The Spanish Panic Button

By Steven R. Bergman

Part 1: Just Because You Speak the Same Language, That Doesn't Necessarily Mean You Can Communicate

A number of years ago, I was responsible for implementing what I believe was the first multilingual voice mail system in Oregon, at Shindaiwa, in Tualatin.

Initially, there was little special about the application other than it hadn't been done before.  As it turned out, though, we had two significant multilingual challenges, the first because one group of employees knew too much Spanish, the second because another didn't know any Spanish at all.

The exercise was initially straightforward, marking extensions as either English or Spanish for voice mail purposes.  We then decided which extensions would be a Spanish extension first and an English second, for call forwarding reasons, and which were to be only English or only Spanish.  As you might expect, telephone systems had significant limitations in those days.

Although we'd created special phone numbers for Spanish-only speaking persons to call, effectively notifying overseas distributors and changing their habits and speed dials would take years.  However, calls would be coming in immediately.  Once answered by an attendant in whatever language they arrived, they had to be manually directed to extensions to be answered by English or Spanish-speaking employees.

I then produced the scripts for the system prompts and a bilingual secretarial group set out to translate them.  We got stuck -- really stuck --on the very first prompt.  That’s not exactly true: the problem pertained to every prompt that required the caller to make a choice by pressing a key.  Whether the prompt was to select an extension or to replay something, in every case, where the English said, for example, “For sales, press one”, the Spanish began, “Para el departamento de ventas…” and then the argument started because the staff couldn't agree on the word to use for “Press.” In certain countries or even parts of countries, for "Press one", some people said, “Presiona uno”, in others, “Marca uno”, in others, “Oprima uno” or... well, you get the idea.

Finally, I asked if the majority of calls came from a few large distributors, and they did.  I then suggested that the secretaries call those distributors and ask them which word they expected to hear, and they agreed.  Despite some grumbling, the group ultimately settled on ‘marcar.” 

"Good," I said to myself. "I'm glad that's over."  Wrong. The real problem lay just ahead.


Part 2: Bridging Languages With Nail Polish

The other issue defied a technical solution. It was obvious that as soon as the new numbers were publicized, calls would start arriving in Spanish.  At night, calls to the new numbers would automatically be directed to Spanish language voice mailboxes. During the day, however, they wouldn't be distinguishable from ordinary calls in English until they were answered.

None of the switchboard attendants, all of whom were young, local high school graduates, spoke Spanish.  The primary receptionist didn't just protest, she rebelled.  “I can't answer those calls,” she protested, “I can't understand anyone in Spanish and they speak real fast and they don't stop speaking long enough for me to tell them I don't speak Spanish, and then they might not understand me or believe me and they'd start chattering at me all over again, and, and, and, I'm just not gonna do it!

“Can you say this?” I asked. I scribbled two words on a piece of paper.  “The first one should be easy.”

She read aloud, "Un mo-men-to", pronouncing it syllable by syllable.  She looked at me and asked, "That's it?"

"Well,” I admitted,” that could be it, especially if you shortened the time it took you to say ‘mo-men-to,’ but it'd be a lot more polite if you could just add this."

I scribbled 2 more words, and she tried pronouncing them. "Por favor.”

"That's almost perfect," I said. "But could you try to pronounce it ‘por fa-VOR’ instead? That's how it's pronounced in Spanish.  She did it easily.

“But what does it mean?” she asked.

"Well, 'Un momento' means one moment, and 'por favor' means please"

She thought it over. "And what happens then?" she asked?  "Once I say it, they're not going to wait forever."

There were now four secretaries who shared switchboard responsibilities gathered around me, none of whom spoke Spanish, and at least two of whom were becoming very, very nervous.

I asked them, "Do any of you have any nail polish? Bright red would be best, but I'll settle for any bright color."

One of them produced a small bottle of red nail polish, and after receiving permission to use a little, I reached over to the new switchboard console that had yet to be installed.  I selected a button in a corner of the extension field and pulled it out, then extracted a small square of blank paper from inside the clear plastic button cap.  I painted the paper bright red with the nail polish, waited for it to dry, replaced it in the plastic button cap, and put the cap back into the console.

The secretaries looked at me wonderingly.  "What’s that?" asked one of them, finally.

"It's your Spanish Panic Button," I said.  “After the system is installed, whenever you get a call in Spanish, you simply read the four words aloud to the caller and then you press the red button.”

"But what'll it do?" she persisted.

"Right now," I answered, "it will simultaneously ring all the extensions used by your Spanish-speaking salesmen.  Whoever answers first gets the call and handles it from there.  If no one answers, it will go to a voice mail box that will answer in Spanish and it will take a message.”

I then added, “When newer software becomes available, in about a year, instead of ringing every phone, there'll be a recording in Spanish asking which department or perhaps which person the caller wants, and when the caller presses the appropriate number, the right extension will ring.  If it doesn't answer or if it's busy, then it will go to that individual's voice mail box, where he or she will have recordings in both English and Spanish.

"That's cool!" one of them said.

I looked at the main switchboard attendant.  "No more Spanish panic?" I asked.  She shook her head, smiling at me.

"Now, that's cool," I said, and she agreed.

Postscript: That was then and this is now. It'd be much different today, of course.  There'd be local Latin American phone numbers for distributors to call. The system would automatically recognize the calling party or calling number (and the associated language) and automatically redirect the call to the correct extension or cell phone number or voice mail with prompts in the appropriate language. There might even be automatic translations of voice mails or voice mail to text.

Regardless of the technology or the application, though, the objective remains the same: to bridge cultures and languages by using technology helpfully and unobtrusively, always in the background, always facilitating communications while not becoming part of the conversation.

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