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What's in a Name...or Symbol?

Saturday, June 22, 2002

This article has an interesting discussion on the "@" symbol. OK, I guess I should confess that I was an English major in college. So, when I use the phrase "interesting discussion" in reference to lexicon, that may very well translate to "put too much thought into something so meaningless." :) Nevertheless, the vague and often contradictory interpretations of such a simple -- and now very common -- symbol serve to highlight the dichotomy between the written and the spoken language, the lay person and the professional, and even between the customer and the ever enigmatic technical support.

What often becomes painfully clear during an hour-long-marathon, tech support session is that not every one is speaking English. Well, we may all be using the English "framework," but that doesn't mean the customer I'm talking to intuitively understands that when I say the word "dot", I mean a period, not the word "dot" spelled out. Better yet, ask someone to type the domain name (whatever the heck a "domain name" is) c4.net, and you're just as likely to get "c4dotnet", "seafour.net", "seefor.net," or any combination thereof.

And nothing -- I mean nothing -- drives people more crazy than when I rattle out a staccato "dub dub dub dot" ("www.") like some kind of submerged, automatic machine gun. Some people are just plain confused; others think I've attained a new level of laziness, a sort of narcoleptic nirvana. In my defense, when you find yourself over pronouncing the letter "w" (duhble-yuuuuu) a few hundred times a day, you'll start looking for ways to arbitrarily eliminate syllables everywhere possible.

I'm joking of course -- well, mostly. :) From a practical standpoint, it can be time and resource consuming for us and confusing and frustrating for the customer. Luckily, we learn and grow with experience, and there are some basic rules which we can follow. For instance, any usability expert will tell you that, when in unfamiliar territory, people tend to take the most literal interpretation of things. So, the word "dot" becomes the letters "d", "o" and "t" spelled out. This alone explains much of the misunderstanding. Experience eventually explains the rest.

So, whose fault is it? No one's, of course. Sure, the support person or technician often makes assumptions that they shouldn't. They get careless with the language when they should pay closer attention to it. On the other end of the phone, customers can get frustrated when they should be patient. Or, worse, they get insulted, believing the tech support person is talking down to them. When this happens to me, I spend the next 10 minutes backpedaling and apologizing -- for what is really just a misunderstanding -- rather than actually trying to solve the problem.

Of course, nothing is born from a void (no pun intended), and sometimes customer support people do talk down to customers. Most of the time, however, there are less nefarious reasons for our misunderstandings, not the least of which is that, with over a million words in the English language, two people can have a conversation and not understand a single word the other person is saying.

Sometimes this can make an ordinary conversation fun. Other times, it can make troubleshooting a problem, well, problematic.. So, I guess, as in most things in life, it is what we make of it. "You say tomato. I say...."

-ben

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