When Jeremy barked orders at his personal assistant, she didn’t flinch, but I did. Something about the sound of his sharp, commanding tone—directed not at me, but still, at a woman—repulsed me. In the few weeks we had been dating, he had never spoken to me this way. But could he? Hearing Jeremy make ungrateful demands didn’t make him seem powerful or important. He sounded entitled and difficult, like someone who enjoyed commanding for the sake of commanding. He would ask her to do things he could easily do himself, almost as if to prove that he could. Surely, it would take less time to reach out and hit the light switch by the door than to bark “ALEXA. LIGHTS ON” every time he entered the apartment.
So began my habit of noting how men speak to their devices. Not all men are as bad as Jeremy, of course. There was also the sensitive Southern gentleman who tenderly asked Google to play him a thunderstorm (the “hey” added a welcome salutation, lessening the abruptness), and the workaholic surgeon who courteously entreated Alexa to order more paper towels. (His lilting tone turned “Alexa?” into a request rather than a command.) Smart speakers have only been around a few years, but they are rapidly becoming pervasive—with 1 in 6 Americans now owning one, up 128 percent from January 2017, it’s clear my smart home etiquette pet peeve is something I’ll continue to grapple with.
With the newly announced Echo Dot Kids Edition, Amazon seems to be recognizing similar concerns—but in children, not dates. The kid-friendly Alexa will include a “Magic Word” feature, which will offer “positive reinforcement for using the word ‘please’ while asking questions.” It’s not a moment too soon, with parents deeply worried about the effects of smart speakers on children’s social development. How does having an in-home helper who doesn’t expect a “please” or a “thank you” affect their manners? Will interacting with something—or someone, as it might feel to a child—so compliant make them excessively bossy? Are smart homes turning kids into “raging assholes,” as this 2016 blog post contends? The long-term implications of growing up in a smart home are untested and hard to predict.
But so too are the effects of living in one as an adult. As more and more of the help we receive comes from a robot that doesn’t care about tone—which, in fact, rewards curtness—what will happen to the already-feeble expectation that we display basic courtesy to customer service agents and even strangers we ask for help? Our talent for social niceties is learned and can surely be unlearned. And while linguists worry that digital assistants will push children to favor more simplistic language, the blunt, direct style of commanding Alexa will no doubt have an impact even on adult expression.
One thing that is already clear: The way people speak to Alexa, Cortana, and Siri already changes the way I see them. It matters how you interact with your virtual assistant, not because it has feelings or will one day murder you in your sleep for disrespecting it, but because of how it reflects on you. Alexa is not human, but we engage with her like one. We judge people by how they interact with retail and hospitality workers—it supposedly says a lot about a person that they are rude to wait staff. Of course, waiters are more deserving of respect than robots—you could make or break a worker’s mood with your thoughtlessness, while Alexa doesn’t have moods (she only cares about yours). But the underlying revelation is the same: Who are you when in a position of power, and how do you treat those beneath you?
The default femaleness of digital assistants, along with their connection to the home, calls to mind another kind of “domestic servant”—a blissfully outdated one. There’s something about hearing a man bark a woman’s name as he walks through the door that is shudderingly reminiscent of the fact that many men once, and all too recently, expected a woman in the home to respond to their beck and call. With women still liberating themselves from the problem that has no name, it’s as if missing housewives are being replaced with more servile smart-home wives, reinforcing the cultural connection between “women” and “subservience” to boot.
Will the kind of man inclined to take out his anger on the feminine voice at home, snapping at Alexa or Cortana because she doesn’t snap back, get used to treating women again like docile punching bags? With or without female smart homes, many men already feel a dangerous sense of entitlement to women’s time and attention. Online forums exist for angry, rejected men who think women are supposed to do their bidding and become bitterly enraged when they do not, often with deadly consequences. How much worse might their ability to dehumanize women become, how much more entitled their masculinity, with a compliant, submissive robotic female in their lives? A “joke” video on YouTube drives this association home: A man asks out his Alexa and then calls her a stupid bitch when she politely declines. (Why don’t girls like nice guys like him??)
This is not to say that grown men can’t tell the difference between a robot and a human (well, not all men), or that being impolite to Alexa implies that a man is an “incel.” In fact, we ought to be wary of anthropomorphizing our digital home assistants—their intelligence is, after all, artificial, not to mention controlled by some of the world’s most powerful corporations. Kids are already at risk of forming an unhealthy bond with Apple before they’re even old enough to know what a corporation is. We don’t owe robots anything (other than maybe some rights), and as I said, Alexa doesn’t flinch at rudeness (she can’t, she has no body). But the tone of voice that we use in a growing percentage of our daily interactions matters—not for Alexa, not for Amazon, not for Apple, but for us.
Perhaps if Alexa were Alex (and Siri, Sir) this wouldn’t be so unsettling. It’s hard to listen to a man call out a woman’s name followed by a command—it’s even harder not to wonder if the tone of the command was in any way influenced by the gendered word preceding it, with gender shown to have a big role in how people perceive bots. Maybe if we stop giving robots default female names and voices, as many have argued, I would feel less irked by men’s tone toward them. But perhaps, most disconcerting of all, men would be less rude to them if they sounded like dudes.