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":