Cultural ineptitude


Not entirely call center related, but (many) outgoing phone calls at the time, here’s a story from my first days in CS in New Zealand, some 20 years ago. I have a good laugh every time I retell that story now, but at the time it was a bit of a shocker.

I was starting a new job in my niche (very techy) domain with an amazing boss and a great team. My role was to look after a bunch of external customers who were using a certain product we were selling and supporting in NZ exclusively. On my very first day on the job I obviously go and settle in all the introductions, guided tour by the cafeteria, big boss’ desk (open plan setup), HR bits and I finally get to sit down and see what they are actually paying me for.

I get the list of external customers – my responsibility in terms of support, pre-sales, hand holding and general babysitting and I am instructed to call them to introduce myself. Not a biggie, easy job, friendly people, all of them happy so far with the product and support received so no issues, breezing through the list and feeling great about myself, fresh-ish off the plane in a foreign country and doing an excellent job from the get go. My boss was sitting at the desk next to me (his usual spot) and was looking happy with the way things were progressing, obviously hearing my half of the conversation.

One important thing to mention – I do have an accent, still there after all these years, but then it was THICK (I slowly polished it to something a bit more palatable and harder to locate but it’s still there – I don’t care).

So I am about 2/3 down the list and I have to call Kevin. Kevin was a chief engineer of some sort at an organization using extensively the product I was freshly supporting. I go on and introduce myself and as in all the previous conversations he picks up on my accent, his (and everyone else before him) question being “where are you from?” I go on and tell him expecting the rest of the FAQ (when/why/how did you come to NZ? do you like it? family? happy? do you like it?). But Kevin had other plans. He goes straight on:

“Oh you’re a $*Really_Bad_Racial_Slur*$!!!! I’m SO HAPPY to meet one!!! I know how to speak $*your_language*$!!!” (I don’t belong to that group and he definitely couldn’t speak that language though)

And he starts swearing badly at me in a really poor and mangled accent with the enthusiasm and composure of a horny teenager that has just seen his first pair of tits.

I am really hard to silence, I admit it, but I could not pop a single sound out for what it felt were like the rest of the year, trying to gauge if they guy is a moron, drunk, an imbecile or all of the above. At the same time, this was my first day, my boss was staring at me (as apparently my expression went from quiet content to abysmal shock) and the only thing I was thinking was how in the nine layers of hell I was going to work with this guy if he was going to do that again.

Luckily Kevin finally realizes that he’s having a one way conversation as I was dead quiet and innocently asks “did I say something wrong?” The only thing I could say was a squeaky “no…” and I just hung up. Not my best customer service mode but given the circumstances I don’t think I did anything wrong.

My boss looks at me and goes “was that Kevin?” I nod and he goes “yup, he’s like that, I’ll talk to him, he’s a good guy.” Not sure what was the discussion between them but it was one of the easiest accounts I had to look after for the next two or three years he was my customer and that first contact was not mentioned until some years after both of us were out of those respective jobs and met in a different setting when he apologized and said it was a dumb thing to say without actually knowing what it meant, but he wanted to show off. Good fun.


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