As I mentioned in the last post, I avoided speaking in German as much as possible while in Germany. Which is probably why it took such a long time for my German to improve and that it never got to a level that I was happy with. But, there were times when I couldn’t avoid it. Some of those times were when I had to ring up a service provider to complain, or ask about my contract, or something like that. An Australian friend advised to always make ‘them’ speak English to you – it puts them on the back foot and gives you an advantage, instead of making you stressed, sweaty and struggling for words from the get-go. Good advice, even if it made me feel slightly dodgy and entitled expecting all Germans to speak English well enough to provide customer service in that language whenever it was convenient for me.
Unfortunately though, these days, there is usually a computer on the end of the phone which guards the entrance to human interaction. So, whether or not I was going to ask to speak in English, or whether or not I was going to alert the customer service provider to my terrible German, but assure them that I would try to speak in German and could they please speak slowly, I still had to make my way through an automated, voice-and-language activated system before I could get to a (hopefully) understanding person.
So, there are a few problems with the computer-bot on the phone if you’re not confident with a language. First of all, the computer speaks unbelievably fast. Sure, it’s probably a decent speed (maybe even too slow!), for a native speaker, but for a beginner, it is like the computer bot’s mouth is galloping faster than a thousand hyper-speed horses. In daily interactions, there was a good chance I would not understand 50% of what was being said, so I relied on context and body language to clarify people’s meaning. I would use the movement of a person’s mouth to help ‘hear’ German words and woe betide if someone was trying to explain something complex to me while a child was having a meltdown and a rubbish truck was passing and the music was on too loud – too many sound distractions essentially shut down my brain’s translation mechanism. Of course, all these things are extra difficult on the phone – there is no mouth to watch, no body language to follow and phones seem to never be loud enough (I felt like I was already 90 years old with a dodgy hearing aid). Finally, because it’s customer service, they are using super polite German, which means using far too many words to say very simple things. I would have been far happier with a service that just barked slowly and loudly, ‘Kundennummer!’ at me over and over again until I finally worked out they needed my customer number and entered it. All of the thank yous and we’re here to helps just meant that I’d still be translating a greeting in my head when computer-bot would have moved on to what information I needed to provide for it to continue.
And that brings me to the other side of the problem. Not only do you have to understand computer-bot; computer-bot has to understand you. Man, I’ve never had a harsher German teacher than these automated voice services. Most of the time all I had to do was list numbers (a relatively easy task), but the computer-bot would be all, ‘oh, I have no idea what you just said! Was it a drei? Was it a zwei? So confusing your ‘German’ is! I will shut down now.’ When computer-bots first became popular on phone services my father despised them. So, he came up with a system for avoiding the computer bot and being immediately transferred to an actual human. It essentially involved him getting on the phone and yelling, ‘No!’ or ‘Help!’ over and over again until the computer bot gave up trying to understand him and transferred him to a human being. I’ve tried that trick on numerous German customer service lines and in Germany, it seems that if the computer-bot can’t understand you, computer-bot hangs up. Even if you are genuinely trying hard, if computer-bot tries to understand you more than 3 or 4 times, sometimes computer-bot will just hang up anyway. Presumably because computer-bot is tired and has more important things to do than try and understand your ‘German’.
