Why would the post office ask your name when sending packages overseas?
November 18, 2005 2:13 PM   Subscribe

U.S.PostOfficeFilter: I was sending a mix CD overseas. My handwriting's a bit sloppy, and the postal worker wanted me to spell my last name. He also wanted to make sure he was pronouncing it correctly, which struck me as odd and potentially superfluous. Why would he care?

Is he required to ask this when the name's not legible, or was he just being nosy?

And if the Post Office and/or Customs Office are collecting names and correlating them with package destinations, why? I understand that people have used the mail for terrorist activities before, and might use it for that again, but couldn't people just as easily write a fake name as they could their own? If asking the name is required (and I'm not sure that it is), what good would it serve the government since they don't ask for matching ID?
posted by Tuwa to Law & Government (21 answers total)
I'm fascinated by names. Many years ago, when I worked retail, I'd ask people similar questions about their names (pronunciation, derivation). I hope it's something benign like that.
posted by weirdoactor at 2:23 PM on November 18, 2005

Last I checked it was not illegal to ship a package under an assumed name. I personally like to use Nonoya Bizzeness.
posted by camworld at 2:30 PM on November 18, 2005

When I was studying in Rome, I remember something about a fellow student receiving a package from home and having to pay a duty on the declared value of the contents. Could it have something to do with the duty process? (So you can decline to pay for a shipment from a sender you don't know)
posted by misterbrandt at 2:33 PM on November 18, 2005

Like weirdoactor, I find names interesting. I run across a lot of them in my work, and am entertained by all the novel surnames I encounter. This USPS guy may well have been curious rather than nosy. (Though, of course, if it strikes you as nosy his intent doesn't matter much.)

And now I'm curious about your last name.
posted by cortex at 2:51 PM on November 18, 2005

Did he use your name when you left? When I worked in retail, they would say "use the name of the guest (never the customer, of course) to make them feel more special" or something like that. So maybe he wanted to pronounce it right so he could say "thanks for using USPS, Mr. Jingleheimerschmidt."
posted by AgentRocket at 2:55 PM on November 18, 2005

Which USPS shipping service did you use?

If you used their GXG international service the courier service that actually carries those shipments needs the correct name of the shipper for their Customs manifest. This would be absolutely true for any private carrier moving freight internationally.

Some requirements that apply to private carriers do not apply to postal shipments. I don't think USPS has to manifest letters and such but they may have to do so for packages.
posted by Carbolic at 2:56 PM on November 18, 2005

Forget curious, what about just being polite? Maybe he just wanted to know how to pronounce your name so he could use it correctly.

On preview, like AgentRocket said.
posted by dness2 at 2:58 PM on November 18, 2005

So it might have been idle curiosity, not meant to be invasive. Not a problem. He didn't use my name when I left, no. He didn't address me by name at all, just asked how it was pronounced and typed something in. I have no idea if it was my name or something else (maybe something having to do with the computer interface--I have no idea).

Erm, it was just counter service at one of the post offices. I don't know what GXG is exactly, but from the writeup at usps.gov, I think that's not what I got. I just asked for air mail, said I didn't need insurance, and declared the value on the customs form as $2 (it's just a CD-R and a case).

One of the postal workers yesterday, when I was sending another CD overseas, told me I didn't need a customs form because it weighed less than a pound. Every other time I've sent a mix overseas the workers thought I did, so today I just got the form like usual and filled it out. This is the only time the last name has come up (maybe it was more legible the other times), but I've always seen them typing something.
posted by Tuwa at 3:10 PM on November 18, 2005

A lot of USPS offices have been privatized. Part of the new training is that the folks who work with customers are supposed to be polite. Pronouncing someone's name incorrectly can be perceived as very rude, so most guides on how to be polite in the workplace say that you should ask how a person's name is pronounced if you're not sure.

As the bearer of a nearly-universally mispronounced name, I find it quite nice when someone who's using it bothers to find out the right way to pronounce it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:33 PM on November 18, 2005


And everyone borks "Millard" as "MILL-erd", so I feel your pain.
posted by cortex at 3:47 PM on November 18, 2005

Yes, I understand. :-) And what I hear all the time is "Last name ... no, your *last* name." But I don't find the argument convincing in this case because the man never used my name at all. I'm just puzzled by it.
posted by Tuwa at 4:14 PM on November 18, 2005

My parents and uncle all worked for the post office (my mom still does). I am sure they have asked the same questions that this fellow did. My whole family is fascinated by names because our own last name has a bizarre pronounciation (which I no longer use, having moved out of my hometown).

Anyway, because my family's postal role exposes them to a large variety of names, we all pay a lot of attention to names. My mom especially loves names that reflect the person's occupation. A cook named Baker, a career counsellor named Workman, a psychiatrist named Misri. Stuff like that. My parents will also notice if a Farmer lives on Stable Place or if Ovans married a Baker. (All real examples.) Yes, we're strange. But it's a free hobby. ;)
posted by acoutu at 5:01 PM on November 18, 2005

I can't tell if it happened like this, but sometimes when I'm taking down someone's name, they'll start spelling it without first saying it. I have a hard time with that, but I can follow along easily if they say the name and then spell it, because I use both pieces of info to double-check that I'm writing it correctly.

