I work at a major retailer and try to provide customer service to many people from other countries setting here in the United States. I don’t know their legal status and that isn’t what this post is about. I do believe people should enter their chosen country legally and that they should learn the language of that country. However, when it comes to America and its language, that could be more difficult than it first appears.
- English is probably the number two most difficult languages in the world to learn. Chinese is supposed to be more difficult.
- Even if you get a handle on basic communication of the spoken language, you might still be defeated when it comes to the written language. (example: I have had people show me their smart phone with a picture of the item they need to find. They can say a few words to me but they can’t get out the whole message of what they need.)
- Going beyond the written language, there is the symbolic language of advertising and product packaging. This is where I really want to start explaining how hard American English is to understand.
I have had people ask me to help them find the right size of diapers. They look at a package and see a visual assault of varieties and sizes. Which blocks of graphics with numbers are sizes and which refer to weight of child, age of child, type of diaper, amount of time it should last before needing to be changed? Whew! I have a lot of compassion for people who have to try to figure this out.
A little family of four was out shopping and the father needed a belt. He brought me an extra large one. He had no idea how to figure out which one he really needed. I ended up having to go back with him and put belts around him until we came up with a 34-36 waist. So I showed him belts that had numbers instead of small, medium, large, or extra large, and with a lot of pantomime, I hope he found what he needed.
Many items no longer have a numerical price printed on them. Just a barcode and its numbers representing the UPC code that contains pricing information. We have a scanner near my work area but sometimes the results are frustrating. Why is this on a sales rack but not on sale? Did someone forget to change it in the system, or did another shopper just drop it off on the rack where they found cheaper items? Even people who speak English have trouble understanding that. One person showed me two items, one of which was on sale, the other seemed at least similar, but was not on sale. She could not understand that I did not have the authority to give her the sale price on the second item because it was not the same thing. She stood around for a good while as if waiting for circumstances to change, occasionally saying phrases like, “Okay, see you again sometime,” but clearly not really knowing what they meant.
Back to the people showing the picture on the smart phone. Say they want laundry detergent. I can take them to that aisle, but when they get there will they be able to sort out what the different products do? I can’t read their minds and know what they are really looking for. The variety and choices for an ordinary American are bewildering. What if you can barely (or still can’t) make out what the words on the package mean even after you have some basic conversational English down?
I remember an old illustration told as a story of some people arriving in the United States, going to a store, and happily coming home with a can displaying a beautiful picture of fried chicken. They opened the can and found … solid vegetable shortening. Is it clear, what’s in that can, even if you know a fair amount of English?
A couple of examples on the other side of the coin. A woman who spoke very good English demanded a discount on a clothing item that was supposed to be two pieces (top and bottoms) but had only one of the pieces. I pointed out to her that it was already half price. She said, “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying.” I replied that I did understand but she still walked away angry that I wouldn’t just give her what she wanted — an even lower price. Another person called the store, I answered, and she wanted to know when customer service closed. I gave her the time, only twenty minutes or so in the future. She said, “But I’m on my way there now. They aren’t going to close early and I won’t be able to do my business?” I repeated the closing time three times, while she got more angry. In effect, insisted that I was personally going to cheat her out of the chance to get her business done because I would not assure her that Customer Service was not going to be closed when she got there. She used an obscenity to express my lack of ability to communicate to her satisfaction. Both of us spoke perfect English. No real communication took place.
Just sharing a few thoughts so that we can be more compassionate when someone who doesn’t know English as well as we would like comes up to us and needs help. Give that help. As much as you can.
And when your English and my English are just fine and we interact, but you aren’t satisfied with the outcome, please remember that civility costs nothing, and treat me and my fellow retailers with compassion too.
(image credit johnhain at Pixabay)