Silver Threads: Hopin’ fer sum understandin’
When the Artificial Intelligence on the other end of the line asked where I was calling from, I answered, “Nu Or-lee-unns,” which is how people like me, from most other Southern states, pronounce the name.
Natives of the city usually call it either “Noo Awlins” or — in the case of Uptowners, who love to be different — “Noo Awl-yuns.”
Anyhow. I didn’t get anywhere with the AI until I blurted out loudly and quickly, “New Orleens!” as in way down yonder.
It’s hard, being a drawling Southerner, when the robot answering a phone call is attuned to Yankee voices only. I suppose folks from “Loo-a-vull” have the same problem. (Maybe also the natives of “Bass-ten," come to think about it.)
And then there are calls you place to “customer service,” expecting — at least on the first call — a human being to answer rather than a robot. Not so. The first suggestion made by AI is to “press 1 if you’re an English speaker, 2 if Spanish is your native tongue.”
Pressing either brings forth a series of questions on what you’re calling about. Having only had two years of the language in high school, I’m just guessing that they are the same in Spanish; if you need to talk to your credit card bank, for instance, they are about issues in billing, payments, your balance, disputed charges, etc.
You must reply “yes” to one of the proposals, and here’s where I fail to be understood again.
I say, “Yay-yuss,” and the robot tells me that he (or she) doesn’t comprehend. “Day-yung! Scrah-rued again,” I think, wondering how I’m ever going to get through. But the robot’s allowed time for dealing with unintelligible speakers has run out, and a human voice pipes up on the line.
I know it’s human because it has a thick foreign accent, and I’m the one who asks for a repeat — and a repeat — and a repeat.
Even when the rep is a native English speaker, she or he talks so fast I can’t follow. I envision a huge room in which she and a hundred others are taking calls like mine, working on a time clock, getting paid per completed task. Nobody talks that fast unless their livelihood depends on it.
I ask her to please slow down, and she does — but only moderately. She doesn’t sound anything like the desk clerk I got one time at the Hilton Hotel in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
“Oh, Hon-nee. Ah’m sooo sorry y’all caint visit with us heah! Ah’ll can-sull yoah reservaashun, but y’all plan on comin’ down heah soon, you heah?”
Ah wish my bay-unk would hire this lay-dee as a customer service rep. And put “Southern” as a third on their little list of language choices.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at email@example.com.