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Alexa, Please Play Music

By Mandy Reed, Marketing Manager (Global)

Do you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when you’re talking to a digital assistant like Alexa or Siri? Is it rude if you don’t? Does it really matter?

When I came across an article back in December exploring this topic, it gave me pause. The author, Chaim Gartenberg, argues that even though it doesn’t really matter to digital assistants if you’re being polite – they are just machines after all – that being polite to them helps reinforce positive behaviour. We speak to our devices the same way we speak to real people, in natural language, and so he comes to the conclusion that we should be polite to these digital assistants for our own benefit.

I had never really thought about this before. As I considered how I interact with voice-activated assistants, my niece popped into my head. When I first got my Amazon Dot, she was very interested in how I spoke to Alexa but was hesitant to try herself. She would regularly ask me to ask Alexa for the weather forecast or to play us music while we made dinner or tackled a craft project. Then one day she finally felt comfortable enough to ask herself and said, ‘Alexa. . .please play music.’ At the time, the fact that she said ‘please’ had made me smile to myself because she sounded so polite even though she was just talking to voice recognition software. She was illustrating the author’s point perfectly, speaking to Alexa the same way she would an actual person.

This past weekend that article came to mind once again. I wasn’t paying much attention to how my niece was asking Alexa to play music – ‘Alexa, play music’ – until she turned to me and said very matter-of-factly, ‘You don’t really have to say please.’ She was right of course. Alexa is not a person, and I had never specified that my house rule about using manners extended to electronic devices!

So often when I’m writing about customer engagement I talk about how technology is altering our communication preferences and the nature of our conversations. There are millions of articles about Millennials and how they’d rather text or get information online than make a phone call, and how organisations can take advantage of that to improve customer service. In some ways it all seems very over-hyped.

Yet, the truth is that technology has, and continues to, rapidly change how we interact and our expectations around communications. When I was young, the idea of talking to some kind of device to check the status of a bus or train, play a song list or even simply set a timer was the thing of fantasy and cartoons. Today my niece, at the ripe old age of five-and-a-half, lives in a reality that’s very different. Her world is texting, FaceTiming, Googling and not really having to say please when she asks Amazon’s Alexa to play her some music. She will never know a world without smartphones and talking to digital assistants will always be a normal part of everyday life.

I think it’s an important point Chaim raises in his article about ‘rudeness’ to digital assistants bleeding into our normal speech patterns. If we are constantly interacting with voice-activated assistants and chatbots in a blunt, please-and-thank-you-less way, will we start to interact with the real people around us in the same fashion? My inner anthropologist is intrigued with how this may impact our cultural norms and the ways my niece’s generation will communicate as they get older.

For now, I’m left with a dilemma. Do I extend my rule about using manners to include Alexa? Or will that cause me to lose some points in the family competition to be the ‘cool’ auntie? If only Alexa could please tell me what to do. . .