A big Minus ……


I speak English and Americans speak English but  there were times when I first moved here when I was nearly in tears because I could not understand what someone was telling me. This was especially so when dealing with public transport employees when it was pretty important that I understand their direction.     

I can only imagine how hard it must be for someone when English is their second or even third language.  This  morning I saw a Latino woman at my metro station almost crying with frustration as she dealt with the station master.     

Our metro ticket machines are specifically designed to confound anyone trying to use them. In high season there are long lines of confused tourists standing in front of them while help in the form of station attendants stays well hidden.     

Now, I am no slouch with train ticket machines.  I have successfully operated them in China, Paris, Italy and Spain where there can be minimal help for those who don't speak the respective language.  But, the first time I stood infront of a metro machine with some English words thrown around it, I was confused. 

Each station has a little box where the station master sits.  They rarely deem it necessary to actually come out of their little box to demonstrate the workings of the machines.  They talk at you through glass using a funky tinny speaker which distorts their voice to that of a cartoon character and they don't seem to care how many times they repeat the same sentence even though before you will have figured out their instruction they could have come out and actually helped. 

Many times when I walk past I hear a frustrated passenger shouting from our side and the tinny response of the metro employee and I think "poor person, half a dozen trains will have gone past by the time they understand"

Back to this morning.  As I walked into the station I could hear the poor woman trying to tell the attendant that she did exactly as she was told and it hadn't worked. The attandant's cartoon voice came back saying well she didn't press the "minus sign".  The passenger asked "what's a minus sign?".  The attendant just kept repeating:  The minus sign; the minus sign. On the machine there is a minus sign; you have to press the minus sign."  

The woman said "I don't understand minus".  The attendant repeated the mantra that the minus sign must be pressed.  

Seriously how helpful can that be if you don't know what a "minus sign" is ?!?!?!?!    

Feeling terribly sorry for the woman I said "I'll show you"  and took her back to the evil machine and pointed out the + and   symbols which allow you to get a farecard for more or less than the amount that comes up on a screen.    

This episode annoyed me for most of the day – so, a big minus to Metro for customer service this morning.   At 6.40am I'm sure they are not overworked with paperwork or whatever else it is they do in those little boxes. 

How apt is this photo which I took on our Sunday walk (mural in Columbia Heights) – it says "Immigrant Rights":


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33 responses

  1. I hope you have time to have a drink with us if you come our way! Thanks, I always have time for a drink, Emjay. I've just had another look at the cost, though, so may have to miss DC and New York. We'll see.

  2. There is no excuse. No possible excuse for a machine that's so confusing and transit employees that are so useless. It makes me angry just thinking about it and I don't even have to deal with it.

  3. san fran has all kinds of rules against begging for money. the bonus of this is that in order to get around the rule, and "earn" money, many homeless people hang out at the metro stations and help people buy their tickets.

  4. I think it's passive aggressive to pretend to not know that someone does not understand what minus is and to refuse to make the little extra effort. what you did was very cool.

  5. Poor woman, would it have taken so much from the guy to explain what the minus sign is? Prat. At least you have attendants though, for our Metrolink station they just have the machines and if you don't understand them, tough.

  6. 😦 I know the feeling all too well. While I'm reasonably comfortable in English, the accents really threw me off when we first moved here, and it was so embarrassing to have to ask people to constantly repeat themselves. Thankfully, most people we encountered were quite helpful. Kudos to you for helping out the lady, Emjay!

  7. Grrrrrr! The employees at the home improvement stores are like this. There are ten of them standing around doing nothing, so you go to the self check out and I they just stand there and snicker when you can't get the thing to work. You have to go ask them specifically for help before they'll consider meandering over to see what's wrong. They could check you out at a normal till faster than it takes them to straighten the self-check computer out.

  8. Love the mural what a great peace! As for the hard time to talk between languages English is not always the same even American and Canadian English….. But when I worked in a factory that they used to be refereed to by the employees as the United Nations because we at one point had people from all over the world there! And I used to get a good laugh at when I had to explain things to many of the people who had a grasp of English in fact most would ask me to say what they wanted to management or tell them how to say what they wanted to management! I also found out some interesting things on how people viewed me. But back to your story it is a shame but for what those people get paid they feel most likely and are probable told not to leave there booth and that people who are in America should speak English so there is no need for them to explain! Me I probably would take a photo of the machine and try to explain it while pointing to the places you touch! but that is me…. remember no good deed goes unpunished one day you will probably be pickpocket while helping out someone!

  9. Yeah the most annoying thing is the total apathy of the transit employees. After a particularly upsetting encounter with one I sent a complaint to Metro and they responded saying "sorry" and that they would "retrain" the employee. I had images of the woman being taken out the back and whipped into shape literally!

  10. I think they probably are taught it but choose to ignore it. At one stage, after many complaints, drivers were given elocution lessons but you would never know it to listen to the announcements!

  11. That is really enterprising!!! I would gladly pay for some swift assistance. There is probably a law against them doing that here. People have to get special permission to "busk" and I think only at certain stations and then only at the outside entrance.

  12. At least you have attendants though. – LOL if they are all this useless though we might as well not have them. Our bigger (tourist) stations do occasionally have extra attendants standing near the machines during holiday weekends.

  13. Oh yes – asking people to repeat themselves more than twice starts to make me feel like an idiot! And, some people start repeating it very loudly as though I am deaf – then I still don't understand and my eardrums hurt! 🙂

  14. Oh yes! The manservant calls them the Hopeless Depot. I wonder why they have self service check-outs because they never work; never, ever! I once had to ask for help and the girl told me that her leg was hurting and she couldn't walk to the register and could I go over to the service desk and get help!! I just put the item down and walked out!

  15. Thank you GOF – I have to admit that most mornings I walk past in a daze, just intent on catching a train. Something about this situation really touched a nerve in me as I saw myself 9 years ago. I once had a man buy me a ticket because I had no credit card to get one and the cash thing wasn't working (or something like that) – there are still some good people around, though I suspect the crowd is getting thinner.

  16. That is the natural teacher coming out in you! If you visit DC come in the winter when there are fewer tourists and you will be able to leave the station and enjoy all the museums and galleries.

  17. LOL – it was a couple of years before I caught a bus here because it looked too confusing. I guess Beijing spent a lot of money before the Olympics making things easier for tourists. In Nanjing they had interactive types of machines with a map of the rail system. On the map you pressed the station you wanted to go to and it would put the yuan on the screen and when you put your money in you got your ticket and change if needed. So easy. Getting a ticket on the fast train to Shanghai was a little harder because we had to actually talk to an attendant to get the tickets.

  18. Yes the mural is a really nice piece. There are lots of murals around us and I'm gradually getting them all recorded on (digital) film. LOL – I hope I'm not pickpocketed while helping someone! My office is not much of a United Nations – 100 Americans and about 8 foreigners (no Canadians though). If I have to ask someone more than 3 times what they've said I either give up or ask them to spell the word.

  19. It's not so much English that sucks, which it does to a good degree, but that our customer service here sucks ass big time. Those companies that do well here? They have great product or great customer service. Sometimes both.

  20. I suppose they think that by answering the question they are providing customer service …obviously it is the customer's problem if we can't understand. I suppose we only have ourselves to blame for a deterioration in c.s. because we accept it rather than complain (which most times seems just too hard to do).

  21. It's the problem with job entitlement in government jobs. Heck, most any job. A person is there long enough and they think the company owes them something. But especially seen with governmental jobs.

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