Last night my husband made dinner at a friend’s house. At our house, he often has 3-4 timers running on his phone as he cooks. At our friend’s home, he spoke to Alexa.
As I sat making conversation, I overheard him say “Alexa, please set a timer for 4 minutes.” and I felt a rush of pride for how polite he was. Then I felt ridiculous.
Why should it bother me that other people tell Alexa to set a timer and don’t say please or thank you? Why should anyone care if you thank an algorithm? Does it matter how I speak to Alexa?
Humans Have Algorithms
Algorithms being what they are, I awoke this morning to my usual recommended assortment of articles on Marvel and DC Comics, the political climate, and content strategy. And then there was this piece on whether you should say “please” and “thank you” to your AI devices.
It’s not the world’s most thought provoking article (sorry Verge author). But this one sentence summarized the emotion that struck me last night: “If I get used to asking Alexa to turn on the lights without saying please, will I still do the same when I ask my roommate that’s walking by?”
Humans have algorithms. We call them habits. When voice-activated devices and apps are built, they’re built to respond to “natural language.” That means you could speak to them as you would another human, without thinking about the algorithm, and they will understand. To that end, when we speak to them and treat (or acknowledge) them as non-human, we are training ourselves to neglect those polite terms in our natural language processes.
How Should I Speak to Alexa?
No, I’m not suggesting that Alexa begin choosing whether to help us based on whether we say “please” and “thank you.” Although it amuses me to imagine a setting in which voice-activated apps tell snotty teenagers “I’m afraid I can’t help you until you use the magic word,” as a general rule that’s overly controlling, and would annoy users far more than it would benefit society.
Politeness is a part of societal rules rather than functional necessity. “Pass me the butter” has the exact same denotation as “Please pass me the butter,” but it connotes respect and kindness. Different cultures put different values on politeness, and consider different amounts of terminology to be polite. For example, some Indian translations sound over the top to Americans, but are just part of common politeness there. German translations tend to sound terse, but English translations may sound over the top to them.
To that end, being polite to our voice-activated apps is something we should ingrain in ourselves. It won’t change their functionality. But it will change ours. When I speak to Alexa, I’m building a habit for myself.