Among other things I’ve done this week, I helped Susi apply for a job online. It’s just a simple job, retail associate they call it now, at one of the large chain stores America specializes in. I had to explain what a retail associate was to her. “It’s a very American thing, making a simple job sound complex and important,” I told her.

It was quite the lesson in American culture for the poor woman. I had to stress the importance of time and time management—not that she doesn’t do that anyway, she is organized and her apartment is always spotless, but because it would not occur to her to play up that aspect of her personality.

The application was a new experience for both of us. Last time I applied for this sort of job, I filled out a two-page application with 3 references and a list of work experience and my name, address, and SSN. This time, we started with that, but then we went on to a 90-question “test.”

We had to choose from a range of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” for most of the questions, which were obviously written not only to discover an applicant’s personality (Sample: Sometimes I misplace things. Or: Sometimes I get impatient) but an applicant’s knowledge of English. (Sample: I don’t always misplace things. Even I had to think about that one) A lot of the questions were after the same information, just reworded to trap the unwary. The most popular question had to do with how self-motivated you were. Do you have to be told to do everything or do you look around and see what needs to be done? This question, in various guises, was asked nearly 10 times.

Then came the word problems. These presented a situation and 5 potential responses; you had to choose which was the best and which was the worst. 2 employees are rude to each other. Do you intervene? Tell a supervisor? Talk to them privately? Ignore them? I had no idea. I would personally ignore them, and Susi would too. I suspect we were wrong and we were supposed to talk to them privately. But since when do you have to be an expert in managing humans to work retail?

Say you’ve been working at the store for a while and you know the ropes. There’s a new guy who doesn’t know the ropes. Do you teach him the ropes? During your shift or after hours? Or do you tell your supervisor?

This, naturally, brought up the simple question: Ropes? What ropes? There were lots of idiomatic expressions used. Susi’s English is at a solid intermediate level, I would say, and has plenty of gaps. I explained what it means to “know the ropes” and “teach someone the ropes” and also other expressions, like “to see something through.”

I also brought up the importance of saying what you mean—i.e. to not promise something that you have no intention of doing just to be polite. “This is hard for Arabs; you will feel you are being rude if you tell someone no,” I explained. “But it is worse, in our culture, if you say you will be somewhere and you don’t come.” Crossing cultures is so difficult. There are so many unspoken things, taken for granted by members of one culture, so basic that they can’t even explain them to someone new.

I hope she gets the job. One of the hardest things refugees face is money problems. They are given enough money to cover rent, plus food stamps, for their first 8 months, and by the end of that time they’re expected to know English, be working and self-sufficient, and have somehow managed to pay electric and utility bills, purchase a car and pay for insurance, etc, from the approximately $20/month left over after paying rent. Seem impossible? It is, actually. The more we learn of their situations, the bleaker things look.

But Susi is optimistic. We hit “send” and smiled at each other. I hope she gets the job, because even though her English is not yet perfect, she would be a hard worker and yet kind. I’m worried that when they call her and talk to her on the phone (always more difficult than face-to-face communication for language learners), they will know she had help with the application and will automatically dismiss her, without taking the time to see all that she has to offer.

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