The American worker and geography

The SIM card in my T-Mobile phone has apparently failed due to some sort of lifecycle limit on the number of connections that it can make to the network (given T-Mobile’s coverage in the areas where I hang out, the phone goes in and out of coverage multiple times per day). A nearby T-Mobile store is on Rt. 9 in Framingham. This is a major east-west highway. I called the store to find out which side of Rt. 9 they were on.

  • “Are you on the north or south side of the highway?” I asked the first clerk, a man.
  • “There is no north or south. We’re in the same shopping plaza as Bertucci’s,” was the reply.
  • “If Rt. 9 is oriented east and west, doesn’t that mean that there would have to be north and south sides of the road?” was my follow-up.
  • “I don’t know anything about north or south,” came the reply.
  • “Boston is to your east,” was my next attempt to orient the guy, “as is the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.”
  • “Now you’re being rude to me,” sulked the clerk. I asked to speak to his supervisor.
  • “Are you on the north or south side of Route 9?” I asked the manager, a woman with a Massachusetts accent.
  • “I don’t know,” she responded.
  • “If I pulled out of your parking lot, would I be going towards Boston or towards Worcester [a city to the west]?” I asked.
  • “You’d be going eastbound toward Boston,” she said.
  • “Doesn’t that mean that you’re on the south side of the highway?” I asked.
  • “I have no idea.”

Keep in mind that these folks represent the relative cream of the American labor force, i.e., the ones whom a big company has chosen to retain.

Related: “America: Let’s stop investing in our kids” and “Some Firms Struggle to Hire Despite High Unemployment” (Wall Street Journal) as well as my unemployed = draft horse? comparison.

Update: Not trusting the folks who couldn’t tell north from south to manage the SIM card replacement process, I went to the Burlington Mall this evening and visited the T-Mobile store there. It is right above the Verizon store, which had about 10 employees and 40 customers. T-Mobile had just two clerks and three customers. The clerk refused to replace my SIM card unless I paid a $21.25 fee (including tax). I objected that it wasn’t reasonable for me to have to pay for a SIM card repair since as far as I knew the old SIM card was T-Mobile’s property under the original Voicestream contract (I started with Voicestream back in 2001 because they were the only U.S. GSM service and my job required frequent trips to Europe). I asked how long it would take to get my old number on a Verizon Droid 2 phone. The clerk helpfully replied “about two hours”. The clerk had me call the T-Mobile 800-number. I requested that they cancel my service, since it seemed like all of the cool people were on Verizon (I’m not on a contract with T-Mobile since I got my G1 phone from a friend). The 800-number folks agreed to waive the $20 SIM card fee and the clerk went off in search of a “price override” code. Before walking out, I feigned ignorance and said “I’m not sure if Google Maps will work yet with this new SIM card. Can you tell me if we’re north or south of Route 128?” [This is the major ring highway around Boston, about 1/2 mile south of the Burlington Mall.] The clerk confidently said “It’s east.”

Upside of the trip to the T-Mobile store: While waiting for this harlequinade to play out, I read Best Android Apps, which they had on the counter. It’s bizarre that the easiest way to navigate among the tens of thousands of Android apps is to leaf through a book, but such is life…

20 thoughts on “The American worker and geography

  1. Elsa: That’s a great idea! I could have asked them to hold an Android phone up and face Route 9 and then had them tell what the Android compass app said!

  2. Phil,

    I am not defending the T-mobile employees for their lack of orientation but I must ask.

    Prior to beginning flight training were you someone who thought in terms of N, S, E & W?

    I have encountered this many, many times and believe that many people just never even think about the points of a compass when they orient themselves geographically.

    You have many colleagues at MIT who are arguably fairly smart people. I wonder how many of them have never paid attention to cardinal headings when they orient themselves. It might be interesting to conduct a straw poll.

  3. When I worked in the Midwest, when I asked directions, I always go the the “Go north, west 2 blocks”. I had no idea of the compass orientation, did these people have an inate sense of North?

    If you grow up in a non-grid city layout, then you might not use that compass orientation to a describe what side of the road. You were giving them a hard time, even if the question was reasonable.

    You are a CFI and pilot on 2 ratings, I expect you know where you are and how to orient. You got Google maps, GPS, etc. Why beat them over the head? Ya, I know, I liek to do it in other situations.

    I ride a n electric scooter, a vespa 250 sized beast, and it says, “ELECTRIC’ on it. I always get asked, “So, what you do, charge it up, plug it in??”…what?

