I’m So Tense

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve been tempted over the last few weeks to post about the horrible things customers do and say. I’ve also wanted to air out grievances regarding terrible and (borderline) criminal management practices, and the terrible toll that customer service takes on one’s physical and mental health. In short, I want to whine. But why whine when there are so many beautiful things out there, just waiting for someone to notice?

Take, for example, the following line from an email I received today:

“It always has been happened.”

Whaaaaa? you say. Or perhaps I’m being an ass for making fun of someone’s ESL issues. Oh, here goes the jaded know-it-all, right? Perish the thought! As a verb tense, this is a thing of beauty, so let’s cut it open and see how it ticks.

It happened. Once. At some point in time, possibly never again.

It always happened. Routine instances. Points on a line, most often in conjunction with another event. Here. Here. Here. Here and here and here. Up until now, at which point, for narrative reference, it may be happening.

It has happened. At least once, though possible more than once. It may also be “it happened” with “has” as an emphasis, though this would be less formal, more colloquial.

It has been happening. From some point in the past up until and including the present moment. Sometimes incidental, sometimes continual. Typically, set in motion by an outside actor.

It is. Exists now. It was. Before now. It has been. Before–could be again–might even still be.

It has been happening. Continually, from some past point through the present moment.

It has been happened. Before. Passive voice. The connotation is that an outside, unnamed force made the past event or identical events happen.

It always has been happened. In conjunction with other events in the past, the above outside force made it happen over and over again, the most recent instance terminating just before the present moment. Probably, it will have happened again in the near future.

Additionally, it is a permanent affixing of the past tense on a moveable event. The event will never happen. In fact, it never seems to happen. It has always been and will always be finished before it begins. Time, in most other tenses, is the reason for the tense’s existence. We unravel time into a string, and place on its length an object or objectified chunk of time. In this tense, we drop objects like marbles into the malleable mass of jelly that is time. They may move with the internal currents to new locations in time, but inside they always have been what they were.

Hey, at least it is not always having been happening. Unless it’s Groundhog Day.


PhoneMonkeyPNGHere I am, taking your requests. It’s a busy day, but I have a moment. Can I help you?


That’s good to hear. Your request seems simple. Would you like to give me the details, so I can put them into the system?


Great. It seems there’s a considerable sum of money involved here. Would you like a copy of the transaction details, for your records?

That’s okay.

It’s okay?



It’s okay.

So yes, then, or no?

That’s okay.



Okay. Will that be all?

Yes, thank you.



PhoneMonkeyPNGThe last thing I want to do is belittle someone for not speaking English well. I don’t speak it well, and my roots go back to the American Revolution, or so I just learned. But there are times in this job that make one feel under appreciated. All our orders go through as text. This is precisely so restaurant staff, who may or may not speak English, can at least see what they need to make. Occasionally, however, there are issues, and a we will need to speak with someone. We have people on staff who can speak Spanish, and I can get by with minimal broken Mandarin, but that leaves a lot of languages out, and so we have conversations like the following.

“A customer from last night ordered the seafood udon, and asked for no calamari.”

“Yes. No calamari. We no calamari. Japanese restaurant. Seafood only, no only vegetable combination.”

“This udon was served with only calamari.”

“No. No calamari. Restaurant only seafood combination. Calamari tomorrow. Tonight, calamari. No send order today.”

“I’m sorry. I meant they received their dish incorrectly.”


“Ok, so the customer ordered the seafood udon.”


“And they asked for no calamari–“

“Yes. No. Calamari Japanese restaurant. Today. Tomorrow. Send calamari, no vegetable combination. Seafood combination calamari.”

[fast forward 10 minutes]

“Do you understand?”

“Calamari. No calamari. Yesterday.”

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

So, when you ask your customer service rep to help you with something you haven’t tried doing already, this is likely the kind of interaction they’re having while you drum your fingers on the table and think of how the Better Business Bureau should hear of this terrible customer service.

Phone Monkey: All By Itself

PhoneMonkeyPNGAs I have explored before, customer service folk tend to have very warped fight-or-flight responses, and there are two main ways that we deal with this. One is to detach and try to become as objective as possible about the whole scene. The other is to become a balled-up fist of rage. Both have their pros and cons.

There is, however, a slightly better Third Way, which is a lot like Bruce Lee’s style in 1973’s Enter the Dragon. “When the opponent expands, I contract; when he contracts, I expand; and when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” Among other things, Bruce had an expert knowledge of semicolon usage.

But how do you tell when your customer is expanding or contracting on the phone, or even via email? You have to draw from emotional memory. You watch the storm clouds gathering or clearing, and you listen to the wind rustling the grass.

