# COLUMN: The impossible claim of instant action

A single second is not enough time to respond to a request

The promise was broken the instant it was made.

It happened in a busy store, with one person on duty at the counter. He was helping one customer, while another two people were waiting to pick up their orders.

“I’ll be with you in just a second,” the counter worker said to a customer who had just walked in the door.

The clerk was working as quickly as he could, putting a previous customer’s purchases into a bag. He was fast, but there was no way he could be with the new customer in “just a second.” I started to count off the seconds. I got to 23 before the clerk was able to help his latest customer.

I doubt if anyone else in the store noticed the expression. “Just a second” has become commonplace and it is seen as nothing more than a figure of speech.

Sometimes it’s said as “two secs” or “half a sec” instead of one second, but the meaning is similar.

Waiting at a counter for 23 seconds is hardly an inconvenience. A red light at an intersection will last longer. Same with heating a plate of food in a microwave. A typical commercial break during a television show lasts for a few minutes.

But that’s not the point.

While the phrase, “Just a second,” is used to refer to a brief interval of time, a second is also a precise measurement of time. The International System of Units has a calculation for a second.

There are 24 hours in a day. That’s all. It’s a limited amount of time. Subtract time for essentials such as eating and sleeping and the day has fewer hours left when things can be accomplished.

Those same 24 hours can be counted as 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds.

No matter how one divides a day, the result is the same.

There is no way to deliver on the promise of help within a single second. Even the words, “just a second,” will take several seconds to say — unless someone talks extremely fast.

As for the task itself, I can’t think of anything that can be accomplished in a single second.

At the same time, the phrase, “Just a second,” acknowledges the busy schedules that are a fact of life for many.

Time is limited, and for some who have busy schedules, any time-saving measures and efficiencies are valued. This is the reason why well-run customer service help lines will tell the caller how many minutes he or she should expect to wait.

It’s also the reason behind the development of the elevator pitch. This is a presentation that can be made in the amount of time it takes for an elevator to go from the first floor to the second floor of a building.

Or, for something even more concise, there’s the escalator pitch. Here, the timeline is shortened to the amount of time it takes for someone on the downward escalator to pitch the concept to someone on the upward escalator. Instead of half a minute — already a short timeline — the concept needs to be presented in a single sentence.

These measures and others recognize the value placed on a person’s time — and they do it without making impossible promises of instant action.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.