Chatbots should pay more Attention to what you don’t Say

Chatbots can benefit from paying attention to what is not said. In any conversation there is a skill to reading between the lines. The way you say something is just as laden with information as the content being conveyed. There is information contained in the medium and the subtle signals within the message. As Marshall McLuhan said and wrote a book about – ‘the medium is the message’. The content is only one part of the whole message.

When you chat to real people (as opposed to bots) there is so much encoded in the conversation that isn’t obvious if you read it back. For instance; timing in responses, pauses, messages starting to be typed but stopped mid flow. There are messages hidden in the medium and in the information not there. Dead space is sometimes an essential part of a conversation. As they say; read the room, don’t be tone deaf. These are all warnings to head the information that isn’t explicitly presented.

The Missing Codes

I thought of a few of my personal signifiers that are hidden in between the words of a chat:

  • Long pause = I’ve got distracted
  • Fast response = you have my full attention
  • Shorter responses = losing interest, busy
  • “…” = there is more to say, uncertainty
  • Full sentences often long paragraphs = have lots of time, usually an older person
  • Ya, k, ty = no time to waste, young person
  • Wildly misspelt words = English not the first language (in my case it’s usually my mother)
  • A deluge of one liners = the other person is familiar and is happy to say everything that is coming into their heads.

These are just my own codes, you may have your own.

The way you use grammar and punctuation also makes a difference. My daughter says she always recognizes my messages. She recently took my phone and sent a message to her sister as if from me. She said she was careful to write in full sentences that had the correct grammar and punctuation because I always do that. As predicted, her sister didn’t question if it was from me because the language seemed ‘right’. Their own messages are full of abbreviations as you would expect. If they suddenly appeared with the correct grammar and punctuation at least I would know instantly someone else has their phone.

Our Brains fill in the Missing Info

We can get it wrong and read too much into something

Other times it could instinctively recognize something important e.g. a worrying sign, a change of attitude, a concerning sadness which isn’t obvious in the words. There is science to the brain’s ability to fill in the blanks. Research from 2016 discovered that there is a bigger connection that previously thought between language and memory. The research included test results that showed that when the blank was part of a constrained sentence like ‘he swept the floor with….’ The brain quickly invokes memories associated with the words (in this case ‘broom’). The theory is that when associated neurons are triggered, those vibrating with the same frequency fire at the same time, giving rise to related memories. You know that feeling when you hear someone talk and start finishing their sentence. Humans have this natural urge because the brain is wired this way. Why it happens we don’t know but there could be a good reason why our brains are keen to fill in the missing blanks in a conversation.

Getting back to Chatbots

How can they use this missing information? Maybe it’s risky to rely on anything that isn’t explicitly said, especially where machines are involved. However, paying attention to some unsaid communication could be beneficial. For example, a chatbot that can tell when I’m busy or distracted becomes a polite chatbot. If it knows when I’m in a chatty mood, it can happily ask me some related questions like whether I want to take part in a survey. Being aware of what is really going and reacting accordingly can make the difference.  In an information age where it can be hard to figure out what’s useful and what isn’t, these additional indicators will be essential for engagement.

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