• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: On Being Polite

Are there times not to be?

February 9, 2017

The first line of a draft of a paper I am writing begins by describing “impure altruism” as not being meant to be making a moral statement about the donor, but rather an attempt to describe the relationship between the donor and the actual donations being made. Someone who is a “pure altruist” will be concerned only with the effects of their donations, while an “impure altruist” derives some extra reward from the act of giving. While this sounds like a ridiculously technical distinction, it is actually the issue behind some important and very different policy implications that arise when donors are “impure” rather than “pure” altruists, and is therefore an important distinction for those who study philanthropy and the Economics of the Nonprofit Sector.

I found myself thinking of this recently as I watched my daughter be anything but altruistic as she played an amazing game of basketball, one that even included her making a three-point shot. While she is not yet Stephen Curry, the energy she brought to the court amazes us. I found myself cheering for her as she tried to grab the basketball from the hands of her opponents, and then realized that there was no place in these games for the social skills of being polite that we had spent so much time teaching her when she was younger. In the midst of a game, the goal was to win, and all else went out the window.

As I reflected on this, I recalled the many times over the years that my career has involved incidents of not being polite. Perhaps because I have received multiple referee reports that are anything but polite (for good reason, I eventually realize), I make a serious effort to be respectful in my own referee reports. When a criticism needs to be made, I point the author to a source that would help them improve their paper. I don’t remember ever feeling that I needed to resort to being nasty in such a report, perhaps because I always was able to provide a positive direction for the author to take the paper.

Of course, I was reminded of this recently as I, and the rest of the country, learned that the U.S. Senate has a rule that forbids its members from being impolite to each other. The result of a fist fight over a century ago,, the rule forbids a member of the Senate from insulting another member. I began to wonder what academia would look like if such a rule was in place. And then wondered if, in “the marketplace of ideas,” such a rule would lead to better outcomes as we push forward the bounds of knowledge, or not. I concluded that, while a stinging referee report is not easy to take, it can sometimes be exactly what is needed improve work.

As if to highlight the selective need to be polite, I caught myself a few days ago making a completely ridiculous response to a computer. I had called a company to pay a bill over the phone, and proceeded through a series of computer prompts, punching in my account number, my checking account number and the amount I wished to pay, until, at the end, the computer told me “thank you.” Without thinking twice, I responded to the machine on the other end of my phone with the words “thank you.”

And so I leave my readers with two questions. What do you see as the limits of being polite in the academic world? And, do any of my readers also find themselves being polite to computers, without consciously thinking about it?



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