Apr 25, 2012

Politeness and Machines

An automatic checkout machine just asked me:

¨Have you swiped your member card yet?¨

This of course caused me to pause and consider what the machine was telling me. The sentence is actually really complicated, but it's just a polite way of saying:

"Swipe your damn card."

The polite version just doesn't work for me though. When anyone says something like it, they are relying on plausible deniability. They might not be sure whether you have swiped it or not. So they can say this without seeming demanding. They can plausibly deny having any knowledge of whether you have done this or not.

The machine however has no plausible deniability. It knows whether you have or not. The fact that it tries to get away with the plausible denial seems to make it unnaturally rude. Instead, it's very clear that it knows you have not swiped it and comes off as very insincere.

Anyway, I got yelled at in the automatic checkout lane today for thinking too much about the linguistics of politeness and how it affects machines. The last chapter of Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought" has some good material on the subject.