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How Long is One Second?

March 28, 2012

This is a story of an American company outsourcing its IT support to an Indian offshore vendor. Assume that you are a local IT employee in the US urgently requesting for offshore help to recover the crashed system. The business users are screaming at you like hell, unable to ship the products out without the system. After listening to you explaining the symptoms of the problem, the Indian support personnel on the other side of the phone tells you ‘one second.’ You wait for one second, two seconds, five, ten, thirty and then finally ask, ‘hello, are you there?’ You’re partner on the phone responds ‘yes?’ as if nothing has happened during that thirty seconds.  You, a little bit confused and annoyed, will explain the issue again and ask ‘can you find the cause of the problem?’

What do you think your Indian partner will say? – ‘One second.’

Asking for a Time-off

When I was working for an American company contracted with an Indian outsourcer, I saw dozens of cross-cultural conflicts. Asking for a time-out, as in the scenario above, is one of the most common crashes.

Your Indian partner is not doing this to irritate you. He is doing this because he is a dedicated hardworking Indian with a good customer-focus (but not much trained in the cross-cultural communication.) By ‘one second,’ he is asking for a time-out to do his own investigation to check some hypothesis and solutions he came up with. He dives into the problem so that he can fix it as quick as possible because he has a strong sense of ownership and wants to make his American partner (you!) happy.

Too Busy to Explain

The only thing that he doesn’t know is that he can make his partner happier (or less frustrated) by explaining his plan before the time-out. Whereas the US, Japan, and many other countries prefer ‘explanation before time-out,’ Indians’ tendency is ‘time-out before explanation.’

This happens a lot not only in the office but also in the everyday life in India. In the restaurant, for example, your waiter goes to the kitchen in the middle of the order taking saying ‘one second’ (to check the availability of the dish you just ordered.) Your cab driver stops the car on the street and gets off with ‘one second’ (to go to bathroom.) 

Foreign Time Conversion Rate

It is not uncommon in the US or other countries to use ‘one second’ as a figurative way to mean ‘a short duration of time.’ When I call a customer service, they always say ‘please hold for a second’ while retrieving my account information from the database. It takes more than one second, but no more than fifteen seconds or so. In India, however, people stretch ‘one second’ much longer than Americans can tolerate. It easily becomes one minute, ten minutes, or even an hour.

If you are an American (or a Japanese or from any time-conscious countries,) it would be advised not to take ‘one second’ at face value. Convert Indian ‘one second’ to American fifteen minutes, as you do with Indian Rupees and US Dollars, and you will be stress-free.   

Today’s Quote

‘Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope’ by Hal Lindsey

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gowtham permalink
    April 2, 2012 10:05 am

    Accepted! It happens(cross-cultural conflicts). I was previously working for a BPO office, which handles the US customers, providing technical support for their product.
    When I was given training on how to fix an issue for a customer, I was asked to listen a call that was handled by the Indian technical support executive. The issue of the customer was “Coffee tray is Missing!”. How do people expect a tecnical support guy, who gives solutions for PC and laptop issues, to solve this kind of issue?
    But, our guy, did not panic. The call went on for 30 minutes and at last it was found that the customer was mentioning the CD/DVD tray in the CPU as coffee tray. The customer used to use the tray as coffee cup holder and as it went in, he was clueless. In India, even a kid knows what a CD/DVD tray in a CPU is.
    For a support executive, the optimal call duration should not exceed 5 minutes but for a small issue, it dragged on for 30 minutes.
    So, the conversion in time frame between America(or a Japanese or from any time-conscious countries) does apply and it would be advised not to take ‘xx(xx) seconds’ at face value.

    • April 2, 2012 9:19 pm

      Coffee tray! Sometime people are quite creative. I bet there are tons of this kind of stories shared in the call center industry. I saw a couple of books at a local (Chennai) bookstore themed on the call center. Maybe I should read one of these books. Thanks for a nice comment, Gowtham.

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