    I respond, because I just cant help it, “Nah….it takes AA batteries from the store. Alkaline, actually. 2300 of the, last a few weeks”/

    “oh…..neat, I think…..” is the usual response.

  4. I’d say give them a break. For the vast majority of the population why does it matter which way east or west is? All people care about is how to get to their destination that is why your “towards Boston” or “towards Worcester” question made more sense to them. Just take a look at how the T operates. Things are either inbound or outbound. No mention of east, west. If you look at the official MBTA map there is no North direction arrow. North just happens to be up but that appears to be the convention to use for maps.

  5. Jon: Was I able to tell north from south before beginning flight training? I believe that this level of geography knowledge was a graduation requirement from my 5th grade class (public school in the 1970s). I don’t remember any of my elementary school classmates having difficulty with the concepts of north, south, east or west. We took a standardized “Iowa test” at the end of 5th grade and reading maps was part of the test if memory serves. Separately, I had to pass and as you can see there is a tough question about geography on it.

    Motzus: What does it matter if someone can’t tell the difference between north and south or east and west? For starters it means that it will be much harder for that person to give or write a description of where Location A is relative to Location B. I suppose you could argue that many people do not need to be able to write or describe anything and therefore almost their entire knowledge of the English language is superfluous. We could save a lot of tax money if schools did not try to teach kids to write and if we omitted adjectives from all classes.

    Newspapers in the U.S. are supposedly written for someone with an 8th grade education and yet searching for “west of” in brings up more than 21,000 articles where the journalist thought readers would know what it meant.

  6. All I know is people on Manhattan seem to think northeast and southwest is north and south, respectively (“Moron: “Go north” Me: “My compass says that none of these streets go north! :(“). All because their silly little island is drawn as such on subway posters. And you can’t convince them they are wrong. 🙂

  7. Who better to sell and demonstrate the utility of a smartphone than an employee who needs one for basic orientation? No one wants to be talked down to by a sales rep. I can see the T-Mobile interview process now:

    “If I’m facing the rising sun, which way does my left hand point?”

    “I have no clue.”

    “You’re hired!”

  8. I usually say “look out the front of your store. Where is Mr. Sun?” They say “he’s on my left!” I thank them then do my own interpolation based on time of day/year and such.

    I’m skilled in marine and land navigation, and reasonably competent with aviation nav as well. I have to confess with a highway that say at a given point is running at say 20 degrees (NE) the idea of “is this store north or south of the highway?” is a difficult concept.

    Having said that, looking at the framingham map its pretty obvious 9 is dead on East-West.

    Phil, try this. Ask some people “what makes an airplane go up? Is it the wings or the engine?”

  9. To those who have airplanes, navigating by reference to true (or at least magnetic) North is pretty important. To those of us confined primarily to navigation by roads, it’s more important to give directions by reference to what I’ve taken to calling “logical North”. That is, the direction that the highway signs call “North”. Which, I suspect, is similar to what “Manhattan Moron Mystery” is referring to in regard to New York navigation.

    Living in a city (Chicago) where highways that spend essentially the entire length or breadth of the United States going North/South end up going East/West locally instead (and vice-versa), this is frustrating, but one adapts.

    Having navigated the roads in the Boston area (where logical direction and actual direction often appear to have no causal relationship to one another at all), however, I am not entirely surprised to find some Bostonians giving up on the whole business in frustration.

    On yet another hand…were I the manager of this store, I’d want to make sure that anyone answering the store’s phone knew how to give directions to it, and answer basic navigational questions such as yours. Even if they’re not exactly up to orienteering, they can at least memorize the basic facts about the particular store they happen to work at. After all, if you already knew Bertucci’s, and T-Mobile is in the same shopping plaza as Bertucci’s, it is improbable that you’d even be asking where T-Mobile was. Ergo, anyone asking where the store is will probably not be edified by “in the same shopping plaza as Bertucci’s”.

    Or maybe Bertucci’s has a huge sign, clearly visible from the relevant road at a distance substantial enough to ensure that you know which way to turn and can get into the proper lane in time. In which case, it might be useful info after all.

    Whatever. The clerk is an idiot, and the manager is a bigger idiot for:
    1. Hiring an idiot
    2. Not telling the idiot he’d hired to memorize the info needed to give directions
    3. Not, apparently, even knowing that info himself
    4. Not realizing that the inventory of his store consists, in large part, of kick-ass technological devices quite capable of assisting him in answering your question…at least one example of each of which is probably powered-up and active as a demonstration model.

