Virtual assistants and formality
March 30, 2020 1:05 PM   Subscribe

Are there any virtual assistants that, when using a language that distinguishes between multiple levels of formality, use something other than the highest level of formality with their users?

By levels of formality I mean unambiguous grammatical differences (e.g. the T-V distinction), not more general familiarity of tone or register.
posted by jedicus to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You’re asking if there’s, for example, a French person who works as a personal assistant and says tu instead of vous to their client? Would they have to say it right away or could they negotiate using tu after some initial communication?
posted by michaelh at 1:19 PM on March 30, 2020

@michaelh I believe the question is asking about computerized "assistants" like Siri or Cortana.
posted by mekily at 1:28 PM on March 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

This, from a German voice interface designer, seems to imply Alexa can do either, depending on the perceived age of the speaker. Haven’t actually tried it myself.
posted by tinkletown at 2:22 PM on March 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

To clarify: yes, I mean computerized assistants such as Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa, and Cortana.
posted by jedicus at 2:55 PM on March 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just switched Siri to German, and she used Du rather than Sie. I don’t recall any option to do that, and French gives me “vous” rather than “tu”. So possibly Siri is more less formal in German?
posted by scorbet at 4:35 PM on March 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

The mainstream American assistants are not available in Polish, but customer-service bots usually use the single-second-person form rather than Pan/Pani (Mr/Ms, goes with third person singular) to avoid the gendering trap. Which only works until they have to use the past tense, because Polish is ridiculous.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:00 AM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I also had a look at Mandarin, which has a 您 (nin ) vs. 你(ni) distinction. From my understanding, 您 is more formal and respectful than vous/Sie would be. So you use it for people you respect or are significantly older, rather than simply “other adult I don’t know”. Siri starts by greeting with 您好 but switches to 你 when it is making suggestions of what it can do for you.
posted by scorbet at 2:18 AM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

And because I’m obviously too easily distracted, Google Assistant has the same behaviour for me for German and French. Du for German and Vous for French.
posted by scorbet at 2:32 AM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

It looks like Siri has always used Du, and starting with Sierra in 2016 Apple changed macOS so that help text, dialog windows, etc also use Du. There were evidently some inconsistencies, with some help text still using Sie.

Sierra was the first macOS release to include Siri, so I suspect the change was made to make macOS consistent with Siri.

I'd be interested to hear about other languages and assistants, though!
posted by jedicus at 7:52 AM on March 31, 2020

Super late to this but building a little bit more on Spanish and French, which show an interesting asymmetry in how Siri handles the T/V distinction:

In Spanish (in all four varieties available: Spain, Mexico, Chile, US) Siri addresses the user as .

In addition, the example commands, i.e. what you get if you ask Siri some variation of "what can you do?" also show examples of commands back to Siri in the form, e.g. márcale a Gerardo or abre Fotos.

On the other hand, in French (also in all four varieties available: France, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland) Siri addresses the user as vous.

Interestingly, however, if you ask Siri "what can you do?" the examples of commands back to Siri are in the tu form, e.g. appelle Thomas or ouvre l'app Photos.

So basically in Spanish Siri "expects" T forms in both directions (user > Siri, Siri > user), whereas in French Siri > user is the V form but the expectation is that user > Siri is the T form.
posted by andrewesque at 11:09 AM on April 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

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