Sentences that begin with “You…” are expanding. Sometimes, this is a misunderstanding of our service, and the customer comes out swinging because they’re hungry and upset. Still, in general (relationships, marriages, friendships, business partnerships, etc), beginning with “you” is generally taken as an aggressive act because whatever comes after is unloaded upon the other person. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding, and one person feels hurt. Maybe there is fault. Coming out aggressively immediately puts the other person on the defensive, which significantly lowers the chances of a satisfactory resolution. Even if the intent is just to unload baggage and vent anger, the likelihood of the other person actually listening to the complaint and noting the important parts for future reference is pretty close to nil. They’re probably just waiting for it to be over so they can think about just about anything else. “You” is a tornado warning. Typically, it goes the direction of, “You need to fix x right now, or I’m going to file a complaint with the BBB.” Occasionally, phone monkeys will occasionally get, “You are awesome! I love you guys!” It’s rare, though, and it throws us off our game.

A more neutral stance begins with “I…” and continues on about the things that affected the customer. It seems counter intuitive–that a more objective approach would be a more contracted stance–but “I” is self-indulgent, and as such, can go either way. Much like a cloudy day, if you take an umbrella out with you, it’s probably not going to rain, but the one time you forget, you’re guaranteed to get soaked to the bone. Think about this fairly typical complaint: “I found something wrong with my order.” Ominous, but not a threat. No fight or flight.

But follow from that… “It arrived without the crispy chicken, making me very sad.” They contract, and we expand, immediately reaching out to the right people to right the wrong.

But the alternative… “[T]he whole order was wrong. [N]ot impressed, very disappointed.” It’s subtle, but see the difference? Specificity and a shrugging off of a sense of entitlement really do go a long way. A little sense of humor helps, too. Can you guess whose issue was resolved first?

Customers rarely use the contracted stance. I attribute this, so far, to a misconception that asking for help is equivalent to begging. While we don’t want customers coming to us with axes and pitchforks, we don’t want them groveling, either. It’s embarrassing for us and for them. We’re in a relationship of trust. There’s something deeply wrong if either party has to worry about being rejected. Far from being a form of weakness, the contracted stance is open, like a clear sky, and allows us in to investigate and troubleshoot. “Here’s what happened…” it might begin. And like many once-upon-a-time stories, it’s more than likely to have a happy ending.

When the solution to the problem is clear to all involved, we won’t need to fix it. It’ll fix itself.

(For Day 12)

Open Letters

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve begun to loathe the open letter, as practiced on the Internet, so I began searching around for open letters. Here are some of the ones I found.

A working mom’s open letter to Gwyneth (New York Post).

An open letter to the teachers of my daughter (Times of India)

Dear Harvard: You Win (The Harvard Crimson)

The public feud between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow (The New York Times: Part 1, Part 2)

An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself (LA Weekly)

And for crying out loud, McSweeny’s has an entire page of “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.”

But why, you might ask, does this man hate the open letter? With a few possible exceptions, which I will talk about in a moment, the answer to this question is sleaze. Now understand: I am not saying that Harvard’s rape victim is sleazy; nor do I necessarily think that Gwyneth is all that sleazy (because I really have zero opinions about her either way). The sleaze (and I promise to stop using that word) is the gross spectacle. While, in the Internet Age, we are all becoming accustomed to losing our privacy as more and more of our private lives becomes digitized, the open letter exposes for public consumption something that could and should have remained private.

It’s not always a Bad Thing, though, as the “Dear Harvard” letter shows, for it, like some others out there, are the contemporary equivalent of Langston Hughes’ “Open Letter to the South” or Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, essentially an open letter nailed to a church door (though, not so much with the Hughes poem). While the side-effect of their publication may be a thorough public shaming, what sets these kinds of letters apart from their monstrous counterparts is that the intent is reform.

What separates these brilliant, rare, reformative open letters is the other intent, to play to a crowd–particularly an unruly Internet mob. From the letters that aren’t the reformative type, if you took away the public aspect, they would more often than not operate just as well as a closed, private letter. But the intent is to draw attention to the writer. The subject of the letter is typically not as important as the raising or lowering of social status, which is why the McSweeny’s letters, meant to be comic, are the other exception.

There is a whole genre of open letters that, while addressing a personal gripe, aren’t particularly serious. They operate on the same level as any other open letter, but with a few changes: a public shaming roux and a heaping tablespoon of self-aggrandizement, but with a pinch of self-deprecation, and a sprinkling of bons mots. Tongue-in-cheek rants, like the very lovely “An Open Letter to Bearded Hipsters” (and the subsequent apology, which fits well with another article I’ve written, speaking of self-aggrandizing), take those weirdly pornographic public displays of meanness and strip them of their import. Perhaps it’s why taking a legitimately reformative open letter seriously is increasingly difficult. I mean, why would I take the Gwyneth letter seriously when I seriously want and expect it to be a little something like this:


Of course, that brings up the last kind of open letter, which like the jackalope is extremely rare, and, oddly, often musical–or at least often enough to worth noting. What do I mean by often?

Often enough for me to embed two YouTube videos in this post:

Until tomorrow, you crazy kids.

