You Are Software; Don’t Greet Me

At the top right corner of the browser window in the version of WordPress that we use for maintaining the Lingua Franca blog there is a message I have to mouse over in order to get to important things like the profile-editing and logout options. And what that message says is: “Howdy, Geoff Pullum.” I flinch every single time I see it.

It’s not because of the nickname. I prefer friends, acquaintances, and students to address me as Geoff, rather than by my title or my full given name. Only two classes of people call me Geoffrey: Class 1 consists of just my mother, and we won’t criticize her—she has certain inalienable rights to call me by the unclipped form of the name under which she and my dad decided to christen me. Class 2 consists of telemarketers and salespeople who don’t know me but want to pretend they do and ingratiate themselves with me. Always annoying, as recently noted on this blog by Ben Yagoda (that would be Mr. Yagoda to you). Call me on the phone and say “Is that Geoffrey?” and you’ll hear a sudden click.

The “howdy” comes a bit closer to being an issue for me. It is way too far toward the extreme on the friendliness scale. If my quarter-century of being an American has given me sound intuitions about such sociolinguistic matters, “Hello” is fairly bland and distant, and “Hi” is in the middle—a greeting of average friendliness for people such as co-workers, but “Howdy” is intimate, folksy, and playful. “Howdy” says welcome to our porch, c’mon into the kitchen, get yourself a beer from the icebox.

That extreme informality leads to a separate problem: The syntax is wrong. Nobody says “Howdy” followed by a full name with surname included. “Howdy” is followed by (if anything) just a given name, commonly a nickname: “Howdy, Bob!”

But beyond the sociolinguistics and syntax of “Howdy” lies something additional that makes my hackles rise. A kind of presumptuousness. I’m irked that a piece of software should greet me at all.

We are the masters here, I want to say. You are just software. We write you. You do not say hello to us, and far less “Howdy.” Shut up and just run the editing interface. Don’t ever welcome me or congratulate me or thank me or greet me again. I am the instructor here; you are not even the instructed party (that would be the CPU); you are nothing more than the instructions.

So there’s a triple inappropriateness. WordPress not only greets me, but greets me incompetently, and does it with a tone suggestive of a waitress in Lake Wobegon’s Chatterbox Café greeting a Norwegian bachelor farmer who’s been eating apple pie there for decades. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be welcomed to Windows, or congratulated on my purchase of some product that has been programmed to congratulate me on my purchase of it. These programs I use are not my friends (indeed, often I hate them). They are, at most, necessary tools.

Of course, having located this feeling of unease and typed these thoughts about it, I now have to log out of WordPress. And guess what it’ll say when I move the mouse cursor to the top right hand corner of the browser window.

[Thanks to Becky Williams for confirmation of my sociolinguistic impressions about howdy.]

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