The absolute worst experience I had with German phone customer service was having to ring DHL earlier this year. My Dad sent me a Christmas present and because it was electronics, he decided to order it from Amazon Germany, as it would have the right power socket and because he thought the shipping would be cheaper. One half of the present arrived, but the other half, in a separate packet, never did. I kept waiting for a packet, or a delivery note but after 3 weeks, I decided to ring Amazon Germany. I got on the phone and explained, very politely, that my German was not very good, but that I would try. The woman on the other end of the phone sighed very dramatically and said, in German, ‘Oh my God.’ So far, so good, Jenny’s feeling super-dooper. We managed to get through the interaction and she explained that as far as Amazon was concerned, the packet had been delivered and I would have to contact DHL. So, I rang up DHL and the phone call started off with an extremely complicated list of potential actions that I might want to do or may have enquiries about. I had to make computer-bot repeat itself about 3 times before I made a choice. It turned out to be the wrong choice, as computer-bot gave me a lot of information that I couldn’t understand and then hung up on me. So, I called again. I decided to make a new choice, which was ‘packets’. After that, computer bot asked me if I needed international or national packets. I ummed and ahhhed and decided it was international. I got put through, did my spiel on my bad German and then explained that my father in Australia had sent me something that had not arrived and I wanted to know where it was. The man took the number from me and told me that, unfortunately, this was a national packet, not an international packet (it had come from Amazon Germany), so I had to speak to national packets. Instead of putting me though to national packets, he hung up on me, which was a bit of a surprise, but I figured I knew what I needed to do now, so I called up DHL again, made all the choices and got through to national packets. I explained, again, how very sorry I was but I didn’t speak German very well, but that I would try. I explained that my father in Australia had sent me something and without listening to the rest of the story, the man on the phone started yelling, ‘No, you’ve got it wrong, this is national packets, no, you don’t understand, you’re in the wrong place,’ continuing to talk over the top of me, as I tried to explain, in more and more desperate (and terrible) German that the packet had been sent from Germany, that I’d already spoken to international packets and that they had told me to speak to national packets and then, as he continued to say, ‘no no no’ over the top of me, he hung up.
(At this point, I was so furious that I flung my phone across the room and hit a cupboard. I was also at work, so I had some concerned colleagues come in to find out if I was ok, which resulted in a strange story going around the kita that I had been scammed on the internet – I was so mad at that point that I don’t know what German I was speaking but it was clearly very confused and not in anyway accurate)
I took a few deep breaths and called DHL again. I got through to domestic packets and, even though I had spent the last 5 minutes repeating to myself over and over not to tell the person on the phone that ‘my father in Australia’ had sent me a packet, of course, my brain was on automatic, it had worked out a nice German spiel and it wasn’t about to work out a new one now when it was angry and stressed and sick of the entirety of the German language, so, I said it again. Immediately, IMMEDIATELY, the woman starts telling me I’m in the wrong place, that I need international packets. I’m so panicked that I’m about to be hung up on for the 4th time in half an hour that I yell, desperately, at her in German to ‘Wait! Please! Wait!’ And, because she is a good human (unlike the other man), she stops talking long enough for me to explain, as slowly and calmly as possible, that I have already spoken to international packets they sent me to domestic packets and that the packet comes from Amazon Germany. Of course, she is now furious that I yelled at her, so she takes the packet number from me very grudgingly. So grudgingly, in fact, that she doesn’t listen properly, enters the number incorrectly and then tells me that this packet doesn’t exist and it’s not coming up. She’s so angry at me that she doesn’t even suggest that maybe she could try again, I have to beg her in my terrible German to listen to me list the number again (‘Please. Once more. Please. Please. You try. Please. Once more.’) This time, either my German is clearer, or she’s listening better, who knows, but the packet comes up and she is delighted to tell me that it has already been sent back to Amazon. I ask her why and she tells me that they tried to deliver it, but when we weren’t at home, they took it back to the depot and then I didn’t pick it up in time. They only keep packets for two weeks. I tell her that DHL never left me a note to say that they had tried to deliver it and she gives me the phone equivalent of a shoulder shrug and a comment along the lines of it’s not her fault, that’s the policy and the packet is gone.
Of course, Amazon being Amazon, they just sent me out a new one, but that experience of DHL phone customer service still makes me so angry and anxious that I am currently jittery.
I’m really not saying that I should have my own special customer service line in English (though, as a side note, my health insurance – TK – did provide that and it was awesome). It’s Germany after all. But what was amazing to me was, first of all, how terrifying and intimidating customer service by phone is if you’re not confident with the language and secondly, the level of contempt some people aim at you if you can’t speak their language properly, even when you apologise, even when you’re trying very hard.
Of course, not everyone is terrible. Trying to cancel my electricity a couple of months ago, I got on the phone to my provider Stromio. I did my usual spiel of speaking bad German but that I would try. I explained that I was leaving the country and needed to know how to quit my contract. The guy rattled off a lot of information at top speed. I said, I’m so sorry, I don’t understand what you said. Could you please say it again, slower? At which point, with great gentleness and kindness he said, ‘Of course, of course Frau Williams. Of course I can speak slower.’ And then he repeated it all, nice and slowly, nice and clearly and answered all my follow up questions with great patience. The whole interaction kept me on a high for several hours. It really doesn’t take much.