By Julianne Dalcanton | February 14, 2008 1:40 am

So there’s snow in Chicago, and I’m stuck on the tarmac in Baltimore, on the phone to United Airlines, trying to reschedule my connection. But alas, the chipper recorded gentleman has not offered me the option “If you are currently trapped in an airplane, please say ‘Trapped'”. I take the best of the available options, but that man on the phone keeps prodding me for more information, none of which seems to be leading me closer to dealing with the “trapped on an airplane” issue. In increasing frustration, I start muttering “Operator. Operator. Operator”. After which I hear:

Infinitely patient phone guy: “I heard that you want an agent. Is this correct?”

Me: “Y.e.s.”

Infinitely patient phone guy: “Thank you! Before I transfer you, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Me (muttering): “oh fuck you.”

Infinitely patient phone guy: “I’ll transfer you to an agent immediately!”

Apparently, the voice recognition system has an escape hatch.

  • Moshe

    Funny, this never works for me, must be that damn foreign accent, makes navigating those systems a bit of a random walk.

  • eric gisse

    I speak in a clear American accent and it’s /still/ hit and miss. I love going through a half dozen intonations of “yes” before it sticks.

    Sometimes cussing out the system works, as does mashing a key over and over [like 0]. It really is an escape hatch.

  • Fernando

    My very latin accent makes those voice activated systems a pain in the butt for me. My technique is to start cussing out loudly as soon as I find out it’s a computer on the other side of the line.

    Some numbers seem to take me to a real person quicker if I seem really pissed off.

  • http://www.secureconsulting.net/ Ben

    It seems to vary between systems, but I’ve also found that cursing the automaton while demanding customer service will expedite transfer to a real human. They seem to be particularly sensitive to f-bombs. :) I also wonder if some systems have voice stress analysis capabilities.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    I’ve found the following 3 words work nicely trying to get to a real life person, uttered in this order

    (1) “agent”
    (2) “operator”
    (3) “fuck”

    I totally believe that saying f-bombs loudly get you to an agent quickly, but I often wonder if there is a flag on the agent’s computer saying “pissed off customer, treat with care”.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    Hm. I usually start saying “agent” nonstop and then quickly switch to cursing and it still always seems to take longer than it should. But I don’t deal with United much, so maybe they are, like a few people have said already, more sensitive to these things :)

  • Dany

    “M?? ??? ???????, ???? ??????
    ? ? ???? ???? ??? ?????????”

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Funny, I haven’t tried that one. Regarding the pissed off customer, see also Customer Satisfaction (my bank apparently renamed ‘customer service representatives’ into ‘customer satisfaction accountants’). As I learned from an earlier post there are several lists online on how to (allegedly) get connected to a human fast, e.g. http://gethuman.com/

  • JerseyBoy

    I normally don’t even bother. I say “hermitian conjugate”, “chipmunk” or “monoidal bifunctor” a few times and it generally gives up send me to a rep.

    However, I have run into a few systems where there is no failure mode. You get stuck in the “I’m sorry but I have no friggin clue what you are saying” loop ad nauseum.

  • EJ

    For airlines, try yelling “SHIT DAMN!” into the phone. This has worked more than once for me in the past….

  • Amanda

    The current United system is a much better system than the original system it had in place for travel for employees and their families. I would set aside at least 45 minutes to scream at the voice activated phone menu (including my dad’s employee number, my name (which is similar to my mom’s) and the ever elusive origin and destination). There was no operator, it didn’t response to button presses, and it was the only way to book travel on passes.

  • Harv

    A friend of mine once worked for a company who programmed those voice activated systems. No amount of argument would induce him to admit that they were horrid, horrid things. He had nothing but praise for them.


  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    I’ve found United’s “Voice Recognition Man” better than average. In my family we call him “V.R. Man”, and I find myself saying, “Goodbye” when I hang up, which is pretty silly, really.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    But V.R. Man is so slooooooow. It takes foreeeeeeever to give him all the information he wants. That’s why he’s on my list.

    I’d like to add that I would never, ever say F.U. to a real agent, no matter how slow they were. But V.R. Man’s chirpy inefficiency is fair game.

  • Sili

    I can’t find it on LanguageLog unfotunately, but I’m sure I’ve seen this mentioned elsewhere.

    If I recall correctly some systems can even judge the level of frustration in the voice and use that to transfer a caller faster.

    The annoying paperclip thingie in Micro$soft programs can be turned off in much the same way. If in doubt then swear at it and it’ll help you get rid of itself.

    Isn’t practical linguistics fun?!

  • starfish

    One tip for United’s reservation system is that you should register your cell phone number under your united profile: lately, when I have called from that cell number, the system simply asks me “Is this [my name], or someone calling on behalf of [my name]?” and then whether the itinerary is domestic or international. That’s it, and it’s about 1000x better than having to punch in your MP number, tell them whether it’s a new/existing itin, etc. (I am a 1K, so I can’t promise the system is quite as efficient if you’re not super-exalted-elite, but registering your cell phone should still mean jumping through one less hoop.)

    Good luck getting home.

  • Anon

    Most people get discouraged when pressing 0 does not work. Well, it usually does eventually – the trick is to keep pressing it, perhaps 10 or more times.

  • http://apetrov.wordpress.com Alexey Petrov

    I’m wondering if someone could write a code for a laptop (with voice recognition/voice out software) that would talk to those robots until human picks up the phone and then inform you about that. Let robots deal with robots!

  • Dany

    Alexey Petrov:”Let robots deal with robots!”

    Indeed. However, notice the difference between The AstroDyke and Julianne approach. Since he/she is trapped in an airplane and Chicago is closed the purpose of the phone call is completely obscure. It is hard to decide who is more stupid. I think that V.V. suggests a reasonable solution and R.Penrose gave fairly accurate analysis of the general situation.

    Regards, Dany.

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  • Dany

    Bee: “I haven’t tried that one”

    Try that one too:


    Regards, Dany.


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