“I don’t understand you because of your thick Indian accent,” says a client at a popular bank who commissioned us call center staff to conduct customer satisfaction surveys. This is weird, I think. I don’t have an accent as such, I grew up in London, and also I’m not Indian. But the recipient of the cold call (which I think shook him up) was adamant that he couldn’t talk to me because of the way I talk. Most likely, he heard my name and decided that I was a foreigner.
Maybe I could do with some new voice change technology that makes you sound more “Western”. Sanas, a Silicon Valley startup, offers technology that makes call center workers around the world look like foreigners. The voice change feature means that someone can call you from Manila, but it will sound or at least imitate the dialect of someone who looks more like you.
The idea is good in principle: it saves callers from insults and inspires confidence in frustrated customers who are hoping to talk to someone who “understands.” But let’s be honest, this is also subject to a racist belief – the idea that people get better service because they’re being talked to by a “whiter” person. Some call center workers even use English names on their phones for this very reason.
But even if the call centers are not located abroad, many people are biased against the people who work there. Although I worked in different offices in London close to the people I called, I received a lot of racist comments. People asked where I was calling from. They insisted that I was cheating them from a stuffy office in India, trying to impress me as a Londoner.
Anyone who has worked in a call center, like Lakeith Stanfield’s character in the indie film Sorry to Bother You, knows that having a “deaf voice” will help you achieve more. As someone who grew up in Tower Hamlets, I naturally omit the “t” in my speech and play in an East London vernacular that some may not be used to. But when I started working in a call center, I realized that I needed to speak more clearly. Although it wasn’t said directly, I felt like I was being asked to look “whiter”. My calls were answered by a manager who witnessed and encouraged this transformation.
But what if we don’t consider accent a problem? It is a mistake to believe that a person with a white voice deserves more trust. It is futile to assume that a foreigner will not understand our problems or will not be able to answer our questions, especially given the meticulousness with which foreign call center employees are trained.
Sociologist A. Anish did a case study and found that call center workers in India are extensively trained on how to talk to customers. They also work the night shift, while earning much less than if they were based in the West. Do not forget that these are English-speaking university graduates.
India once held the record for having the most call center location in the world – it was recently overtaken by the Philippines, which employs 600,000 Filipinos to service customers from IBM, Shell, HSBC and others. Enticed by tax breaks, cheap labor, and the natural hospitality of foreign workers, large companies have flocked to these countries to outsource this task.
Having worked in call centers, I know you are often asked to stick to a script. You are also often supervised by management. This is a banal, time-consuming job that does not give any autonomy. It seems that erasing the human accent goes too far, turning people into real robotic servants. It wouldn’t surprise me if companies soon phased out humans entirely and resorted to artificial intelligence to process our complaints. It seems that this is how things are going.
But for now, we should all try to be a little more mindful. Call center workers are already starting in the background, dealing with angry customers who need help with faulty devices, expensive bills, or other bugs. They’re making amends for damage they didn’t cause. The least we can do is be patient with people who are really trying to fix things, no matter how they look.
Technology is shortcuts and convenience. But it should not be used to dilute, neutralize or homogenize the wonderful differences between us. This is not progress.
Fayma Bakar is a freelance journalist who writes mostly about lifestyle.