  10. In a way this is good news. This story indicates that if you possess basic knowledge, such as understanding cardinal directions, you are qualified to work somewhere more rewarding than a retail store 🙂

  11. Just think if store clerks today had to make change instead of having a cash register/computer do it for them.

  12. I had a very similar experience with an acquaintance. I asked, “Is the restaurant on the north or south side of Valley Blvd?” (I knew that the Valley Blvd in our city ran east-west, which I assumed she knew.) This somehow led to insults and accusations, and all my efforts to explain my question only intensified her anger. Now, years later, I am left mystified, with the emptiness of not understanding what happened.

  13. Something I’ve realized growing up, dealing with people, and even watching games shows like “Who wants to be a Millionaire” or “Jeopardy” is, by and large, Americans are really, REALLY BAD when it comes to geography.

    I understood this at an early age, growing up here in the U.S., when most of my friends didn’t have a clue which way was North, South, East, or West, something that came quite naturally to me, almost an innate ability. Maybe it was because I spent so much time outdoors that I knew by the relative position of the sun which way was east, west, north or south. I also was quite accurate in estimating what time it was, give or take 10 minutes, just by looking at the position of the sun in the sky or the length and direction of my own shadow.

    But I was the exception. Most of my friends and other kids I knew (and grownups too) didn’t have the same ability.

    – Peter

  14. I hire people now and then for the biggest company on earth. I pick the people who sell you cereal and clear carts out the parking lot, who answer the phone when you call and want the toy department. I am familiar with the lowest common denominator, when it comes to human knowledge, in other words. Not surprised, at all, of your experience with geography and customer service. The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know, likewise kids today don’t have to know what a globe is because they have gps on their phones. But if they get lost in the woods, and the way out is due south, they’re flat screwed once their battery runs out. Technology serves people, not the other way around. The ability to properly locate yourself in the world is irreplaceable and it sounds like you met several folks who were utterly incapable of this. Alas.

  15. I’ve also known my cardinal directions since 5th grade.

    Philip seems to think “a job is a job is a job,” and ignores the huge gap between the requirements for a retail work and middle-class / living-wage job. In the middle-class world, general intelligence and education are utterly worthless: the only thing that matters is some hyper-specialized set of PAID, PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE. The amazingly high unemployment rate among young people backs this up. Since PAID PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE is only provided by employers, a person whose old job / industry / technology has dried up seems permanently condemned to the ranks of the working poor, regardless of intelligence or education.

    But the hyper-specialization actually leads to the lack of general knowledge shown by these retail workers. Timothy Geithner is another example of this phenomenon: he foolishly chose an adjustable-rate mortgage at a time of record-low rates, and then had difficulty calculating his income taxes, but yet he was given one of the most powerful financial jobs in the world.

  16. Next time go see Sean at the T-Mobile location in Stoneham (the Redstone Plaza on Route 28). That’s where I go. Call ahead and ask when he’ll be on shift. He’s the best.

  17. Many years ago, I went to collage at Penn, where you might think the Ivy League students might just be a cut above the folks in the phone store. Nah!

    On the west end of campus there were three high rise dorms. While they have since been named, at the time they were simple High Rise East, High Rise South and High Rise North and oddly enough aligned just like that. Conveniently, all this was laid out the Philadelphia street grid that was roughly north/south and east/west. (Technically it was off about 15 degrees, but that’s a different story)

    So I’m walking back to my dorm one night perhaps a bit after five in perhaps mid-November. The setting sun is dropping right between the buildings as I walk along Walnut street. As I get the the middle of Super Block (the area between the high rises), someone behind me asks for help …

    He: excuse me.
    (I turn around)
    Me: can I help you?
    (he shields his eyes from the setting sun)
    He: Which building is High Rise South?
    Me: The one to the south.
    He: Which way is south?
    (I notice him squinting and shielding his eyes to see in the glare)
    Me: Well if you’re facing west, then south would be on your left.
    He: Which way is west?
    Me: You’re new to this planet, right?
    (I point to my right, his left)
    Me: The one right there.
    He: Oh, thanks.
    (he walks off)

  18. Here is an interesting article about cultural differences in how people give directions.
    Sometimes ego-centric directions work better than compass-related ones, as when you are asking a person to look behind them or to move to the left. Wouldn’t it be strange to ask a person to move South-East? And yet some cultures do just that. I think it’s a good thing to have both system available. I’m sure even pilots use the ego-centric mode sometimes.

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