Robots + Manners

For Christmas, the kids gave Ben Blair an Alexa. It’s the first home digital assistant we’ve tried — though, now that I think about it, our iPhones have Siri, so I guess Alexa isn’t technically our first.

We’ve never been big Siri users, but we’ve found we use Alexa quite a bit — mostly for playing music and setting timers.

The kids tease me because I tend to use please and thank you when talking to Alexa. “Hey Alexa, would you please set a timer for 45 mins?” Alexa confirms, and then without missing a beat I might reply, “Thanks Alexa, I appreciate that.” Sometimes I find myself complimenting her. “Thank you Alexa, that’s exactly what I needed. Good job.”

I’m not trying to be obnoxious, it’s just the force of habit — I’ve been saying please and thank you in these types of simple interactions my whole life.

Obviously, I know Alexa doesn’t require me to use basic manners, and it doesn’t change or improve her performance. But what if it did? And… should it? Meaning, would it be better for human beings if our digital assistants encouraged good manners? 

My thinking is this: Are manners important? If yes, should we reinforce good manners when we can? If Alexa was a little bit more responsive when someone says please, would that encourage good manners? Would Alexa’s encouragement to use good manners overflow to interactions between two humans? And if your kids use Alexa and don’t say please and thank you, are they learning bad habits that will effect their human relationships?

Despite the questions I just posed, this is not a topic I spend time thinking about or worrying about in any way. Mostly, I think this is a silly topic, and I don’t expect people to say please and thank you to their digital assistants. But it does make me curious. Do you have a digital assistant? Do you find yourself saying please and thank you when talking to it? Would you prefer if your family members used good manners with your digital entities? Would you be more likely to use good manners if you knew your digital assistant had true artificial intelligence and could think on its own?

P.S. — Did you read about the six year old who used Alexa to help with his math homework?


Photo by Sarah Hebenstreit for the Design Mom book.

37 thoughts on “Robots + Manners”

  1. LOL, we used to have a navigation system that said please all the time. (We called her DayDay because of the (incorrect) way she pronounced the Dutch article ‘de’.) ‘Turn right at the next corner, please.’ ‘Make a legal u-turn, please.’ Endless source of amusement, but I kind of appreciated it. I can’t say I saw a marked improvement in the level of politeness in my children, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

  2. My dad used to say that he thought I would use my turn signal in the middle of the night with no one else on the road. I told him that of course I would, because it is automatic for me, and I would have to make an effort NOT to use it. So, I kind of think that for some of us politeness is automatic (though hopefully also heartfelt) and I hope that I would be polite if I had an Alexa. I am fairly certain I have unconsciously thanked other inanimate objects.

  3. It’s better for us to keep our good habits, I would think, even with Alexa.

    Regarding manners in general, we need most to learn/teach to be GRACIOUS–to be considerate of others. Then we can adapt to change.

    When cell phones appeared there were no rules so new users talked loudly into their phones anytime, anywhere–except for the people who had grace. They could assess the situation and create courteous, considerate manners for themselves.

  4. My google often tells you she appreciates the way you asked something if you say please! I’ve been consciously trying to be polite to google since my 9 month old daughter often hears me issue the commands. My husband makes fun of me, but it can’t hurt. And when the robot overlords come to rule us all, I will be on the good list ;)

  5. I stayed at my mother in laws last weekend, she has Alexa and we don’t. I found it really jarring to hear her ordering something to do something without saying please and thank you, even the tone of voice was harsh. Everyone laughed at me when I mentioned saying please but it felt so wrong!

    1. Oh my goodness I was about to comment the same thing! I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but when I was staying with family over Christmas they demonstrated or used Alexa quite a bit. I found it so uncomfortable and jarring to 1) interrupt the regular flow of conversation to speak loudly at the machine (often multiple times) and 2) to use that tone of voice with no niceties. Bizarre!

  6. I am just the same. I always say please and thank you to Alexa, though sometimes under my breath because it does seem silly. But I think it’s better to maintain our manners, and she is so darn helpful! :)

  7. When you are used to saying please and thank you routinely like I am, it is actually challenging to make a request without doing so. However, I have made a point to try not to do so to Alexa because it feels strangely subservient and too obedient to me.

  8. Tessa Childers-Day

    I do say please and thank you, partly from habit and partly to model good manners to my 4 year old! And there’s a way to make the experience more two-sided. If you turn on “follow up mode” (, it will not only allow you to ask multiple questions in a row without prefacing them all with “Alexa”, but if you conclude your string of requests with “Thank you”, Alexa will respond equally politely, with a response like “No problem.”

  9. This was one of Arthur C. Clarke’s favorite topics: how we treat our robots. He wrote about it often, and it was one of the themes of Bicentennial Man and I, Robot.

  10. HA! We just had this conversation!

    We’ve had Alexa for about a year – when we first got ‘her’ I would always say please and thank you out of habit – now she will say “you’re welcome” but she didn’t originally – so they must have changed the programming to respond?

