The Phenomenon of Airbnb and “Forced Civility” – How Home-sharing Has Made Us Better People


The phenomenon of Airbnb and “forced civility.” How home-sharing has made us better people.

I don’t think I waited for my college acceptance email with this much anxiety.

The Todd and I wanted to take the kids to the Maine coast and we’d found the most perfect little cottage, a dreamy Airbnb with the dates we needed wide open. So we sent off our friendly little note about families, sand and lobster. As I hovered over the keyboard I wondered, does another traveler have a better five-star rating than ours? With warmer recommendations?

Fortunately, we got the cottage and I’m packing flip-flops and sunblock as we speak. But the whole afternoon of anxiety makes me ponder the new phenomenon of “forced civility.”

Think about it. I like to believe I’m a nice person. I go out of my way to thank people for a job well done because I know we all like to complain more than compliment. But the days of incivility and casual rudeness are coming to an end and it’s due – at least in part – to the new trend of rating your experience on a site for everyone to see.

It’s not just Airbnb, there’s also Uber and Lyft – where if it comes down to picking up you or someone else at 2am outside a bar, the driver’s going with the passenger who “Tips well! Was really nice!” Wouldn’t you? 

The importance of five stars next to your name is becoming an actual commodity, the numbers that put you first in line. Dr. Robert Cialdini explains some of the key elements involved in the phenomenon in his excellent book, Influence, which is the bible of the marketing industry right now. The book teaches the delicate art of getting people to always say “Yes.” What it essentially seems to boil down to are three key elements: accountability, sincerity, and reciprocity.


Reciprocity is key: the Airbnb host increases the effort to offer a comfortable, beautiful space with thoughtful touches and courteous assistance. In return, the guest goes out of their way to be tidy, pleasant and considerate. Each is pleased with the other’s efforts and feels respected. The host gives an enthusiastic review for the guest, telling others they’ll be pleased to have them in their home. The guest is certain to point out the admirable qualities of the space and how responsive their host was to their needs. Both give a five-star rating to the other. And their excellent, respectful behavior is rewarded.

Would this exchange have been as lovely and accommodating if there had not been a public review under their names? I’d like to think so, but I do know that I might be inclined to be more nit-picky with a hotel stay than in someone’s home, maybe less inclined to point out the positive elements of my time there.

What else drives us to become the pleasant and lovely human beings we are?


Sincerity gives me hope that this isn’t just a temporary fix to our grumpy selves. Airbnb urges us to share a bit about ourselves, why we’re coming to town, who’s with us. This just ended the impersonal exchange that might make me slack off on those good manners Mom tried to instill in me as a child. (Mom tried. Oh, how she tried.) Instead, I’m aware the host “knows” me. I can’t be rude! I’m a guest! 

My best girlfriend Carlie runs a bustling Airbnb flow of guests in and out of her mother-in-law suite, and she says she feels the pressure to be sincere, too. “Here I’ve got this nice mom and dad bringing their daughter to town to drop her off at school. They’re in my home. I want to make them comfortable- it’s kind of an emotional time. So I left a list of favorite college spots for eating, clubbing, hanging out – they thanked me three times.” After sharing these small, personal moments with someone who was a stranger just last week how could you turn into Tourist Monster? You’ve shared a thing. You owe them your best behavior.


Accountability is another important element in the sharing economy. According to You Get What You Give, the Airbnb “bilateral reputation system” rewards popular hosts with more traffic and higher rates. It also puts highly-rated guests in a better position during periods of high demand. But now you have to keep that sweet and pleasant act going. It may be forced initially, but civility becomes a way of life.

My buddy Kevin is a veteran traveler, he’s on the road at least six months of the year. He’s also an Airbnb darling- I told him he should send these reviews to his parents, they’re that good. Kevin groaned. “Yeah, but now I have to be Nice Kevin all the time! I never get to be Snotty Kevin or High-maintenance Kevin like in the good old days of anonymous hotels!” 

So I pushed it. “Yeah, but do you really miss Snotty, High-maintenance Kevin?”

He rolled his eyes. “I dunno, it’s been so long since I got to be those guys that I don’t even remember.”

Success! The crankiest friend I had in college has turned into Nice Kevin for good!


So maybe that’s the end result here. We’re driven to be kind and considerate for that coveted five stars. And somewhere along the way… that’s who we become.

Hmmm… perhaps this is how dating sites should be run.

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