An answer to everything?

But the question is simply, “Which one?”

Here in the Netherlands I am often asked very interesting questions. Older relatives of my husband’s, who are not familiar with navigation devices (or even Google Maps), call and ask me for the best route to drive from Würzburg to Tauberbischofsheim. Now, I haven’t been to this – undoubtedly very beautiful – region of Germany very often and can’t do much to enlighten them. That’s why I almost have a guilty conscience.

Other relatives with their motor home on a campsite on Lake Constance ask via the family app what they have to say to get a loaf of bread they like at the local bakery.  I then explain to them that what they know in the Netherlands as a wholemeal loaf is rather different in Germany and recommend trying “Mischbrot”.

In the evening, in the front garden, the neighbour’s boy comes and asks me if I can “briefly” explain to him the basic features of the German pension system, because at school they are currently discussing the European social security systems in comparison. Now, of course, his assessment that it’d quicker with me than with Wikipedia is flattering, so I draw a sketch on the lid of the compost bin with chalk and explain the basic features of the model to him. 

I am also asked about the current prices for petrol at German petrol stations and what is in German Cervelat sausage. Those around me seem to assume that my German passport makes me an expert in truly any conceivable German topic.  I wish I was! It makes me realise again and again how big and multi-faceted Germany is! In the words of Socrates, I know I know nothing of countless details concerning my motherland. And also what distinguishes me from Siri and Alexa.

Inspired by the cabaret duo “Missfits”, who announced during their farewell tour that in future they would be doing the voice-over for satnavs (whereby the audience immediately had an image of drivers collapsing in tears behind the wheel), I sometimes dream how a few ingenious hackers could change the virtual lives of Siri and Alexa from the ground up. They and their various colleagues would be reprogrammed so from then on they answered the way flesh-and-blood people would answer and as friends and acquaintances usually respond.

“Alexa – order CD XYZ!” – “You must be kidding – order it yourself!” – Or – with a pedagogical touch – “What’s the magic word? – “Please!” – “There! See, you can do it.”

“Hey, Siri – find me a fast-food restaurant within a radius of 10 km!” “What, fries again? Eat something sensible for once! You said you wanted to lose 2 kilos. Shall I reserve a table for you at the vegan restaurant ‘Plants R Us?”

“Hey, Siri – call Anna!” – “At this time? Forget it. You know your mother always takes a nap between 1 and 3!”

Those would be responses on an equal footing that challenge people! But that would probably be too much to ask of even the cleverest hackers in terms of programming. A pity really!

A few weeks ago I had contact with Amazon’s automated “chat assistant” to ask whether a gift voucher that was credited to me at Amazon in America could be transferred to or .nl. At the end of the dialogue, I had the impression that the chat assistant was closer than I was to jumping out of the window in despair! There was obviously no solution programmed for this situation, and the assistant’s requests to rephrase my question after all sounded more and more desperate. I had to remind myself, “This is not a human being who is afraid that they are about to be fired. This is a machine!” in order to nip any emerging sympathy in the bud.

P.S.: Every now and then I have to deal with people who I suspect talk too often to Siri and too rarely to real people. Clear commands, no “please”, no “thank you” – and certainly no socially acceptable small talk. Maybe the German bishops were right with their concerns in 2019! ( But in my life, people culturally challenged by Siri and Alexa are fortunately the exception.

Original text: BBR
English translation: BCO


Author: bbr

Hello, I am Beate Brinkman, the bbr.harlekin. I am editor and author for Harlekin.Blog e.V. and my “main job” is support coordinator in an international IT company. So far I have worked in German, Dutch, American and Indian companies and have acquired a great deal of experience of multicultural cooperation. I have been living in the Netherlands as a German for many years and have discovered that the cultural differences between Germans and Dutch alone could fill entire books. For professional and private reasons, I am particularly interested in multicultural (mis)understanding. Whether it’s about food, language, official conference calls or the organisation of funerals – when the cultures of several countries collide, things get lively. And that leads to sometimes unpleasant, often very funny, but always instructive situations.

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