Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reading Comprehension

Do you remember being taught reading comprehension in school? All of those paragraphs and essays and stories you had to read and then write a paper about, or maybe answer some questions asked by your teacher? Wasn't the idea to teach how to read something, know what it says and be able to think through what its practical implication would be under any circumstance.

For instance, when you pull into a gas station and fill up your vehicle there are directions posted, written for all to read, which are given for everyone's safety. They are not suggestions. No where on the sign does it say "please follow these simple steps." No. These signs say "turn off your vehicle" and "NO SMOKING."

The practical application of these two demands is to keep everyone safe. Gasoline is volatile. Gasoline ignites easily. The fumes from gasoline, when confined to a enclosed space, like a partially empty gasoline tank on your car, will easily blow up. You do not put out a gasoline fire with water. All of these facts, and more, are encapsulated in the presumptive statement "NO SMOKING" posted above the gas pump. The assumption are those using the pump know the dangers inherent in gasoline. Let's not blow up anyone.

We use presumptive statements often, believing those with whom we are speaking understand and accept the underlying assumptions in our questions and comments. I am beginning to believe many people have lost the ability, if they ever had the ability, to listen to or read a statement, and comprehend the implications of that statement. It may be just me, but many of the people with whom I speak on the telephone, calling the library for information, do not understand what I am saying or do not accept what I am saying. Unfortunately, the implication is either I am giving wrong information or they are not comprehending the information I give. I do not believe it is me. I can give the same answer to two different people asking essentially the same question, and one will understand while the other will not.

For instance, most people who call believe they are speaking with someone at the Branch they visit most often. When I say "we answer the phones for all the branches" they will quickly respond with "You're not (fill-in the blank) Branch?" This is not a grievous misunderstanding. I understand their confusion. Our telephone system is not explicit enough. After all, when they look up the number in the phone book or on-line it gives one number for all the branches. Which means, of course, that all the branches have the same number and the persons telephone knows instinctively they are dialing a specific branch. When they see the number next to their branch they dial it not aware that it is the same number for the branch above and below their listing. (Of course, the number in the telephone book is wrong but will transfer the person over to the right number.)

The assumption is when they call they get to speak with someone at their Branch. Most people eventually come to accept the reality they cannot dial their branch directly. Some never come to this conclusion, having fixed in their minds they have a right to speak to someone at their branch and the telephone number given must oblige them. Perhaps I need to do a better job explaining the whys and wherefores of the limitations on actually speaking to someone at the branch.

Of course, most of the time the person only wants to know branch hours or if there is a specific title available.

Again, this isn't a grievous complaint. I'm just struck by the number of people who do not comprehend a simple statement. "We answer the phones for all of the branches" is specific, concise and understandable.

Does anyone have better wording? I'm open for suggestions. Am I making a mountain out of a mole-hill?

Gerald F. Ward


  1. I use Josefina's line: "Calls for all branches are answered at this desk downtown. How can I help you?" I think callers don't understand the "we" - they presume it refers to someone at their local branch. My 2 cents.