let me spell it out for you.

In the ever-going clash of the accents, the latest rounds have featured such face-offs as:

·      Frustrating or frustrating?

·      Aluminum or aluminum?

·      Tomato or tom-ah-to?

·      Address or address?

·      Mocha or mah-cha?

It’s funny from the perspective of cultural analysis, how the same language spoken by two groups of people can sound so different. But I’ve stopped laughing at work, where the primary responsibility of my role as receptionist is to answer the phone, which happens to ring on average 100 times per hour. Dealing with customers face to face isn’t so bad, many of them asking where my accent is from, what I’m doing so far from home, and then usually embarking on endearing ten-minute accounts of every trip they’ve taken to the States: “Now, Virginia, I drove through there in 1978 – or was it ’81 – on my way to New Jersey to see my mother’s step-sister’s son…” And I nod along and feign interest, all for the sake of customer service.

But over the phone, I find myself having to concentrate just as much to understand them as I do while speaking Spanish. I may understand the conjugation in this case, but for some reason the accent – which I’m normally fine with – reacts with phone line distortion in that don’t-mix-Mentos-and-Diet-Coke kind of way.  They say “Shore,” I hear “Shaw.” They say “Settlers,” I hear “Sieglitz.” And because a mistake on my part could send an installation team to the wrong house on the wrong side of town, I check and re-check. “Do you mind spelling that out for me?” Sometimes I ask twice or even three times, and can hear their frustration growing with each letter. They exhale sharply each time, placing a staccato-like emphasis on each letter like they might on the digits of a phone number they don’t want to dial. My most common mistake? Confusing “s” with “f.”

It’s a two-way street, though. I’ve said before the many names the customers mistakenly hear as I answer their call with “This is Candace speaking.” The more conscientious customers ask how to spell my name. I’m hesitant to tell them, of course, because it will undoubtedly come back to bite me. “But I talked to someone – her name was Candace – who told me I was eligible for the subsidy?” See what I mean? A Samoan woman who told me I sounded Chinese asked to talk to someone who could speak “proper” English. Another woman demanded, “What nationality are you? I can barely understand you!” In moments like those, it’s all I can do not to jump out the window. If only our office wasn’t on the ground floor.

But I can’t get how the English woman I actually work with pronounces my name “Cand-ESE,” as in, it rhymes with fleece or Sharese. Where in the world does she get that from? It was a bit more understandable in London, where my colleagues called me “Cand-ACE” – at least it aligned with the spelling of the name. But I can’t seem to excuse my new colleague for the latest development in the saga of how to say my name. For one, her desk is directly behind mine, so there’s no way she hasn’t heard me say, “This is Candace speaking,” 1,200 times a day on the phone. What’s more, I’ve had conversations with my other colleagues right in front of her on the correct pronunciation of my name. The way this all seems somewhat intentional makes it an entirely unforgivable offense. 

On another note, I never thought I’d know so much about plastic window insulation. In fact, it’s probably the last thing I thought I would add to my trove of irrelevant knowledge while in New Zealand. But we sell the D.I.Y. kits in our office and part of my job is ringing up all the customers who come in on their lunch break to buy them. The process is fairly simple – clean your window with the alcohol wipes provided, line the frame with double-sided tape, attach the plastic shrink film you’ve cut to size, and finish it off with a hair dryer to pull the plastic taut. Voilà! Poor man’s double-glazing. I had an older gentleman call up, though, who proved the point that whenever possible, humans will make a simple thing complicated. (Love, for instance, comes to mind.) But this particular customer was inquiring as to why his windows still seemed dirty and streaky after putting up the plastic. I asked him what he used to clean the windows before installation and, after consulting with his wife, he tells me, “Washing machine powder and hot water.” Now, I’m new to the country so my first thought is maybe it’s a New Zealand thing – but even still, it didn’t sound right to me. I ask a colleague, who immediately erupts into laughter. “So that’s not normal here?” I ask. “Of course not!” Once my often-questionable common sense is affirmed, I am no longer able to hold a dignified conversation with Mr. Streaky Windows and I mumble out a logical solution of window glass cleaner between bouts of suppressed laughter. This is what I went to college for, after all.

Then again, it’s not always fun. I admit to being just as confused as our customers are when it comes to the systems of funding and subsidies we have in place. The world of heating and energy efficiency in New Zealand is a sea of letters, with a thousand acronyms comprised of the same letters all swirling together in a deadly mix. A customer called today after being given the run-around by several service providers. “I called HSNZ like you told me to – but who the heck are they?” I wish I knew, ma’am, I wish I knew.

I have a bad habit of rolling my eyes while on the phone with customers. The frustration is just too much at times, though, and it’s a harmless means of rebellion. I think it partly stems from having come to expect certain lines from each person that rings up. The reality of it is that I’m only temporary and can only do so much. The customers call all day and they all have a story, stories of issues, illnesses, and situations. The problem is that I hear so many stories in a day that the “shock value” wears off. Not that I’m jaded, I’ve just come to expect the worst when I pick up the phone.

Through it all, I countdown to July, to the end of this placement, to Queenstown, and – most excitedly – to potentially regaining… 

s. a. n. i. t. y.


1 Comment

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One response to “let me spell it out for you.

  1. Janell Rardon

    absolutely hysterical. i am laughing out loud. i feel i am right with you on the job. thank God for the experience, ay?

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