Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Postal Stupidity

I would like to say that I admire and honor the dedication of our nation's postal workers, especially after they pulled us all through such a busy holiday season. But I can't say that, because I've dealt with the U.S. Postal Service too often.

I will say nothing of international packages, shipped in double-thickness boxes and covered with extra-strong strapping tape, arriving in conditions ranging from "This looks like a truck backed over it repeatedly" to "Does AirMail mean they make a low pass over the destination address and drop it out of the plane?" I will not mention packages being returned after the time-limit for a refund because, while they were in transit, the Post Office changed its policies and canceled service to the destination country. Today I will merely complain about "Return to Sender - Not Deliverable as Addressed - Unable to Forward."

I got this message on two Christmas cards I had sent out this year. Both of them were made out to people whose addresses I had recently updated in my contacts list. My brother, for example, had just moved, and I had his new address on the best authority: his own, corroborated by our mother. Maybe the P.O. refused to deliver it because I spelled "Court" Ct. This is acceptable in St. Louis. I should know; I live on a Ct. and mail with that abbreviation comes to me all the time, including my Christmas card to my brother, which has Ct. in the return address. If they can't deliver a letter directed to a Ct. but they can return one that originated in a Ct., the P.O. has the same problem as the phone company - whose computers are programmed to instantly deafen you with an error "beep" if you incorrectly dial, or fail to dial, a 1 prefix. They are clearly smart enough to know what you mean, but they have to be a jerk about it and correct you if you make the tiniest mistake.

This is a tendency that stirs up my innate grouchiness. For another example, I hate it when someone interrupts me to correct my pronunciation of a word. I have accumulated a huge vocabulary chiefly by reading a lot. This put me at risk of knowing how to use a word before I hear it spoken aloud. So when I enthusiastically blurt out my new vocable, I sometimes say it wrong. And sometimes, the person I am speaking to finds it necessary to stop me and correct my diction. Which leads me to observe that he or she perfectly understood what I was saying. Which, in turn, leads me to wonder why it was necessary to correct me. If my meaning got through, what's there to correct? And if there's no point in correcting me, why do it except, perhaps, to put me down?

If I got a blank look from someone - if they stopped me and asked, "What was that word again? I didn't understand what you said" - then I would certainly profit from the chance to clean up my diction. In a language where many words can be pronounced multiple ways, depending on regional dialect and so forth, it's pointless to worry about saying every word correctly unless you're auditioning for a role in Pygmalion.

Sometimes I get taxed on a word I've used my whole life without being challenged. Sometimes it's a word whose pronunciation I learned from parents or teachers. Sometimes I've checked my pronunciation against reliable reference works, or changed it after being previously corrected. None of these precautions are enough to safeguard me from the irritation and humiliation of being publicly interrupted and corrected by someone who believes I've misspoken. I've let one smart-aleck retrain me to say a word otherwise than I originally learned it, only to have the next person who heard me use it tell me I was wrong again.

The worst example of this had to do with the name of the state of Oregon. As far as I know, everyone who lives east of the Rockies says "Oregon" with three syllables, accent on the first, shwa on the second, open-O on the third. Folks who have lived in Oregon, and perhaps also its neighboring states, seem to prefer a two-syllable pronunciation, with a silent E and a shwa in the second syllable. "Ore-gun," or something like that. Well, I can't help the fact that I've said "Ora-gone" since I learned the names of the 50 states by heart in about 2nd grade. But demanding that I instantly remap my brain, to process the change from Ora-gone to Ore-gun and put it into effect every time I mention the state, is about as reasonable as asking me to type more quietly (as one former co-worker did), since I learned to type around the same time I learned to ride a bicycle. Maybe I could manage it, if I unlearned the habits of a lifetime and started all over again, but that's a lot to ask of someone whose typing speed is his most marketable skill. And Mr. "Ore-gun" kept quietly correcting me every time I said "Ora-gone," as though my very understandable slip really ticked him off and he couldn't bear to hear it a single time without saying something about it. I may not have come across to him as the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but frankly, I found his intolerance disgusting. It did nothing to motivate me to accommodate his compulsion to hear Oregon pronounced in two syllables.

This compulsion to correct, as I said, is one of my pet peeves. In spite of my vocabulary's tendency to grow more through reading than conversation - and the occasional oral slips that occasionally embarrass me - I never, even when I use such words, intend to look like I know more than I do. Although I really do know quite a bit, if I may say so. So it isn't really so much the slight at my pride or my intelligence that irks me, as the pettiness and unwillingness to compromise implied by such a mania to correct people. This is why I try not to point out when other people slip, unless I simply can't understand what they're talking about.

A few years back, I had a nice exchange of letters with a theologian whose teachings I regarded as false. It gave me my first experience of having my spelling corrected when it was already correct. I accused my erring colleague of "hubris," spelled with a u, as one can find it in any dictionary of the English language and in many pieces of reputable, English prose. In his response, my opponent repeatedly and pointedly spelled it "hybris," which (I take it) is a direct transliteration from the original Greek. The subtext, at least as I read it: "I offer you this gentle correction as one whose education is far more advanced than yours." So I made sure, when I wrote to him again, to stick tenaciously to the spelling "hubris." The subtext, as I intended him to read it: "I know Greek, you snob. I also know English. And, perhaps more importantly, I can tell the difference between them."

This disease of verbally correcting that which is not incorrect - at least, not so as to disrupt communication - is what chiefly irks me about the U.S. Postal Service. For I have sent letters with the wrong ZIP code, the wrong street number, and even with no street name or number at all, and they reached the person intended. I have sent letters to expired addresses and they were still forwarded. I have sent letters with insufficient postage, and they made it (albeit with postage due). But on the more obnoxious side of USPS, I have sent a letter to the correct name, building, street, city, state, and ZIP, only to have it returned to me because I put down the wrong apartment number. Worse, it had been the correct apartment number, only the addressee had recently moved within the building. And the USPS, though capable of putting a letter in the right box even if there is no apartment number on it (provided the name corresponds to someone in the building), couldn't sort something addressed to Jane Doe, Apt. 4 into the mailbox of Jane Doe, Apt. 2. It had to come all the way back to me so I could send it again, with fresh postage and only one digit's difference in the address.

That's not just stupid. It's mean-spirited. But you won't see private shipping firms treating their customers that way. That's the unmistakable touch of a Federal Agency.


Robbie F. said...

Turns out my brother's card came back because I left the apartment number off. Aaargh!!!

Tobia said...

My best friend has learned not to send me any of his delicious baked goodies. At least, I assume they are delicious, because I never get them. Unfortunately, it took his entire special edition Pringle can collection - his mailing package of choice - before he got the memo.

I hope whoever seems to be eating them at some post office between there and here had an excellent snack, because I'm sure they wouldn't have noticed the packaging theme. *sulk*