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When the Whole World Is against You

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I saw this story on (where the customer is not always right)—one of those non-writing sites that every character author should follow—about a customer in a computer store who insisted she needed to buy a trigabit hard drive.

Note: I spent over 20 years in software development, and have been working with computers since I was a teenager, since back before Al Gore invented the Internet, back when we traded applications saved as audio on cassette tapes. The IBM PC of the day (which was way out of our family’s price range) cost about as much as two iMacs today plus an iPad (adjusted for inflation, and which is not out of our family’s price range today). Except that IBM PC came with about 1/16,000th the total memory of the iMacs, and a processor that ran about 1/500th as fast. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) And BlueTooth? WiFi? HD video? We could just barely wrap our minds around blocky computer-generated graphics.

So I’ve been working with computers for most of my life, and I can personally attest that there is not, nor has there ever been, such a thing as a “trigabit hard drive.”

What would give someone the idea that there is?

The story goes like this:

A customer came into a computer store insisting she needed a “trigabit hard drive.” At first, the salesperson thought she meant a terabyte hard drive, that is a hard drive that will store 1 terabyte of data. We have those now. Actually, you can now get a drive that stores several terabytes, if you need to.

No,” the customer insisted, “I want a trigabit hard drive. Don’t tell me you don’t have one!”

What are you going to store on it?” the salesperson asked.

Some family photos.”

Around how many?”

Probably around 100. My son is very smart with computers and he said I would need at least a trigabyte!”

Okay. About this point in the story, I’m actually doing the math, because I’ve never even considered storing such a small number of anything on a hard drive, even back in the day when hard drives were too small to store a photo collection. Using today’s technology, your family photos will use up between 1 and several megabytes each, depending on the quality of the images. My smartphone with its 5-megapixel camera—mediocre by current standards, but good enough for Facebook—generates image files averaging about 1.4MB. A hundred of them would take up 140MB of space.

The first hard drive I ever bought, back in 1987, was too small to fit these photos, weighing in at 20MB. The second did 80MB and was double its physical size and weight, but still too small to fit these photos… if I could somehow go back in time and attempt to store these files on that hard drive. My third hard drive would have been big enough, just barely. Nowadays, however, these files are not even enough to fill a thumb-drive (which we would have back then claimed was science-fiction, probably from the Star Trek universe).

So… 140MB… a “trigabyte”? Nope. I have no idea. It could be a gigabyte, but they don’t even make thumb-drives that small anymore. Could be a terabyte, but if you were getting a hard drive to store photos—probably a USB hard drive in an external enclosure—you would probably also be thinking, I want enough space to be able to backup my primary hard drive, so I want a bunch more than that.

Back to the story: The salesperson, trying to be helpful, said, “This 500 gigabyte hard drive will have more than enough space.”

To which the customer replied, “You are frauds! I am never shopping here again!” and stormed out of the store.

Now, stories like this always make me ask myself, what might have prompted such a visceral reaction?

Clearly, the salesperson was not trying to defraud anyone. If she were, she would have picked the biggest, most expensive hard drive she had in stock—or maybe the one with the largest margin—and whatever size it was, she would have claimed it was what the customer wanted: “Oh, you mean a trigabyte drive. Yes, we just got them in, right over here. Trigabyte is another word for ‘3 terabytes.’”

Yes, she did err in that she tried to be too helpful without asking enough questions first, and without first seeking to empathize with the customer. We all do this from time to time (or maybe more often than that). We assume we know what someone else wants, what she’s thinking, what she feels. We think we can read minds. It rarely produces that kind of reaction.

We hear a story like this, and we laugh at the ignorant customer. But think about how the world looks from her perspective.

She clearly doesn’t know a lot about computer technology, and she knows she doesn’t know a lot. But she doesn’t trust the world to help her through. She’s probably terrified of being cheated, and of being laughed at.

Why do you think she mentioned her son, who knows more about computers than she? Because that’s an authority she trusts, even if she misunderstood or misremembered what he had said. She’s just trying to make a simple purchase without looking like an idiot, and unfortunately, the strategy she’s relying on is producing the opposite result.

I don’t know why she doesn’t just admit what she knows and what she doesn’t know. I don’t know why she doesn’t just ask the salesperson to help her pick a device that will meet her needs. I don’t know what happened in her past to produce such profound doubt and fear of the encounter. But you know what? This kind of story happens every day, in a hundred variations and forms. And it’s not so funny. Rather, it’s kind of sad.

Maybe we don’t yet possess the knowledge and skills to help people who are hurting in this way. Maybe that’s why we laugh at them, because of our own insecurities. But the first step, if we want to gain that wisdom, is to foster a non-threatening environment, where trust is possible. Then maybe we can begin to plot a path forward, together, from there.


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