We are all familiar by now with the phenomenon of outsourced call centers handling marketing, customer service, and technical support calls for thousands of American businesses. Advances in telecommunications technology make it as easy to have 1-800-BUY-DELL connect to a depressing shack in Bangalore as a depressing office park in Tupelo. Logistical costs are greater but more than offset by depressed foreign wages.
The change has hardly been seamless for American consumers. India-based call banks have become a cultural punchline dotting media commentary, films, sitcoms, and hacky stand-up comedy routines. Aside from bringing the usual nativist prejudices out of the woodwork, there has been some legitimate backlash. First, being as frank as possible, intelligibility can be an issue. Understanding someone who learned English out of a textbook speaking with a heavy Indian accent over a 6,000 mile connection on our cell phones as we walk down a noisy street is often difficult. Non-native speakers staff these call centers after being rapidly crammed with colloquial American English at the behest of foreign employers, putting the people on both ends of the call in an uncomfortable situation. Second, some American customers resent the farming out of what were once American jobs – shitty jobs, but domestic shitty jobs.
Companies using South Asian call centers have attempted to compensate in the most awkward, ridiculous way: by pretending that the employees are American. We've all been on a tech support call which began with a young man whose accent is heavier than Apu from The Simpsons introducing himself as "Hello, my name is Brian." My favorite personal experience involved an AT&T DSL service call two weeks ago in which the obviously Calcutta-based representative introduced himself as "Todd McIntosh." I had to restrain myself from telling "Todd" that if he's a third-generation Irishman in America than I am a native Hindi speaker named Jagdish. The second most popular tactic is forcing phone reps to read even more American colloquialisms off of a script.
In whose interest are these charades? American callers, of course, are not fooled. It remains immediately obvious that we are speaking to someone in India. If anything it is slightly more offensive to imply that we are stupid enough to think that "Brian" or "Heather" are speaking to us from Iowa – not to mention how offensive it is to make the employees conceal their identities to appease an American audience. Neo-colonialism indeed.