to see all the things I’ve gotten wrong? Click here.)

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