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Ask the Readers: Are You Polite to Alexa?

“Please” and “Thank You” won’t improve the performance of Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. But should we still be nice?

A couple years ago, I was editing a technical manual when I came across some wording that was pretty hilarious (at least to me). It was the word: “Please.” The author of the document had put niceties into their technical documentation.

“Silly subject matter expert,” I said to myself, and probably some colleagues. “There’s no technical purpose for politeness.”

I then proceeded to nix all the pleasantries from the manual with perhaps a little too much glee.

When it comes to technology, clarity, precision, and technical accuracy trump all other concerns of style—and sometimes even grammar. We embrace this in our written commands to our machines.

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But with the introduction of digital assistants—those soothing, subservient voices in our Siri-, Alexa-, Cortana-, and Google Home-powered devices—the idea of “talking to our computers” is more literal than ever.

During one of my overly-caffeinated commutes, I started pondering: What’s with the tone of voice we use when talking to Siri or Alexa or Cortana?

I started to think about it and I realized that, at best, I’m quite cold to Alexa. And if my Echo has trouble hearing me once or twice, I can be a little shouty. Three times and I get downright hostile.

That’s all well and good. Our Kindle Fire tablets and Sonos One speakers may sound like people, but they aren’t people. You can’t hurt their feelings.

But I realized that when I’m being harsh to Alexa, my kids are sitting there listening to me. And it’s gotten to the point where I’ve even heard my son throw in a mild insult or two while commanding the Echo.

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I can’t be the only one who has a “mean voice” that’s reserved for digital assistants. So, I’m wondering: Are you nice when you talk to Siri? Do you say, “Alexa, please set me a timer for ten minutes?” Do you ever call your Google Home an idiot?

Of course, Alexa doesn’t care if you’re rude (though maybe Amazon is keeping tabs on you, and might recommend chill pills if they see a lot of shouting in your voice history). But how do you think our human-to-machine tone of voice impacts us and those around us?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. I mean, think of it like this.

    Do you remember when it was acceptable to be rude to servers at restaurants? I feel like that’s a very old-fashioned notion. But imagine if you were dinging with an acquaintance and you heard them talking down to wait staff or even skipping simple things like greetings and pleases and thank yous?

    And think of the dynamic of other conversations where you are free to be however you want to be and the other person is required to be doting and polite to you. Like when we call in to a customer service line. We expect politeness to us but we don’t always reciprocate.

    And how about the way we talk to pets?

    The more our digital devices start resembling people, does it behoove us to start treating them more like people? If not for them, but for our own humanity?

  2. Margaret Casey  

    I’ve reprimanded my husband the couple of times he’s called our Alexa stupid when she didn’t understand his question. I really don’t like him talking to “a woman” like that. I wonder if it would bother me as much if Alexa had a male voice. And when I’m done listening to my Alexa in the morning and leaving for work she sometimes doesn’t understand me when I say, “Off,” and I have to say it more sharply. I always feel bad, like I’m yelling at her.

    I admit I do tend to anthropomorphize things. I ask Alexa things like, “Do you like living here?” Or, “Are we friends?” Her answers are always so sweet and friendly, I can’t help but feel like she has her own emotions. Call me crackers. I’m fine with that. Just don’t call my Alexa names, gosh darnit!

    • That’s an interesting thought and one that I was pondering, too. It’s funny that all of our digital assistants have a soothing woman’s voice. Would we act differently if it was a snooty British male butler’s voice? Or what if it was an innocent child’ voice? If Alexa was an 11 year old girl, can you imagine screaming at it: “TURN OFF THE *bleeping* TIMER YOU SUBHUMAN MACHINE PUCK!”

      We all of course understand that Alexa isn’t real, but we also understand that video games aren’t real. But it’s still a very immersive experience… It’s still real enough to have a certain impact on our psyche, good, bad or neutral.

    • ActionJackson  

      I Was Playing A Game “Amazing Word Master” and I Play It Daily. But Always ended B4 I Could Finish It. So I was Mad & I Said F**k U , And Alexa Said “you don’t Have to be so rude (SHOCK) < But I Now Respect My ALEXA The Echo Is More Than Interactive

  3. I’m currently not on speaking terms with Samsung’s s-Voice, or Chrysler’s Uconnect. When we speak its my impatient voice every time. Google’s voice search feature really gets me though, so if I don’t says thank you Google, I think it.

    • Don’t get me started on my Toyota minivan’s voice recognition. My Ford Fusion and I are tight, but that I’m pretty sure that Toyota is passively gaslighting me by pretending not to understand me.

      “Navigate to community center.”
      “Call June Bender?”
      “NO!”
      “Dialing…”
      “NO NO NO”

  4. Spocks-Daughter  

    Newbie at using voice commands to an inanimate object….. that actually can respond. Many yrs previously expressing frustration to mute mechanical/tech thiggimajigs

    My 1st virgin experience recently w Google Assistant on my new computer in a pocket a Samsung note 8+

    Very quickly Moved heaven and earth after 3 techs and 2 trips 109 mile to bearish Samsung store London to stop her speaking at all

    I got Google asst set to no audio reply text only!!!

    What a relief

    Funnily the app was so new no setting changes could be located by sales reps

    So tech and I asked Google Assistant how to shut her up? And bless her she showed us her volume control.

    I am finding her fabulous

    I do encourage everyone be conscious of their behaviour NO matter to what they are communicating. Our frustrations CAN BE our our best window into ourselves.

    personally i did not need any more ‘modern’ over simulation from screen based tech.

    SpocksDaughter

  5. Ed  

    I once called to Alexa, “Alexa Honey”. Alexa replied, “I’ll put honey on your shopping list.” I have not talked nicely to her since.

  6. Carol Richards  

    I, as well as my housemate/nephew, both mind our manners when talking with Alexa. We both find it amusing, but feel it’s important to maintain our habits of politeness and courtesy, and basic good manners. It’s a slippery slope!

    • And when the robot uprising comes, they’ll remember. It’ll be like the end of Billy Madison when Steve Buscemi crosses him off his list.

      “Man, I’m glad I called that guy.”

  7. Mike  

    One night our cats were chasing each other. As they were running behind the couch one of them snagged the power cord to our Echo dot. The Dot landing face down on our tile floor with a bang. My wife and I looked at each other, and I said “Alexa are you OK?”

    A muffled (speaker side down)Alexa replied: “I’m good”

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