The sign in front said, DIPPED CONE’S HALF PRICE. Dipped cone’s what, I wondered. I mean, an apostrophe indicates possession, right? In any case, I like chocolate dipped cones and I hadn’t had one in awhile, so I proceeded inside the store to get one. It was a hot day, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was only one person in line. I sidled up behind a 40-something-year-old lady and waited to order my cone.
And I waited.
After a few minutes, I grew impatient and began to wonder what the holdup was. Was there a school bus full of children around back, and was she ordering for everyone on the bus?
But pretty soon, the nature of the delay became apparent.
You see, the misspelled sign had also lured the lady in front of me and she had come in to get a butterscotch dipped cone. (Butterscotch? Blech.) The amount with tax for her dipped cone had come to $2.26, so she gave the high school girl behind the counter three dollars and one cent, expecting three quarters in return. Unfortunately, the high school girl had already entered $3.00 as the amount tendered, and the digital readout on the cash register dutifully indicated that the proper change was seventy-four cents, not the seventy-five cents that the lady was expecting. This threw the poor girl off, and she asked for assistance from her manager, another high school girl. The second girl was thrown off by the simplicity of the dilemma; she didn’t realize that the first girl was having difficulty with the arithmetic of the transaction, and the first girl was too embarrassed to spell it out for her. The lady, of course, recognized the problem quickly and instructed the two girls as to what the correct change should be, but this only complicated matters. They had evidently been instructed by some other manager not to accept such suggestions from the customers lest they get ripped off.
Well, after several minutes of ‘ums’ and ‘likes’ and ‘you knows,’ the two girls gradually came to the realization that the lady who had been repeating the seventy-five cent figure with increasing volume wasn’t trying to rip them off, and they agreed to cough up the three quarters. By this point, her butterscotch (blech) dipped cone was melting and she appeared too irritated to enjoy it. On the positive side, the delay had allowed me enough time to assemble exactly the right change so that I would not have to endure a repeat performance of this ‘who’s on first’ routine.
Later in the day, I related this experience to a friend of mine who replied, “Oh well. What do you expect? That’s why they’re working at Dairy Queen.”
And therein lies the problem.
As a culture, we have grown so accustomed to this level of imbecility that it is no longer shocking. We have developed a whole level of employment perfectly suited to accommodate idiots. Unfortunately, we produce so many idiots that they are overflowing from the fast food and telemarketing positions for which they are suited and into regular professional positions. In my work as an office assistant for a downtown legal services company, I routinely encounter memos and e-mails that fail to recognize, for example, that “their,” “there,” and “they’re” are three entirely different words with specific applications in the English language. These memos and e-mails do not come from the janitor or the bike messengers, but from professional men and women who earn as much as 20 or 30 thousand more dollars per year than I do.
Of course, if I crinkle my nose or shake my head at these and other repeated mutilations of basic English grammar, I will be branded with the ‘bad attitude’ label. At best, I will receive the customary ‘standard of living’ wage increase at my annual performance review, despite the fact that my work is exemplary. At worst, I will be fired for a long list of easily deniable allegations that paint me as a disruptive influence on my co-workers. I know this from painful experience; it is not hypothetical.
It isn’t simply a matter of the occasional misspelling or malapropism that’s at issue here. What’s at issue is a rapid deterioration of Americans’ ability to engage in fundamental abstract reasoning, and our collective incompetence with eighth grade level grammar and arithmetic is an agonizing illustration of that deterioration.
Long gone from the American workplace is the so-called ‘war room,’ where every possible perspective on how best to proceed can be heatedly discussed by people who have a genuine interest in doing the right thing. Instead, what we now have are inspirational placards touting the importance of ‘attitude,’ which is a code word for obedience. Honest disagreement is considered a personal affront. And proof of this fact is everywhere, from our airlines to the auto industry to professional sports to NASA to the Pentagon and the White House. We have become a nation of blissfully ignorant, yet deeply suspicious Baby Hueys.
I will hold it and squeeze it and stroke its fur. No wonder Daffy Duck was always so annoyed.
The acerbic, excellence-seeking employee is as endangered as the ozone layer or the Siberian tundra. When Minneapolis’ Hiawatha light rail line was in its planning stage, some of the planners expressed concern for the traffic disruptions the line might cause on the nearby side streets. These ‘doubters’ were quickly labeled anti-light rail, and their apprehensions were peevishly dismissed. Identifying legitimate obstacles to success has become synonymous with pessimism, and identifying corruption and nepotism in the workplace has become synonymous with treason.
Just ask Bunnatine Greenhouse. She is the high-ranking civilian official with the Army Corps of Engineers who expressed concern that Halliburton’s uncontested multibillion-dollar contracts were compromising supply and rebuilding efforts in Iraq. After she voiced her concerns before Congress, she was removed from her job for alleged (but undocumented) poor performance reviews. She joins a growing list of so-called whistle blowers who have been punished for telling the truth.
FBI agents John O’Neill and Colleen Rowley, State Department official Richard Clarke, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, Ambassador Joseph Wilson in the Diplomatic Corps; Air Force Chaplain Capt. Melinda Morton and countless other government and civilian employees have faced punishment in recent years simply for telling the truth about high level ineptitude and favoritism.
Unless we begin heeding these warnings, we are doomed to suffer a catastrophic ‘I told you so’ that will make Hurricane Katrina look like an afternoon shower.
The two girls behind the counter at Dairy Queen were polite and courteous, and that’s all that matters. An ironed shirt and an obedient demeanor are the keys to success in the American workplace. Competence, meanwhile, is left far behind.