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Not That Button but the Other: Misunderstanding and Non-understanding in Helpdesk Encounters Involving Nonnative English Speakers

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Purpose: The internationalization of “technical help over the phone” is tied to the increasing usage of a lingua franca facilitating the interaction between a call center agent and a caller who are both linguistically different. Researchers have noted that interactions between two parties who are nonnative users of the language employed for the encounter are peppered with understanding problems. This study looks into the causes of understanding problems in helpdesk encounters between nonnative speakers of English and the techniques those interacting parties used to resolve or prevent flaws in the conversation.

Method: Conversation analysis was used to analyze 25 recorded phone calls, amounting to 750 minutes of data, made in a commercial call center and in the helpdesk of an international academic institute in Enschede, the Netherlands.

Results: Analysis of the phone calls reveals that causes of understanding problems between an agent and a caller who are nonnative users of English go beyond asymmetries in their proficiency with the language. Factors such as incomplete information or erroneous inference from the utterance of the partner in the interaction are important triggers for the occurrence of understanding problems. Consequently, call center agents and callers use varied repair and preventative techniques to ensure that understanding problems will not impede the attainment of the primary goal of the encounter —to resolve the product-related problem of the caller.

Conclusion: While understanding problems are inevitable in helpdesk encounters, especially those that involved nonnative users of the language employed for the interaction, such problems are hardly attributable to the linguistic differences characterizing interacting parties. It is apparent that helpdesk agents and callers are equipped with varied techniques to resolve understanding problems or to prevent their inception.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2012

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  • Technical Communication, the Society's journal, publishes articles about the practical application of technical communication theory and serves as a common arena for discussion by practitioners. Technical Communication includes both quantitative and qualitative research while showcasing the work of some of the field's most noteworthy writers. Among its most popular features are the helpful book reviews. Technical Communication is published quarterly and is free with membership.
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