Friday, July 03, 2009

The Illiterate Americans

Many Americans go to school. Many of them even go to college. Many of those who go to school and college become great men and women. What happens to the rest? The illiterate ones who never learnt to read beyond A-B-C-D?

They become post office employees.

They may be slumdog beggars or call center chai-wallahs in poor third world countries. Not here in the US of A where there are equal employment opportunities for everyone. So in this land of plenty where discriminating against the literacy-impaired is a sin, the government provides them with jobs like sorting and delivering mail.

This wonderful fact was revealed to me today when I received a letter by the post. The white envelope that contained it looked somewhat like this:

The most interesting thing about the envelope was that it was addressed in my own handwriting. It was a letter that I had posted yesterday morning. Note the lightning-fast service: this is not a poor third-world country where mails get delayed indefinitely. If it has to be delivered, it is delivered without delay.

At first I was perplexed about the reason of the mail's return. Had I fixed the wrong postage? Was the envelope overweight? Was the recipient's address wrong? The second could not be true of course, and if the third was true, it would mean that the letter went to the destination in another state, verified the address and travelled back across the USA within 24 hours. That is incredible even by American standards of efficiency. I had almost settled on the first reason when it dawned on me that underpaid mails are not sent back to the sender. They are delivered and the fine collected from the recipient. Then why on earth was this letter here?

Then my friend told me that in the US, the postal employees expect the "From" address to be on the top left corner of the envelope. If it is anywhere else, the letter is delivered at random to any one of the addresses written on the envelope. This solved the mystery of the misdirected letter and also revealed this beautiful policy of employing the illiterate for the job of sorting mail, for I could come up with no other explanation for a person not understanding the words "To" and "From".

Believe it or not, there was a time in this very country when a letter written from Japan on the back of a stamp and addressed "Robert Ripley, North America" found its way to the proper recipient. But I am sure the unemployment rate was much higher at that time. In any line of work, there is always a tradeoff between efficiency and accuracy. The line has to be drawn somewhere for faster and faster service. That line has been drawn: we no longer need people who understand the words "To" and "From". Illiterate people who can efficiently look up zip codes and stack mail into piles are needed. They only need to know the digits from 0 to 9: learning all 26 letters of the alphabet and then the meanings of two- and four-letter words (except a few) on top of that is only extra burden.

And besides, it is discriminatory too. Discriminatory against the reading-challenged.

So I take my imaginary hat off and bow to the Americans. Even though I was terribly inconvenienced by the return of this particular letter, what is a resident alien's inconvenience compared to the national employment rate? And besides, resident aliens like me won't make the same mistakes twice. We may be from poor third world countries, but we are not illiterate after all.


  1. Reading the title of the blog made me feel that something in America has hurt u big time...but as I read I found that Americans deserve thier virtual rule over the world unprecendendedly due to their acute business sense:)

  2. @Monami: Acute business sense indeed... by returning my mail stamped with a 44c stamp, they ensured that I rushed and got it sent by priority mail spending $5.00 in the process.

  3. Umm...the exact same thing happened to me in India as well. I had mailed some letters that were supposed to be delivered to the US but wrote the address in the US format. The mail was delivered back to me despite my bold lettering of "From" and "To". So now I put the return address on the non-postage side. That way there is no confusion, no matter where you are in the world.