Published on Wednesday, August 27, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
A People-Less Country?
by Brigitte Schön
For many Europeans, a holiday in America used to be a holiday from bad manners and unhelpful and often ill-tempered officials, salespersons, and other contemporaries whose help you might need at a given moment.
In the States (contrary to the home scenario), friendly and eternally cheerful people would go out of their way to think of often original solutions to your problem, and it was always a culture shock to return to your own society which had problems spelling “service,” let alone eventually provide that service with anything but the face of someone who auditioned for the role of a galley slave in “Ben Hur.”
No longer. While a substantial part of Europeans working in the service industry have, after dire and costly intensive total-immersion courses, been coerced to force their tongues to mouth the formerly unspeakable “How can I help you?” and actually surprisingly often DO provide something resembling real help and service nowadays, a European in America AND in need of help today encounters a veritable Iron Curtain of voice mail, impenetrable computer-like humans and interactive toll-free numbers which normally end up in some Third World country far away from the actual problem. I.e. any actual human telephone interaction in the USA is increasingly taking place only with people who are outside the USA.
The European is puzzled. Is this supposed to be progress? Who is supposed to benefit from this so-called progress?
Is there still anybody out there in America? Where are the PEOPLE? Is America maybe just a hologram?
What’s worse, the painfully visible removal of actual person-to-person communication from much of American everyday life strikes the European traveler as incredibly inefficient. And one wonders what has become of America. And why.
Saturday, August 2: Suitcase doesn’t make the transition from flight Vienna-Paris to Air France/Delta flight Paris-Atlanta. Passenger does.
On arrival, passenger is paged in Atlanta and is told that waiting for suitcase is superfluous, suitcase still in Paris. Passenger told to go on to end destination Oklahoma City and file a lost luggage report.
Passenger beams: Highly efficient work. US truly running up to expected customer-friendly form. Airline saved passenger nail-biting wait in vain at baggage collection carrousel.
In Oklahoma City’s Will Roger International Airport, passenger dutifully files lost luggage report and is told that she will be contacted as to the whereabouts.
Sunday, August 3: No-one calls.
3pm: Passenger finally calls Delta baggage hotline via toll-free number and audibly ends up in India. Is told that suitcase will arrive Sunday night, having left Paris on Delta, Sunday morning Paris time. Passenger briefly wonders why a Business Class passenger’s luggage wasn’t put on next plane to America instead of waiting 24 hours by Delta but decides against bothering Bombay or Calcutta with question.
It is agreed that passenger will call later to tell whether she will pick up suitcase herself or wait for Delta’s delivery service to do job. Passenger is assured that delivery service works around the clock anyway.
Passenger, true to European MOs, tries to contact Will Rogers International (!) Airport to get local Delta desk and, after having tried out every number, including “baggage claims,” discovers that entire airport is only manned by answering machines during weekend – needless to say, machines do not return any calls at all.
Passenger hopes air traffic controllers still human at Will Rogers. Passenger hitherto unaware that international airports only operate fully from Mon to Fri 9 to 5.
Passenger wonders how this tallies with security measures after 9/11. Taken care of by voice mail?
7.30pm: Passenger wants to find out whether luggage has arrived - true to Old Europe’s custom, romantically pictures contacting human being at airport who knows about suitcase.
Will Rogers Airport still 100% incommunicado, hence passenger gets in touch with India again. Bombay or Calcutta assure passenger that luggage has arrived, it is agreed that luggage will be delivered to address within next 4 hours. Passenger supposed to be contacted by delivery company by phone.
11.00pm: No suitcase, no phone call. Passenger decides to queue up to enquire about weather in India again. Contemplates future holiday in India to get expert help on the spot next time.
India tells passenger that both delivery company and airport in Oklahoma City totally incommunicado also for them – tapes only. India at a loss as well.
Monday, Aug 4, 8am: No calls, no suitcase, airport still incommunicado. Passenger again queues up for 15 minutes to phone her Indian friends.
India tells passenger that suitcase seemingly has been picked up by delivery company at 7am (weren’t they supposed to be on call 24 hrs?) who will contact passenger about delivery, suitcase should arrive within 2 to 3 hrs.
11am: No calls, no suitcase. Passenger calls India again and is told delivery can last up to 6 hrs. India cannot access delivery company since company only has a tape running.
Passenger tries to solve problem on the spot. Airport’s baggage claim number still tape only. Probably only IS a tape.
Passenger sees America’s quagmire in Iraq in new light: US officials in Iraq probably only communicating with local population the Delta and Will Rogers International Way. But Arabs very much into personal contact. Maybe problems in Baghdad even addressed by toll-free hotlines manned by people in Cambodia and Fiji? Thought no longer unlikely.
Passenger finally reaches airport administration. First human contacted at Will Rogers after 36hrs, or so passenger thinks. Lady unable to give any phone numbers for Delta or lost luggage at her airport. Sees nothing, hears nothing, says nothing. Seems that also airport employees have to use airlines’ toll-free grid and ensuing phone queues to get in touch with airlines in same building.
Lady has no explanation why an international airport is unreachable for 2 full days but seems to find this natural. Passenger wonders if Lady is a computer since no independent thinking ability detectable.
Passenger suddenly wonders how come Americans managed to land on moon if nobody ever feels responsible for anything and doesn’t talk to anybody and everybody only sounds like reading standard phrases from manuals, but passenger remembers that this happened a long time ago when they probably still talked to each other personally.
1pm: No calls, no suitcase. Passenger tries airport again to hunt down suitcase whereabouts. True to own cultural heritage, passenger demands to talk to airport manager. Is connected to secretary. Secretary repeats standard phrases and has no explanation why airport is unable to come up with any phone number of local Delta or luggage people.
Passenger nostalgically remembers lost luggage incident in Harare, Zimbabwe, and feels sudden deep surge of yearning for efficiency and humanity of Harare airport and other Third World locations. Cairo airport appears in brief mad hallucination as height of efficiency. Advent of insanity clearly imminent.
1.30pm: Passenger tries Delta information hotline to get Oklahoma City Delta representative number and gets airport’s Travel Aid number instead. Delta airline representatives in Oklahoma obviously as real as Monster of Loch Ness. Passenger had thought that Will Rogers Airport and Delta did not even know each other, which had been airport’s eternal assurance, and is amazed.
No tape this time. Real Life Man does not know which delivery company is used by Delta and has no Delta desk number either. Passenger gently talks Real Life Man into walking over to Delta desk and ask. Man finally agrees, though clearly unusual demand in this country.
Passenger suddenly understands high consumption of antidepressants and mind-altering substances in America. Wonders where to get any of above in Oklahoma.
Passenger gets delivery company number and name, “Sooner.” Gets tape when contacting phone number, leaves phone number.
Passenger, after swearing never again to foul mouth the airports of Vienna, Paris, Brussels and London Heathrow, tries to find “Sooner’s” office in Yellow Pages instead. In “Sooner State” Oklahoma, “Sooner” not exactly rare name. All likely Sooners contacted manned by humans. But Relevant Sooner has tape running.
Passenger finds herself revisiting her classical European abhorrence of private ownership of firearms.
2.00pm: One and only Sooner finally calls passenger. Promises delivery until 3.30pm.
Suitcase arrives at 4.
Delivered by a nice real life man.
Passenger sees America’s (until now incomprehensible) religious fervor and obvious need to pray a lot with new eyes.
Brigitte Schön is an international conference interpreter of Austrian nationality and lives in Vienna.