“Alexa, please!”: a “polite mode” for voice assistants

culture / tech
Alexa saying "How rude!"


Manners do not come naturally to two-year-olds. We’re constantly reminding our toddler that “please” and “thank you” are magic words. “How should you ask for more milk?”, we sigh. “More milk, please!”, she yells, catching on.

As parents, we’re always looking for ways to instill and reinforce politeness in our daughter. We even try to speak courteously when speaking to our various voice assistants: “Alexa, please set a timer for five minutes.” “Hey, Siri! Could you please show the weather forecast?”

This might seem silly. After all, “Alexa” and “Siri” aren’t people; they’re front-ends for voice search algorithms. They don’t care whether we ask nicely or bark like power-mad drill sergeants.

But our daughter is paying close attention when we speak to Alexa; in fact, she’s desperate to mimic the magic incantation that conjures music out of nowhere. Often, she tries to invoke the spell herself: “Alexa, please play ‘Jingle Bells’ by Mickey Mouse!” She nearly always tosses that “please” in there; she’s practicing politeness, which feels like a 21st century parenting win.[1]

Even without an eavesdropping toddler, crafting polite voice requests might be worthwhile. The practice reinforces our own courtesy at least as much as it retrains our daughter. Because of this, I’d like to see the various voice assistants add an opt-in “polite mode”—in which the service would reject insufficiently courteous requests. Leave out the “please,” and Alexa would chirp, “I’m sorry, Matt; you didn’t say the magic word!”

Yes, getting nagged by a robot would be annoying at first. And no, voice assistants don’t care about human conversational niceties. But if our devices can help us establish exercise and meditation practices, why shouldn’t they encourage polite social habits, as well? ■


  1. Fortunately for us, our daughter can’t quite speak clearly enough for the Echo to understand her. There’s only so many times I can stand hearing Goofy belt the little-known third verse of Jingle Bells (“I went out on the snow, and on my back I fell, HYUK!”)  ↩