It's hardly news that the Internet has facilitated a rise in hostile speech. People often feel comfortable hurling abuse and threats they would never express in person, and anonymity can make matters worse. The consequences can reach beyond the screen to cause depression and even suicide. Finnish software company tietoEVRY have created what they hope is a helpful tool, a font that smooths over the worst abuses.
Known as The Polite Type, the secret to tietoEVRY's project is not the soothing shape of its letters, although the designers hope people will appreciate those as well. Rather it works like a writing assistance program to turn abusive messages into something more gentle. Anyone using The Polite Type to write “I hate you” will find their words changed to “I disagree with you.” Similarly, words associated with hate speech such as racism or sexism will be swapped with a less loaded alternative or blurred out where none is suitable.
Anyone really determined to throw insults online will find a way. Test runs here prove the font is far from infallible. However, tietoEVRY's Kia Haring thinks The Polite Type could help those with better intentions overcome their worst impulses, a sort of digital version of counting to ten before responding to something rage-inducing. "We want bullies to rethink the words they use and the actual meaning behind them,” Haring said in a statement. Sometimes just seeing an alternative phrasing could deescalate conflict.
Besides weeding out initial reactions, there is the possibility that extended use of The Polite Type will actually make people less inclined to bully others. The Sapir-Worf hypothesis holds that our language shapes our thinking. If so, using The Polite Type may make people less prone to abuse even when not at a keyboard.
On the other hand, there is a risk those who receive a message in The Polite Type will interpret anything the sender writes in the worst possible way, assuming hostility that was never there in the first place. Some consider passive-aggressiveness worse than explicit anger, and The Polite Type might encourage this.
Still, there's probably no way to find out if this approach works or not, other than to try it and see. The Polite Type has been launched with a 1,800-word vocabulary created in consultation with teenagers and Finland's Children And Youth Foundation. It's open-source, so others can add words or expressions they would like to see changed.