So if I saw on a form some messy letters that looked like Sxjsjkldslwyz or something, and the person started spelling aloud without saying the name ("S (x? f?), z (b? d? e? v?)...") I would ask them to say the name ("Szczepanski") so that I know where to begin and when it seems like I misheard something.
posted by xo at 6:28 PM on November 18, 2005

Because of my name's odd pronounciation, I used to always start by spelling. That is, until someone said, "Thank you, Ms. Seeyotiu."
posted by acoutu at 8:48 PM on November 18, 2005

My wife's last name is spell EXACTLY as it's pronounced. But it's Czech so people mispronounce it anyway (they look at it, think it's impossible to pronounce and then proceed to mangle it).

I, on the other hand, have one of the most famous last names in computers and it's easy to pronounce. My wife's family always uses my last name when making reservations at restaurants, even when I'm not there.

BTW, our cat's vet is Dr. Katz. True.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:27 AM on November 19, 2005

acoutu, you obviously don't have to answer this, but since you seem to use your actual last name as part of your username (if your "Thank you, Ms. Seeyotiu" is accurate), being one of those fascinated by names and pronunciations, I have to ask: how does the family pronounce Coutu, and how do you now pronounce it? I don't think I've known anyone who deliberately changed the pronunciation of their family name before, and frankly I wouldn't have any idea how to pronounce that name except in a French context. If you were just making up the quote to fit your username and your actual family name is something different, please ignore the question.
posted by languagehat at 6:33 AM on November 19, 2005

Okay, don't laugh. They say "Koo-chee". You can stop laughing now.

There's no reasonable explanation for this. The best I can do is point out that my great-great-grandfather worked on the railroads with a bunch of Italians. Being an Italian in North America at that time was not exactly a great thing, but it was a heck of a lot better than being a French Canadian. So, when Coutu was pronounced lightly as "Cootchyu", some of the railroad guys thought it was "Kucci". And my great-great-grandfather just went along with that. This makes sense to me because of the discrimination against French Canadians.

As late as the 40s or 50s, my grandfather was mistaken for being Italian -- something he gladly accepted. One day, a guy asked him something about Italians and my grandfather said he was actually French Canadian. The guy said, "Me too!" And my grandfather said, "Since when is McCready a French Canadian name?" And the other guy said, "It's Mercredi. You think I'm going to say something if they think I'm Scottish?!"

Anyway, the name is still pronounced that way in parts of Canada. And I don't know if my explanation is real. Maybe there's some other reason.

When I moved to the big city and had to say my name all the time, I got tired of having a name that made NO sense to anyone. So I started saying "Coutu" in a slightly Anglicized way that gives a minor nod to the original French. (I'm in an Anglophone society, so no sense in trying to use the French Canadian accent, which would lose most people, especially US customers.)
posted by acoutu at 11:43 AM on November 19, 2005

we all pay a lot of attention to names.

As somebody with an unusual, "funny" last name, please be advised such attention can be annoying, especially in a post office situation. "Your name is ____? Really? Blah blah blah"

The target of this attention is thinking, STFU, I've heard it all before, countless times -- just gimme my change. And the queued-up customers in line probably don't appreciate the increase this type of chatter adds to their waiting-time.
posted by Rash at 11:43 AM on November 19, 2005

One day, a guy asked him something about Italians and my grandfather said he was actually French Canadian. The guy said, "Me too!" And my grandfather said, "Since when is McCready a French Canadian name?" And the other guy said, "It's Mercredi. You think I'm going to say something if they think I'm Scottish?!"

Boy, am I glad I asked -- that's a great story. In fact, I think I'll blog the sucker.
posted by languagehat at 2:09 PM on November 19, 2005

but couldn't people just as easily write a fake name as they could their own? If asking the name is required (and I'm not sure that it is), what good would it serve the government since they don't ask for matching ID?

Well, I know that at a lot of places that have to check age (like bars and nightclubs), where people often try fake IDs, the bouncer might ask the person to spell their name, give their address, etc., to prove they are who they claim to be. If you'd written a fake name that you hadn't bothered to memorize, and then couldn't spell it or pronounce it, maybe your package needs to be flagged for extra checking or something. (It's not illegal to use an assumed name but it's pretty damn suspicious.)

I am usually the last person in the world to attribute anything to race, but your unusual last name and/or skin-tone wouldn't happen to be Arab-looking, would it? Depending on where you shipped from, that might make the postal worker want to "just check" a little more.


Or, much less sinisterly, it could just be idle curiosity. I'd put it at about 50/50 (or, cynically, a little more if you're indeed of the Arab persuasion).
posted by SuperNova at 5:27 PM on November 19, 2005

No, we don't make comments about names. We just observe them. Also, there's no time in the postal line-up for anyone to start a conversation about a name. You'd soon be fired!
posted by acoutu at 8:26 PM on November 19, 2005

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