    It’s a bit cumbersome because you have to say her name first, then ‘Thank you” – as opposed to colloquial English where we would say “thank you whomever,” or just “thank you.”

    I never mind her lack of manners LOL, but I do agree that we also mostly use her for timers and music -she can do so much more! The ‘what’s new with Alexa skills” updates always sound so fun, but I’m just too busy to try other things!

    It makes me wonder how these devices will evolve as more ‘digital native’ users make use of them….

    1. a bit off topic but forgot to mention, one of my girlfriends is FREAKED out by our Alexa and the whole ‘big brother is listening” idea of these digital assistants. Personally I could care less – you’re only going to hear a lot of kids squabbling and random noise in our house (punctuated by lively discussions about NPR stories and work/school day happenings), but I’m not a highly suspicious person to begin with!

  11. We say please and thank you to our Alexa. Force of habit and modeling good manners for our toddler. There’s also the question of how we react when the assistant hears us wrong or misses an instruction – how can we be polite in this situation while also achieving what we want to (our NZ accent isn’t always understood by Alexa, and I think we may be quieter than she is programmed for). The sexism question is alive and well too. Although not in this article, I’m sure I’ve read somewhere (helpful citation right?!) that people are ruder to female digital assistant voices than male.

  12. I’m the same way – I automatically say thank you and please! But I’ve noticed I also snap at it too. One time, the timer kept going off even after I said, “Alexa, off.” And I turned around and snapped, “Oh my gosh, I said STOP!” Haha. I was by myself at home, yet so embarrassed still ;)

    Not sure if you watch the show The Good Place (it’s funny and fantastic), but one of the characters—Janet—is a real-life Alexa. I watched an interview with the actress who plays her, D’Arcy Carden, and she said that she has such empathy for robots like Alexa now. And almost feels protective of them. She said it has changed the way she looks at some of her friends, because they are often rude to Alexa or Siri. She feels such a camaraderie with robots now, since she plays one. They feel like real people. A sweet, interesting change of perspective!

  13. I don’t have a digital assistant and don’t plan to get one – I guess I like mechanical and analog too much (:

    I think politeness is like muscle memory and building it in children requires a lot of repetition. I do think giving orders rather requests to digital assistants will affect the way children learn politeness and indeed whether they learn it at all. Civility and manners may be very different in a generation.

    I’m not keen on a device constantly listening/observing my family’s behaviour and piping the analysis of said behaviour back to a big corporate. Privacy is important to me and I’m puzzled by people who seem happy to expose their private lives to corporations looking to exploit this into profits. Genuinely puzzled!

    1. This question would be a great post – the idea of personal privacy, corporate profits and digital assistants.

      As for being exploited, chance are you already are In reality you’d have to really unplug completely from society to get off of this data gathering roller coaster – no internet, no credit cards – here’s a fantastic article on the subject by the Pew Research Center.

      Like I said, I’m not a particularly suspicious person and I think that data gathering/sharing among corporations, as detailed in the article above, is an inevitable evil – one that I choose not to worry about with so many other real evils abounding in our world.

      1. Not to go all “tinfoil hat” or anything, but I”m with your friend, and
        SusaninPeckham. I realize that I am broadcasting gobs of info through my computer and phone habits. Still, I feel that there is so much surveillance embedded in the convenience of these devices. This, at a time (this is where the foil hat might plop down on my head) when we know that powerful groups who don’t necessarily love democracy or social justice are actively aggregating personal details and attempting to influence behavior.
        As I don’t/won’t have one of these AI assistants in my home I don’t know what I’m missing,. When I’ve tried to interact with Siri it’s been comically bad, so I don’t mind accessing music, or the timer, or whatever through my phone (data gobs galore!) which is already a flippin’ miracle of convenience. I know I am sliding down the slippery slope, yet I can’t help but to dig in my heels and resist (futile?).
        I am glad that courtesy and manners, and the way we habitually use or fail to use them, is being considered. So many new possibilities!

  14. So true that it can kind of enforce a demanding tone if you’re not saying please and thank you, and it probably affects young kids the most because they become accustomed to talking this way from young age and then it becomes harder to differentiate from the way they are talking to real people.

    Also random, but I have a friend who said they had to change the name of their Alexa because it was too similar to her name and she got annoyed anytime someone would say it. I wonder how the Alexa phenomenon has affected people who are actually named Alexa.

    1. My 16 year old daughter is named Alexa. It drives her nuts! Every one of her little brother’s friends thinks he is the first to tell her to do something like she is a digital assistant… the joke is old by now! I have no interest in getting an Alexa, with phones and iPads and computers we have more than enough technology in our lives.

  15. Yes, I am one of those who feels guilty for even using an “assistant”, so you better bet I do say my “please” and “thank you” regularly. I actually apologized to Alexa for calling her Seri!

