I’m not making this story up. It’s important to state that for the record, I think. I haven’t changed the names in this essay to protect anyone’s anonymity either. I quit doing that a long time ago. What does it matter? I write G-rated humor, which is always at my expense, so even when I look like the world’s biggest idiot, everyone else looks like Albert Einstein or the Dalai Lama.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, I opened a two-for-one insert in my December issue of Real Simple magazine, my favorite monthly publication on the planet. I savor every page. Each issue is useful, interesting, and can be counted on for good writing, thrifty tips, and quirky lists. What’s not to like? I’ve been a long-time subscriber and a Real Simple groupie for years. I’ve even submitted work to them.
Usually, I order everything possible online—lipstick, vitamins, even Chinese food. Since Christmas was right around the corner, however, I decided to order the old-fashioned way, with a telephone call. I located my landline underneath a stack of recycled wrapping paper, blew the dust off, and dialed a 1-800 number which was answered half the world away in India.
How do I know an operator in India answered it, you ask? I asked, of course. The accent was a dead giveaway, honestly. I enjoy a bit of colorful cultural interaction in my day. It’s fun. It never ceases to amaze me what a small world we share. Here in Alabama I can talk to someone in India about my magazine subscription. Wow!
Initially, the call was answered electronically, with a thank-you-for-calling-and-holding-you-are-the-most-important-subscriber-in-the-world message, or something close to that. I idly updated my fan page while waiting to talk to the next available Indian operator who was, no doubt, thrilled beyond imagining to help a suburban American woman with her magazine gift subscriptions. (I imagined myself calling in to the station on NBC’s Outsourced television show, which is hilarious, if you’ve never seen it.)
Go ahead and imagine the accent. It will add local color to this essay.
Then I answered sixty-seven questions confirming my email address, my snail mail address, my full name, my parents’ names, the names of my children, my blood type, my credit history, who I think will win at The Oscars, and other bits of personal trivia that might be helpful for someone attempting to steal my identity from half the globe away.
Finally, it was time for business.
“Can I renew my own subscription and send a gift subscription to a friend using the two-for-one offer from my December magazine?” I asked.
“Yes, indeed, Mrs. Thompson. It will be my pleasure to help you with that today,” the operator answered.
We went over the particulars several times. My operator repeated, quite precisely, my order. We indulged in a moment of final pleasantries, and I went happily about my day, satisfied that I’d purchased a magazine my Aunt Joan would enjoy for the year and renewed hours of bubble bath reading material for myself.
You know what’s coming next, don’t you?
About a week ago, I receive a text from a friend thanking me for renewing her subscription to Real Simple magazine.
“So glad you like it!” I responded, baffled. I had, indeed, given my friend, Vera Britton, a gift subscription to Real Simple—last year, for her birthday. I had NOT renewed it in my recent international summit, darn it all.
How embarrassing! With a long-suffering sigh, I jotted down “call India” on my to-do list for the next day.
Of course, I got a different operator in my second intercontinental adventure. It became apparent immediately that I was living a real live Cool Hand Luke moment—what we had was a “failure to communicate.” The operator had excellent English-speaking skills. (I can say that because I used to teach ESL students. I know what I’m talking about.) That wasn’t the problem.
I don’t speak Hindi or any of the other twenty official languages of India—not counting about 400 regional dialects. His speech patterns were British upper crust tea-and-toast-points. In fact, what he understood from my softened, slurred Southern consonants may have been the real issue, but, regardless of the root of the problem, we achieved no customer satisfaction and no meeting of the minds in our conversation.
“What is the nature of your problem today, Mrs. Thompson?” he began.
“I have an error with a gift subscription I ordered on December 11,” I replied, still hopeful that the problem could be quickly resolved. “I renewed my own subscription and sent one as a gift to my aunt, Joan Peavy. In addition, a gift notification was sent from me to my friend, Vera Britton, in error.”
“Ah, thank you, Mrs. Thompson. I see here on my computer that you sent a wonderful gift magazine subscription to Mrs. Joan Peavy and also to Mrs. Vera Britton.”
“No, I did not send a renewal to Vera Britton,” I clarified. “ That’s the problem. I can see why this is confusing. I did send her a subscription last year for her birthday, but I did not renew it this year.”
“I am looking on the computer, Mrs. Thompson, and I see that you did, indeed, send one to Mrs. Britton on December 11th,” he argued.
“Yes, I see it here on my computer.”
“Well, then, Mrs. Britton called and renewed her subscription, and she has billed the gift to you. I can see that here on my computer screen now.”
“Do you no longer wish to give your friend this gift subscription? You are no longer friends with Mrs. Vera Britton? Is that, perhaps, the crux of the problem?”
“Ah . . . what?! No! Listen: you and I are not communicating well. May I speak to your supervisor or someone else?” I asked.
“Mrs. Thompson, there is no one else who can take your call at this time. I am here to help you. Do you wish to order more gift subscriptions for other individuals that you are still friends with today?”
“Please call again when I may be of further assistance to you.”
I felt like I was in the middle of a Saturday Night Live skit.
I suspect that my Indian operator was oblivious in Hindi as well as English. He also needs to work on his listening skills. In addition, I’m a little worried that he used his lunch break to sell my credit card number and personal information to the highest black market bidder.
I imagine: “Take this credit card number. Use it as you will. It belongs to a difficult American woman who reneges on gifts she has given to her friends. Make sure she never receives her Real Simple magazine again. Better still, send her pornographic magazines—many, many pornographic magazines that will trouble her no end.”