My mum was really great as a homemaker and as a post office clerk. I wish she was still here to take over from the woman at my local Canada Post office. She would have dealt with the needs of the young Vietnamese man ahead of me and myself in a very few minutes, and she would have done it with good grace.
Mum was very good at her job which, at the time, was quite complex. When I was a child, post offices in the UK were responsible not only for mailing letters and parcels but also cashing pension cheques, issuing television licenses, sending telegrams, and providing multiple other government-related services.
Mum was clever and efficient. If she had been born a generation later and/or in a different social class, she would have been an accountant. As it was, though, she was just really good at doing arithmetic in her head, and she was brilliant at managing money. In our house, every penny was accounted for, and I’m sure that the same thoroughness was applied at her job. The cash register would always have balanced at the end of the day.
In one surprising incident, she also displayed courage and quick thinking; the Post Office was held up by robbers. Mum immediately stepped away from the counter and into an office space where there was a telephone. She called 999 for the police and said, simply “Bandits. Kingshill Avenue Post Office,” and hung up. The police arrived shortly after the robbers left but the bad guys were soon caught and Mum was given recognition by the Royal Mail with a certificate and an award for her bravery.
I have always had enormous respect for her abilities and her work, and I was reminded of it yesterday when I was in my local post office where the clerk was lacking in both work-related and interpersonal skills. I had gone in to mail a small package to the U.S. and ahead of me, at the counter, was a young man trying and failing to understand what the clerk wanted.
It seemed that the clerk was trying to explain to him that, in order to pick up a parcel, he needed to provide identification. The man clearly did not speak English adequately enough for the exchange and he was struggling to understand. First, she asked for his name, and he said his name was Nguyen and that he was of Vietnamese origin. She responded by mispronouncing his name as Na-goo-yen and he then repeated the correct pronunciation. When she couldn’t copy it, I tried to do it for her which put me into the awkward role of quasi-translator. Eventually, she said “Noo-yen” and was able to carry on.
Then, she repeated, “ID. I need to see ID,” several times. When he didn’t get it, I volunteered “She needs to see some identification,” and the light came on. He had not understood “ID” as meaning “identification.” He then produced an identification card, but it was not satisfactory because it did not include his address.
The clerk then said, repeatedly “I need an address. I can’t give you a parcel without proof of address.” By this time, she was obviously running out of patience and starting to yell. He recited to her his address, but this just upset her more. “No, no, no. Do you have something with your address on? Mail? MAIL!” The young man looked to me for clarification so I said “She would like to see a letter that has come to your home and that has your address on it. Can you bring in a letter?” He seemed to understand “letter” more clearly than “mail.”
Then, the man handed to the clerk a small document which he had been holding all along and which, it turned out, was his receipt for a package he had already sent. He didn’t want to pick up a parcel at all! He wanted to know if the passport he had sent to a government office in Ottawa had been received. Belatedly, it dawned on the clerk that she had completely misunderstood his reason for being there, which made her now both angry and frustrated.
She went online to check and was able to assure him that his passport had been received. “Do you want me to make a printout?” she asked. He did not know what that meant. So, she repeated, “Do you want me to make a printout?” Again, he looked puzzled. Then she yelled, “DO YOU WANT A PRINTOUT?” I intervened and said, “Yes, give him a printout.” Instead, she invited him to look at the computer screen and she read it out to him.
By this time, the line of customers behind me had grown to about five people. The young man, very politely, thanked the clerk and me and left. Then it was my turn.
When the clerk had put my parcel on the scale she looked at it in bewilderment and said: “There’s nowhere to put the customs label.” I was taken aback. She meant that there was not enough space on the top of the box where I had put the recipient’s address and my return address. So I said, “Well I guess it will have to go on the side then,” but I was thinking “What kind of post office clerk doesn’t know how to put a customs label on a box?”
Anyway, she did eventually put the label on the side, but she was painfully slow in her work. It took her a very long time to look up the shipping cost and to enter my information into the computer. In doing so she clarified that, because my parcel weighed 1.05 kg it would have to go at the over-one-kilogram rate. She also explained that she only knew how to apply the volumetric weight because she had not been taught any other method. I had no idea what she meant by that, but I just said “OK” to save time. By the time she had finished, there were ten people in line behind me.
As I left, the clerk called out to me, “It may get held up at the border. The hurricane and Trump’s new rules . . . ” I replied, “Oh, that’s just great,” and apologized to the people waiting in line for holding them up.
As I walked home, I thought about my Mum. I often think about her, and sometimes I’m not as appreciative of her as I should be, but yesterday she went way up in my estimation. I wish I had told her how good she was at what she did while she was still alive.
WHAT A TOUCHING STORY! UNFORTUNATELY WE HAVE TOO MANY FOLKS IN THESE POSITIONS AND WAY TOO FEW LIKE YOUR MOM!
Thank you! I agree, but if my Canada Post clerk was new to the job I forgive her.
I love the story of your Mum and her postal work. How wonderful! I think it’s great you became the quasi-interpreter. It sounds like you were also the calm presence the postal clerk needed as well.
Thanks, Lorna. I wasn’t sure how much to intervene. I wanted to say something about the clerk yelling at a man who was not deaf, but I decided it wouldn’t help.
It is indeed a dance, to know what’s helpful and what is not. It sounds like you danced that one very nicely.
I would like to believe it is human nature to speak louder when someone doesn’t understand us, but I cringed when you reported that clerk’s response to their struggles with communicating was to yell. One of my reactions is to try to use the little Spanish that I know, but fortunately, I stop myself from actually doing it.
It seems to me that people who work with the public should be trained to offer alternative words and phrases when they are not understood.
I like that idea!