Theres a Bad Example on Every Desk

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-04-15 Print this article Print

There's been lots of comment about this month's report on our bad manners—formally titled "Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America," produced by Public Agenda for the Pew Charitable Trusts. So far as I know, thou

Theres been lots of comment about this months report on our bad manners—formally titled "Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America," produced by Public Agenda for the Pew Charitable Trusts. So far as I know, though, Im the first to point out that reports most glaring oversight.

This report ignores a terrible influence on our courtesy and consideration: a bad example to which were exposed, in many cases, for 3 to 7 hours of the day. Im not talking about television or even e-mail or chat rooms; Im talking about computer applications.

Software doesnt apologize, at least not in any meaningful way, when it cant do what we want. An application fails to complete an operation and leaves it to us to figure out that we need to do it over. Youd fire a retail clerk who pretended not to notice a customer, then charged the customer twice for the same purchase, but Web sites do this all the time.

Using computers deconditions our habits and practices of courtesy. Before we had PCs on almost every desk, we got things done by talking to people. White-collar workers handwrote documents for someone else to type: You could, in principle, make dozens of revisions, but you knew that you would eventually build up a level of ill will in the typing pool. You tried to get it right the first time or to tolerate less than the perfect turn of phrase. Live and let live—but now, we just want what we want when we want it.

We conduct our daily lives by interacting with software: It doesnt care whether or not we smile, and its totally insensitive to whether we gently tap the Enter key or brusquely smack it down. We become accustomed to demanding, rather than requesting, and we unlearn the skill of making someone feel good about doing what we need.

We may think that were getting used to working with these machines that treat us so badly, but we may not realize the toll that it takes. Research at MIT, measuring peoples reactions while playing video games, found that muscle tension and other physical signs of anger were more pronounced when software malfunctioned than when their character "died" in the course of the game. It looks as if wed rather do our best, or die trying, than be treated with a lack of respect.

Im not suggesting a return to a labor-intensive workplace. I am suggesting that systems can be designed with good manners in mind and that its about time we did so.

Prove me wrong with a courteous letter to

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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