Are Siri and Alexa making us ruder?

"Hey Siri ..."
"Hey Siri ..." Photo: Getty Images

"Hey Siri, turn the lights on."

"Hey Siri, what's the temperature today?"

Barking orders at virtual assistants, with no please or thank you, is a feature of many modern lives. But is the way we treat Siri and Alexa making us ruder to other humans? 

Well, the short answer is no - at least not yet.

Researchers from Brigham Young University, surveyed and observed 274 adults as part of a study presented at the Americas Conference on Information Systems - and found the opposite of what they predicted.

"Worried parents and news outlets alike have fretted about how the personification of digital assistants affects our politeness, yet we have found little reason to worry about adults becoming ruder as a result of ordering around Siri or Alexa," said co-author James Gaskin. "In other words, there is no need for adults to say "please" and "thank you" when using a digital assistant."

The results surprised Gaskin and lead author Nathan Burton who expected to discover that the way we treat digital assistants would filter into other interpersonal relations. According to their assessment however, Siria and Alexa just aren't "personified enough" by adult users to affect human-to-human interactions.

That said, Gaskin and Burton believe the results could well be different if the study was repeated on children. And they're not the first to raise such concerns about the so-called "Alexa Generation".

A 2018 report from CHILDWISE in the UK found that four in ten children aged 9-16 were already using voice recognition devices at home. "We are on the tipping point with this technology and it is about to become mainstream for children," said Simon Leggett, research director at CHILDWISE adding that this is likely to have implications around how children will learn to communicate.

 "Will children become accustomed to saying and doing whatever they want to a digital assistant 'do this, do that' – talking as aggressively or rudely as they like without any consequences," he continued. "Will they then start doing the same to shop assistants or teachers?"

Amazon later released a politeness feature called "Magic Word" to encourage kids to say "please" and "thank you" when speaking to Alexa, something Mr Leggett told the BBC was a "very positive development."

"Younger children will enjoy having the added interactivity, but older children may be less likely to use it as they will be more aware it's a robot at the other end," he said.

Australian digital parenting expert Martine Oglethorpe agrees it's an issue we need to be considering more carefully. "As the AI and bots become more humanised, they too may well be learning from our behaviours," she says. "While we have oft been known to yell at a jammed printer or frozen screen with little repercussions, the technology is developing in such a way that the robots are beginning to mimic our behaviours and may well be doing the jobs humans once we probably want them to be speaking nicely too! "

But will our children become ruder if they're allowed to drop their manners when engaging with technology? "Possibly but not necessarily," Ms Oglethorpe says. "Like many things in the digital world the research is still very new and methods are often flimsy to gather this type of data."

As such, she notes, it makes sense that we should err on the side of caution, or at least be more mindful of our behaviours with technology. "Obviously it is the human interactions and the empathy and manners we create around those relationships that must always be at the forefront, so if we are behaving with manners and respect in our 'real life' interactions one would think this generally translates or we are at least able to make the distinctions when necessary."

And it's important to remember that our children are watching.

"Our greatest influence on how we behave is still going to be those people around us and the expectations for behaviour those around us insist on, so hopefully we continue to teach our children the importance of manners, respect and empathy regardless of who or what is the recipient."