I have family member I love deeply who can be a teensy bit xenophobic. Their emails are invariably forwarded chain letters that range from cute brainteasers with clip art to hateful Islamophobic tirades. I don’t know where this petite, garden-loving octogenarian gets these screeds from – probably the Klan mailing list they subscribe to – but wince-inducing racism has become a regular fixture of my inbox. What troubles me, though, is that this viral propaganda isn’t always up to the same standard. Not every open letter to Adam Goodes is created equal, and I’ve had to create an elaborate rating system to classify these emails based on eloquence, bigotry and merit. In want of anything else to post, I’ve scoured my vast database for an email to review for your consideration. (Warning – this analytical commentary contains spoilers for the chain email “Telephone Survey”.)
The only question asked was:-
The survey was a complete failure because:
Although the email shows promise, plot holes are apparent from the get go. Why would the United Nations, in one of their famous clumsily worded phone surveys, refer to “food shortages in the rest of the world” in a question directed to every part of the world, even those facing food shortages? The twist is obvious – New World Order mind games. But why did the Globalist Elite fail to fund an effective cross-cultural communication program to ensure that their international gotcha calls were successful? Haven’t they heard of Esperanto? Did they blow all of their Rothschild gold on pale blue lanyards?
In Eastern Europe they didn’t know what “honest” meant
This line refers to the nasty old stereotype that Eastern Europeans are post-modern moral relativists who find the notion of fixed truth meaningless and honesty semantically incomprehensible. I once had a Moldovian mechanic who overcharged me $60 for a car service. I told him that I assumed it was an honest mistake but that he’d overcharged me, and that I really needed the money because I was on Centrelink at the time. The Moldovian put down his spanner and said “how can I be honest when the self is an illusion and I am comprised of countless aspects, personae, drives, fears, and desires; many posed in irreconcilable contradiction; and to act on the truth of any one of these myriad fragments would be to be utterly deceptive from the perspective of others that are by no measure less real?” Then he handed me three $20 notes but as soon as I touched them they changed into a cloud of blood-coloured moths and I knew that I was dreaming.
In Western Europe they didn’t know what “shortage” meant.
Here is the first indication we get that the email is set in parallel universe where the GFC never hit the Eurozone. That universe is much like ours, but with more fiscal hubris and zeppelins instead of aeroplanes. Although the alternate history is clumsily introduced, this conceit is the author’s boldest vision – a world where the streets of Athens still flow with tzatziki and subprime mortgages are loved by all.
In Africa they didn’t know what “food” meant.
This heartfelt humanitarian plea has strong allusions to Bob Geldoff’s awful song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” But while Geldoff’s band-aid solution focused on bringing Christmas to a continent where 60% of the people aren’t Christian, “Telephone Survey” addresses the root cause of famine in Africa: there is no word for “food” in any African language and the concept of eating is strange and frightening to them.
In China they didn’t know what “opinion” meant.
The piece’s presentation of the misunderstood words in English is a major threat to the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. If this line had read “In China they didn’t know what ‘意见’ meant” it would make sense, but as it stands we can only assume that the survey recipients didn’t comprehend the question due to a lack of English skills.
In the Middle East they didn’t know what “solution” meant.
Undoubtedly the comedic highlight of the text, this joke refers to the fact that algebra and the mathematical concept of a “solution” were invented in the Middle East. It’s a wry nod to the vast contribution that people from the cradle of civilisation have made to the furthering of humanity.
In South America they didn’t know what “please” meant.
The email’s flawless symphony of racial stereotypes hits an off-beat when it moves south of the Panama canal. We know that all Eastern Europeans are existential paradoxes and that Chinese people never speak English, but even the most widely-read racialist would struggle to identify a South American by the fact that they don’t say please. It’s said that games are won or lost in the third quarter, and it’s here that the email begins to flail, desperately clutching at straws to stuff the haemorrhaging wounds in it’s narrative structure. What’s next? “In Antarctica they didn’t know what ‘would’ meant”? Please.
In the USA they didn’t know what “the rest of the world” meant.
Some of you might think I’m overanalysing this, but if you don’t think jokes need internal logic then let’s all call ravens writing desks and watch the world burn. Others of you might be thinking that the only vaguely funny part of this blog is the mildly insensitive email I’m misguidedly attempting to mock, and if so I’d like to refer you back to the phrase “pale blue lanyards”, which was a timely and hilarious satire on the United Nation’s impotence in the face of an increasingly headstrong international community.
And in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain everyone hung up as soon as they heard the Indian accent.
The final act of “Telephone Survey” is triumphant yet reassuring. It reminds us that although the world is a chaotic pit plagued with confusion, hunger and violence, we can always depend on jokes about call centres to never change in any way. The successful colonies of the Commonwealth still stand hand in hand, united by our decency, common sense and hatred of listening to brown people.
This chain email lacks the visceral reactionary politics of some other works in the genre but still succeeds in being offensive, not least because of how long it takes to get to the punchline. Problems abound in both the story and its telling, but the character development is engaging and the dialectical subtext is profound. I’m giving “Telephone Survey” three and a half cringes.