What I need is a social etiquette bot that can save me from doing something embarrassing.

We have bots that can order pizza for us, hail a cab, talk dirty and answer support calls. I use a service that gives suggestions on how to greet someone properly via email. They analyze the email recipient’s public persona, guess their personality and then give advice.

Put together, this is simply amazing. We have expert-level artificial intelligence ready to help us. We live like the great kings of old, with a court full of wise advisors on hand.

But the problem I face is that I tend to say the wrong things, or forget to say the right things at the right time, or don’t say anything at all when I’m supposed to.

I want some artificial intelligence assistance to help me along.

I hear “have a nice day” and too often I reply “that’s a good idea, any suggestions of how to do it?” (This one should be easy. When the bot hears “have a nice day”, it should tell me to respond “thanks, you too.”)

I called up my aunt the other day and after we spoke for a bit, there was a long awkward pause when she said “you can wish me a happy birthday now” (I didn’t notice the date , I just called her about something else. I’d like the bot to have planned out the conversation for me “1. Birthday wishes. 2. Ask about holiday. 3. Coordinating visit next week. 4. Close off.”)

I also know I should be more interested in sport, so that I can have something to chit-chat about. (What I’ve discovered so far: it’s not croquet season yet, and it turns out that in a game of golf they don’t substitute players during the breaks). But if we can have sports journalism automated by a robot, couldn’t I have my own personal sport-discussion bot that can interject useful comments “yes, he’s having a bad season” and “she’ll be the top player in the team one day”?

Why can’t all this be automated with an etiquette bot?

I can’t see why I couldn’t have a primitive little bot in a discrete earpiece, bluetooth connected to my phone. Even the semi-accurate speech recognition we have on our phones today would be more than enough for many of these tasks.

But let’s push this further — it’s “How we get to Next” after all — and what a future etiquette bot would look like.


A phonecall etiquette bot could start the conversation and drop you into the call when you’re ready. It could pop in with “yes”, “OK” and all those little words of encouragement that make conversation easier — while you stay on mute and munch your breakfast.

This isn’t that far off.

If you have an iPhone, you have probably interacted with the voices of Susan Bennett, Jon Briggs or Karen Jacobsen. It was a tedious process for them: many hours of being recorded reading nonsense words in order to capture every possible sound in exactly their accent. But what a legacy they have: we can create them saying anything at all. Programmers could automatically generate Jacobsen and Briggs doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet; or Bennett doing wartime Churchill.

Can I have that too? I don’t mind spending a few hours — or even days — recording my voice if it means that every word I ever write also automatically gets an audio book version; if every report I ever write can be narrated by me through the next teleconference; if every email could be turned into a phone call.


A little further off... with a holographic projector and telepresence: I’ve been in meetings where I didn’t need to be involved for more than a few moments, but I had to be present for an hour. Etiquette-bot could have put up a holographic avatar of me and nodded politely at all the right times while I went on a Medium.com binge. And then it would have sign off, thanked everyone and asked who was going to write up the minutes .


Cross-culture etiquette is about to become a very serious issue.

Skype Translator is free and Google Translate can interpret for in-person conversations. We are close to the day when you can hold a conversation with anyone on the planet. The rise of the African and Asian economies mean that it will soon be a normal workday for most of us to be interacting with people from very different cultures.

Your idea of the rules of polite society are only shared by a very small percentage of the world’s population. Understanding what the rules of polite conversation in another culture can be a small research project in itself.

If I’m talking in German to my CEO, I’d better not use “wie gehts du?” for “how are you?”, because I should use the formal “Sie” (= “you”), not “du” (which also means “you”). Unless I’m in one of those regions where you are supposed to use “Ihr” (which also means you), which is a throwback to the days when you addressed royalty in the plural. Or at a hip Berlin-startup where actually it is the informal “Du”.

You can answer the phone when your boss calls with a snappy “喂” (Wèi) in Mandarin, but just saying “hey!” to answer in English is only really appropriate if you’re a teenager on a mobile phone and it’s a close contact calling after you’ve just had a long SMS exchange. At a Western dinner table, I would always say something like “could you pass the salt please?” whether it is to family or friends, but one day in a restaurant in Beijing I realised that my lunchmates (all senior executives from rival firms) just say “盐” (Yán = salt) to each other. When I was trying to be nice by saying “请”(Qǐng = please) I was actually being quite rude by distancing myself from them, but then they told me it was OK because that’s how Westerners are expected to talk until they have lived in China for a few years.

It’s surprisingly complicated, and for most of history, most of us have been able to ignore what “those funny foreigners” do.

Interestingly, the Esperanto community had to deal with this long ago . Their delightful approach has been to establish that it’s perfectly normal to go around giving each other hugs (including complete strangers), after which nothing feels weird. The only social faux pas at an Esperanto convention is to “crocodile” (to use your native language). Softbank have made a hugging robot. The world will be a better place for it, but it’s not quite an etiquette bot.

  • A German etiquette bot would listen in to the conversations and interactions you have with your colleagues and connect to your translation software to indicate the appropriate pronoun and title for the person you are addressing.
  • A Korean etiquette bot would use high-resolution GPS tracking and an interface to your watch to buzz you to a halt before you stepped through the doorway of your superior’s office uninvited.

One day, all these rules will be codified and automated so that when you call up your contact in Thailand, the video conferencing platform will adjust your apparent position so that your feet aren’t pointing in a direction that she would consider rude, and you will appear almost nose-to-nose to your Iranian colleague in his session, but he will appear to be standing further away from you in yours.

It all sounds good, but I’m afraid of how it might turn out.

Firstly, do we want to live in a society like Anne-Tze’s?

Even if we are OK with that, it could still all turn out very badly.

There’s a limit to how much etiquette we can remember. Nowadays there are rules of polite engagement on dating sites that you need to know, but you don’t need to understand the secret fan positioning codes or the language of flowers that dominated high society courtship for hundreds of years. We don’t need elaborate language-within-language that the courtiers of the Ming dynasty had to learn to avoid being the harbinger of bad news; we have completely different ways now of not-quite delivering the whole story about last quarter’s financial results. Not many of us have a sequence of secret handshakes for our secret societies; we don’t have enough time to learn that and also learn what you do and don’t say on that Facebook group.

But bots? There’s no limit. The fan codes might still used by some anachronists: better put them in, just in case. Secret handshakes are just a special case of initiation protocol: program them in so that we can get some funding for our VR interface! Maybe a programmer discovers that some religion gets offended by the mention of fish on Fridays: we’d better find some way of avoid that faux pas and program it in. The proper way to thank someone who is part of a different minority culture to your own: better program that in too. There’s nothing that would ever pare that complexity back to anything simpler.

Pretty soon the complexity of just starting a conversation with the postman might be come unnavigable to the bot-less.

And it will be my fault. I’m sorry. Really sorry. Really, really sorry. So sorry that even naturally sorry people won’t feel as sorry as I feel. You know, I don’t really know how to do apologies properly either. Is anyone working on an apology bot? I think I need one.