Recap: Taipei

Back in March, I went to Taipei for a birthday vacation and to visit my parents. My mother is teaching art at one of the local universities for a semester, and my dad, along for the ride, is spending his time trying to learn Chinese. On Skype, I could see that one wall of their tiny apartment is papered with pale yellow Post-Its, on each a different Chinese character. In person, that wall revealed itself to be merely a half a wall, the rest occupied by cabinet space and a kitchen counter. But aside from watching my parents move around in a far smaller space than they’re used to, I had a couple other observations about Taipei that I’ve been rolling around like a hard candy on the tongue.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived is that there’s some English in use, but it is definitely not Kuala Lumpur, where you can stagger around vomiting English and expect everyone to have at least a vague notion of what you’re on about. Mandarin, particularly the Taiwanese variant, is definitely the way to go. You obviously can get by with the typical pointing and numbering, but if you have a scrap of dignity it helps to know basic stuff. Even if you can talk like a caveman (“Eegah shtemlo!”), you’ll save a lot of time and awkward stares. I learned a something about myself through this: even with the beginning-level Mandarin I have under my belt, I can understand a lot more than I thought I’d be able to; on the other hand, the crippling fear of failure that has plagued my personal and professional life for as long as I can remember applies to speaking. On multiple occasions, I’ve stood in front of a room of people and performed some truly terrible comedy, but faced with one waiter and an empty coffee shop, not one word of anything remotely Chinese sounding passed my lips. If I’d wanted chicken wings, I’d have ordered a breast or thigh instead. That said, the layout of the city and the way people conduct themselves is very reminiscent of a city like San Francisco (at least the 1990s version that I remember), which alleviates some of the language-barrier complications.

The other thing I noticed when I was there was the love of doors. Seriously, doors–and gates, too–are a thing. Walking down the street, it’s difficult to find houses or apartment buildings in close proximity that have the same style or design of door. Instead of carrying on about it, I’ll just post my favorites below. They all link to the original photo on my Flickr page.









_MG_3575Maybe it’s obsessive, but I found myself drawn to this little intricacy. I’ll probably come back with more doors because I’m due to return in about a month to pick up an engagement ring I ordered.

Oh. Did I bury the lead there? It’s only under about 450 words–a pretty shallow grave. Don’t worry. I have 50-something more days of this, so I might make a game of seeing how deeply I can bury a lead.

A Brand New Set of Synapses

I don’t know if Chinese New Year resolutions exist, but if they don’t, I’m giving birth to them right here on my desk. While you live with that image for a moment, I’ll tell you about my CNYR. I am learning Mandarin.

I’ve always wanted to learn Chinese, and now that I’m within scud missile range of China, I figured I’d give it the old college try. Actually, I tried to learn Japanese in college, so perhaps that isn’t the best idiom. I’m going to cram Mandarin into my skull, with the butt-end of a broomstick if necessary. There. Much better.

Practically, Cantonese would be the better version to learn while in Malaysia, since it is far more commonly spoken, and Hokkien, one of its dialects, would at least be semi-intelligible. It would be nice to be able to speak to people here in a language that I could take elsewhere (Bahasa Malaysia is pretty specific), so maybe I’ll find some way to learn it before I leave. That’s not to say I can’t take Mandarin with me–I’ll definitely try to use it when I travel–I just don’t know how much mileage I’ll get from it here.

Unfortunately, the way my life is scheduled at the moment, I don’t have time to go to a physical classroom and learn Cantonese. So Mandarin it is! To start me off, I got the full five-course set of Rosetta Stone instruction while it was on sale. It still cost a pretty penny, but honestly, the system seems interesting, and I’ve definitely had moments where I can pick a few words and phrases out of eavesdropped conversations. I think I should probably start consulting different sources for phrases like “white devil” and “hairy one,” but first things first.

I had an idea how tough it would be to pick up any Chinese language, mostly because they are very tonal, and while I’m not tone deaf, my few bouts with karaoke could be described as bizarre or off-putting. Even hearing the tonal differences is difficult, though. As a native American English speaker, the part of my brain that picks up on subtleties of inflection is severely atrophied. Picking up on the variations fěng, fèng, féng, and fēng when they’re alone is pretty easy. In context, in a sentence, next to other words? It kind of hurts at first.

But, hey, perhaps adding a bit of inflection to my monotone drawl will be a good thing.

One last thing about this whole venture. I had a weird thought today about the act of learning a different linguistic structure. Maybe I’m afraid of commitment, or maybe I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of reorganizing part of my brain, but learning a language feels a little like entering into a long-term relationship. Most of it is good and shiny and happy, but you find yourself in a position where you have to share your space and occasionally clean up the other person’s mess. And the longer you stay with it, the more permanent it feels. In a relationship, that just means reorganizing your life a little (or a lot, like moving to Malaysia), but with language, it means rewiring your brain. Not only does this color ♥ has different sounds and symbols attached to it, but the place it appears in a thought is different. It’s like letting an electrician into your home, blindfolding yourself, and telling him to rewire all the switches.

It’s bananas, man.