I can fully understand not being able to get my point across in a country where I do not speak the language. (And I count the United Kingdom among the number of countries within which I do not speak the language; I am constantly being correct there on my usage and vocabulary.) But I see no reason why the conveyance of simple concepts via the spoken word should be so hard.
A while back, I wrote a piece called “Huh Hell; Pay Attention” in which I recounted the (relatively simple - or so I would have thought) issue of trying to communicate the idea to a South West Trains ticket agent that I wanted to buy a train ticket. It was not as if I weren’t standing in front of him at a ticket counter and in a train station! He was simply incapable of making the connection between his surroundings and the sounds of the words coming out of my mouth with the idea I was trying to convey.
In this article, I will recap the discussions I have had over the past few days trying to communicate simple (work-related) concepts. I’ve had all the following in this country.
At The Airline Check-In Desk:
“I need to re-check this bag for my connection to Tampa, please.” I said to the agent handing my boarding pass, claim check and passport across the desk to her.
“Huh?” she said looking up as she took the paperwork.
“I need to re-check my bag so I can go to my connection, please.”
“You mean that you need to check your bag?” she asked.
“It’s already been checked-in, back at Heathrow.” I indicated that the bag was already checked by showing her the bag was tagged and that I had a claim check for it. “I just need it re-checked so that it will be in Tampa when I get there.”
“I don’t understand, sir” she said with an clearly apparent befuddlement on her face and in her voice. “What do you mean you’ve already checked it. Why do you have it, then?”
“Baggage re-check was closed when the flight from Heathrow landed.” I explained, I was told to re-check it with my airline.
“What are you talking about?”
“I just flew in from Heathrow on your flight that landed an hour ago. I need to re-check this bag so that I can collect it in Tampa.” I asked trying exceedingly hard to keep my voice and tone steady. “I need you to take it and send it through so that I can go and make my connection.”
At this point she took my boarding pass and my passport and walked away. I watched as she went to a colleague to discuss what she should do with this man who was so obviously speaking gibberish at her. When she returned, she was all business and efficiency.
“No problem, sir. I can certainly check your bag for you. You should have checked in with the TSA when you arrived and they would have re-screened your bag for you saving you some time. Just remember that next time you come through customs.”
“They closed when the plane came in.” I explained again. “I tried to go there after I made it through customs but they told me they were closed.”
“Customs never closes sir,” she said icily. “if they were closed, how did you get into the country.” There’s no arguing with logic like that, I suppose…
She did eventually return my boarding pass (as well as a new one that she printed-out) to me with my passport and took my bag. But the fun was just starting!
Security Screening - TSA Round II
“Is there an open First Class Screening Position?” I asked as I started to hand-over one of my boarding passes and my passport to the TSA officer at the end of the line.
“Really?” I said, taking my paperwork back. “Where?”
“No.” he said reaching for my ticket.
“I’m sorry… is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”
The conversation that followed proved to be even less productive than the one with the airline staff. This man spoke so little English (apparently - at lease I have no evidence to the contrary - his entire English vocabulary consisted entirely of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ which he seemed to use more-or-less at random to anything even vaguely seemed to be an interrogatory) that he could not have even gotten a job as a New York cabbie. Even cabbies have to know at least seven thoroughly vile and offensive swear words.
I know, you’re probably thinking that I had a hard time because I was in New York (or near enough) that it was my accent that was throwing them off. Have no fear…
At The Pharmacy – St. Petersburg, Florida
“Hi! I’m here on vacation and I’ve run-out of a medication that I take and want to know if I can refill this here.” I said to the woman behind the counter surrendering a prescription to her.
“You want to transfer this here?” she said seeing that the logo on the prescription was not theirs.
“Not particularly,” I said. “But as that pharmacy has no branches in Florida, I need to fill it. If that means you need to transfer, it then so be it. I’m only going to fill it here once.”
“So, you want to transfer it?” she asked again as if trying to get some deep concept across to an idiot.
“As I said,” taking a bit of affront to the way she was speaking to me but trying not to let it show “if you need to transfer it to fill it, please do so.”
“Are they open in Colorado?”
“They are open seven days a week.”
“I’ll be right back.” A moment later, she came back to the front. “They’re not open until ten. I cannot transfer this for you until then. What time is it there now?”
“Thank you,” I said “I’ll get it filled elsewhere. I don’t care to wait for two hours.”
“And just how do you think you’re going to do that?” she asked.
“I’ll take my prescription to another pharmacy that is open when my pharmacy and fill it then.”
“They can’t fill it without transferring it so they won’t be able to fill it until the pharmacy in Colorado opens.” She said.
“I will not be here when the pharmacy in Colorado opens. So if you cannot fill it, I will take it somewhere else and have it filled there.”
“I can fill it.” She explained.
“Then do so.”
“I can’t without transferring it.”
“Then I will fill it elsewhere later.”
Ah! The pleasures of speaking a common language!
Wherever you are today, I hope you’re having no problem making yourself understood.
Don Bergquist - May 22, 2007 - St. Petersburg, Florida, USA