Offshoring the help desk

If you think it is hard to understand people on off-shored support lines, spare a thought for those of us who get to do house calls in the more rural parts of Merry England. Blogger Jeff Dray illustrates how a common language can divide a nation.

It is so common as to be the norm these days for help desks to be centralised in a single location which, thanks to the technology we support, can be just about anywhere in the world. This can lead to great cash savings for the company, but to some interesting communication misses.


A communication miss is a situation where something is said but cannot or is not understood by the person it is said to.

Help desks are increasingly being either centralised or outsourced to third-world countries, where labour costs are much lower and employment law is more lax. This can mean that, when you have a problem, it can be hard to speak to someone who really understands the problem and, more importantly, someone who, quite literally, speaks your language.

It is common to find that your support line has been outsourced to India, where English is a common language but not the same as the English we speak here in England. You only have to think about the differences between "English" English and American or Australian English.

Because language is a constantly evolving thing, it is not surprising that, over the course of a couple of centuries, the way that the language is used in different parts of the world has changed. For example, dumb, in England, is a word meaning mute, whereas in the USA it connotes stupid, probably taken from German immigrants for whom the word dumm means just that. The meaning came from German and the spelling from English.

Indian help desks and call centres often hold training and briefing sessions where they watch English soap operas and current news stories, so that they get to know what is being talked about and how it is talked about in the areas that they provide support for.

Even with these efforts, it comes as no surprise that misunderstandings are rife. Our help desk phone number routes through to an office in the USA where it can sometimes be difficult to make yourself understood. For some odd reason, they have trouble understanding my accent! I have been mistaken for German, Australian, and South African, yet I always imagined that I had a pretty standard English accent. I don't sound like Hugh Grant, but for that matter, nor do many other English people.

Something happened today that brought the language divide home to me. I was less than thirty miles from home, in a village in West Dorset, when I met an old chap whose language was straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel. I stopped and asked for directions, and the gentleman gave me his best advice, but it was nearly unintelligible to me.

I was looking for a house in the village, but like many villages in the area, nobody sees the necessity to have trivial things like street names, house numbers, or names, and you are expected to work things out for yourself.

I asked him where 'The Old Forge' was, and his reply was a classic.

He pointed to where a person was walking unsteadily along a path and said:

"Yer zee waare thicky dinlow is wambling along the grade there? Well, theer's Old Forge."

For reference, thicky means that or there and the TH sound is pronounced softly as in rhythm, dinlow is an uncomplimentary term, and a wambling is the kind of uncoordinated way that people walk when they are drunk.

And we worry about two nations divided by a common language!

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