Who’s Polling Whom?

Last night I got a phone call from a polling organization that wanted to ask me some questions about local “upcoming elections and issues.” I listened to the introductory remarks politely but soon found myself persuaded to ask a question.

“Where are you calling from?”

If you don’t have a phone blocker, or answering machine and still pick up your phone from time to time, you likely have listened to “Tina” or “Amy” from a remote area of Bombay or a Manila suburb try to sell you a re-financing deal or a scheme to eliminate your credit card balance. I can’t help but engage these callers and usually, indiscriminately ask them from where they’re calling.

“South Dakota,” the young male voice answered.

“Hmmmm,” I wondered. “How long have you been working for this company?”

“Two months,” he replied.

“Well, I can barely understand you, so please speak clearly.”

We agreed to continue and I was told it would take 13 minutes. The questions were all over the place, and it became clear that the young man was unfamiliar with how to pronounce some of the names of persons, places and things he was asking me about. Do you “support; very strongly, strongly, not very strongly, not at all.” It went well enough until he got to a question that required him to say the word incumbent. He fumbled it a couple of times but I was able to understand what he was trying to pronounce so I interrupted.

“In-cum-bent,” I said slowly. Then I asked him if he knew what the word meant.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” he replied shyly.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Eighteen,” he replied.

“Are you in high school?” I asked.

“I’m a freshman in college,” he replied boldly.

I told him to listen carefully and took the next minute to define what an incumbent was and relate the word to the work he was doing in polling potential voters as to questions of whom they would support or vote for in the upcoming elections. I added that at eighteen years of age he was likely to be an eligible voter and knowing what the word incumbent meant seemed to me a minimal necessity of his civic duty. I also told him to take the script home and practice reading it more smoothly, and finding out what words like incumbent meant.

I told him to improve his skills and maybe he could be advanced at the little company he was working for. It was good advice.

But I wondered as I hung up the phone, as you may be wondering now. How many 18 year olds like this voted in November 2008.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute — www.acton.org — and is reprinted with permission.)

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  • Living in the heartland, I have a short fuse for call centers that staff people who can’t speak English. My phone company has a new practice: they state the location of their call center when you call in. So they will say, “This is Jim in Sioux City, Iowa, how can I help you?” It’s really nice to talk to someone with a shared linguistic background. I think more companies should adopt this practice.

  • mallys

    Sigh. Even here in South Dakota, we are losing our children to education that doesn’t educate in civics, government, grammar or phonics (incumbent is a three-syllable, phonetically regular word.)

    It’s bad enough when a person in Mumbai is having problems pronouncing his second (or third) language, but it is horrendous when our own children cannot speak/read their own language or follow their own political system.