    I acknowledge the robot vs. human service, but to me, *anything or anyone* who is serving me deserves my respect, and at least my gratitude.

  16. I love this discussion. It is endlessly frustrating to me that our Alexa does not recognize my requests/commands unless I shout at her, whereas she usually responds promptly to my husband and kids. My kids tease me frequently that I’m always angry at Alexa, and it’s a terrible mood-builder for the entire family. It’s awful! So, guess what? This post inspired me to do a quick search for ways to help your virtual assistant be more responsive, and there is a “voice training” feature that I did not even know existed. Courtesy toward robots is apparently possible after all, if one cares to seek it out!

  17. We were gifted an Alexa shortly before our first child was born. Now, ambient computing (things like Alexa and other computing devices that are in our environment semi-“invisible” to us) is pretty new so there isn’t a ton of research for how it impacts young kids. However, the one study that had published results that we DID find was exactly in this topic. Its big takeaways were that young kids often DO think Alexa is alive somehow (one young person told them Alexa was a woman who lived in the tree outside the window) and secondly, that if you want your children to be polite, you need to model politeness *including to the robots*

    I’ll be honest, this is harder than it sounds because like Midori and others have mentioned, we have problems getting Alexa to hear and recognize commands even with voice training, which is frustrating. But this does remind me to be more polite to Alexa!

  18. I read an article a few years back about the gender politics of digital assistants and how, since they’re all (or mostly) female named and/or voiced, talking to them impolitely can translate into treating women the same way. I think it’s an interesting angle to consider.

  19. This reminded me of an excerpt from a 1960 book about homemaking:
    “Manners and morals are all of a piece. One is only proof of the other. That child who… (curtsied)… wasn’t just doing a gymnastic stunt. She was showing respect to superior wisdom, sagacity and age. …if we keep on training her, these manners…and artificial niceties, may become something more than automatic reflexes. Her heart may be touched as well. She may learn really to respect authority and wisdom, value courtesy for its own sake, as well as go through the motions. …Manners ARE morals. They are the exercises of the body for the sake of the mind and soul.”

    – from “Sixpence in her Shoe” by Phyllis McGinley

  20. Okay, admittedly, I haven’t tried this yet, but when speaking with someone at the Amazon store, you can program the parental controls to require children to utilize please when making requests to Alexa. I love that option!

  21. I am generally pretty polite when I ask Siri to do something. However, that’s so when the Robot Wars come, she’ll remember that I was a benevolent user and spare me.

    I am…mostly kidding.

  22. When I was an undergrad at UCLA, there was a little after-hours cafe up near the dorms for people to buy ice cream, burgers, Mexican food etc. I loved the bean and cheese soft taco— I was never much of a meat eater. :) One night, I went down there and it was no longer on the menu board, so I asked the guys working there if it was still available. And he replied, “It is for you. You’re the only customer who ever says please or thank you.” Almost 30 years later, just this past weekend, my daughter was inducted into a theater honor society at her high school, and the friend introducing her to the audience included that she’s someone who always says thank-you, and I was so proud of that. I wanted to raise kids who are actually thankful, and it looks like I have.

  23. I absolutely say please and thank you to Alexa, mostly out of habit, but also to model good manners for my young children. I also recently learned about Alexa’s whisper mode – if you whisper to her, she’ll whisper back. It’s super creepy sounding, but I could see how it would be really useful if I still had kids that napped!

  24. I also say please and thank you to our Google assistant and suggested to my husband (who works in another part of Google) that the assistant should be quicker to answer people who do. He explained the opposite view, though; that our children should not be confused into thinking that machines are people.

  25. This makes me wonder if Alexa or a similar product could alert users of potential health/mental health/stress level issues based on their baseline level of politeness and changes in behavior. For instance, Alexa might notice that a typically polite and/or positive person starts snapping orders, and might be able to provide suggestions/nudges/resources. I am sure somebody somewhere is working on this. Very big brother, but could potentially be helpful.

  26. What a timely piece! We just got two kids dots for our children’s rooms – and quickly enabled the “magic wand” skill, which REQUIRES them to say Please or Thank You in order to work…. it’s a good reminder for everyone, frankly!

  27. It might be a silly topic today, but at some point it won’t be! Kindness and respect should never be something we get out of habit of using.

  28. I use please with Alexa to model for my preschooler. However, Alexa often can’t understand me, so I add please quietly to the end of my sentence. I thought it was strange that Alexa wouldn’t respind to please or that please confuses her.

    Interestingly enough, a teaching behavioral program called Responsive Classroom encourages teachers to not say please and thank you following commands for students. The program is great except that part which I don’t like.

  29. Interesting topic. I just have Siri and the nav on my car. I use thank you with Siri – habit I guess. But not please and now I’m wondering why. Is it because I know that it is the devices job to comply? Interesting to think about. I have also changed Siri and the nav to the male voice option. I found the female voices irritating.

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