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Outsourcing: Undercover

MissArcher2's picture

“Call centers are like a secret society behind closed doors.” –Chris, 30 Days: Outsourcing

A couple of weeks ago, after the class in which Anne shared an article from the MIT course about call centers in India, I was hanging out with rubikscube while she called customer service about a problem with her PSP. “Ask her if she’s in India!” I whispered, thinking of class and wondering if I had a real-life example right in front of my eyes. “No, I actually need help! I’m not going to ask her that!” rubikscube replied, though she later reported that it did not seem like the person had been overseas. It was after this incident that I became intrigued by the idea of workers in an Indian call center taking on an American persona and started to wonder how far the charade would go. What if I called 1-800 numbers and asked the representatives if they were in India? Would they tell me what it was like to take on this identity, to live a dual life in order to better serve foreigners? But the more I pondered this idea, the less feasible it seemed. If the point was to get me to relate to the person helping me, it wouldn’t serve their purpose to admit that they were using a false name and accent. So with the challenge of how to collect data in mind, I set out to learn more about outsourcing and Indian call centers. Anne, after conferring with Liz, suggested that I activate my network and try to find an interview subject, a “ghost in the machine:” someone who had worked in a call center who could help me investigate the sense of charade involved in the job. 

So I started my research with a Google search for information about call centers, and I found some benign, only somewhat informative articles from Time, CBS, and the Washington Post. But it was when I began to explore more informal sites like Yahoo Answers that my project took an unexpected turn: in the comments sections of articles like these, I noticed an overwhelming amount of commentary full of hatred for Indian call center outsourcing. It’s not just dislike, and it’s not just about loss of American jobs. I realized that I already had an active network at my fingertips in the online community, where people feel free to express their opinions on outsourcing. I began reading blogs and comments on other articles and found that the thread continued. One posting, from, included the following video clip that plays on call center/accent stereotypes:


In 2006, Apple announced plans to set up a call center in Bangalore and pulled the plug for undisclosed reasons just a few months later. A Cnet news article about the project generated 184 comments, including one from a user identified as SeizeCTRL:

“No one likes talking to people in India. I love how they try to speak fluent English and have work names like John, Susan, Tom, Julie etc... the majority of the time they don't comprehend what your problem is and it's extremely frustrating having to explain the problem 10 different times, 10 different ways trying to dumb it down each time hoping they get idea. They are nothing more than sheet readers with no real idea how to trouble shoot a problem, they just follow the steps that is written out for them on their handy little if this problem then try this sheet.”

A response to that comment by a user identified as vamega speaks with great authority:

Though I can not deny that Indians have a great tendency to just memorize things and repeat them at will I know I am sick of it here. They can tell you recite a book but lack creative thinking and logic. They just dont think out of the box.

The Indian mind solves problems like this.

1) understand problem

2) follow guidelines

3) If above doesnt work give up

The 3rd step is what we all really get irritated with. Call centres should hire people who know what they are dealing with and when the guidelines dont work they try to figure out new things that might fix the problem.

The authoritative tone of this post shocked me. Who is this random person to make generalizations about the way an entire country problem-solves? And why is there so much animosity towards these call centers? It seems to run deeper than the concept that if an Indian worker has the job, that must mean an American out there is unemployed or that it can be tedious to spell names with which a non-native speaker might not be familiar.

I needed to get the other half of the story to make some true analyses, so I started looking for information from the mouths of Indian call center workers themselves. I stumbled across this video:


The clip gives us a glimpse of the abuse workers sometimes suffer at the hands of rude customers, but the comment section is just as interesting. User urdynamix1 writes:

I am not racist at all. But my wanting to speak to an ENGLISH perorsn if I am calling from ENGLAND about my phone bill or credit card or buying a new PC is not a racist desire. I do not understand why the English have to be subjected to having to speak to people in Mumbai,who often cannot be understood, about their personal details. It is not racist-it is because I do not want to deal with someone from another continent!! There is mass unemployment in Britain now -this is ridiculous.

There seems to be something very strong that makes people want to talk to “one of their own.” In this class, we’ve talked a lot about how important it can be to align yourself with categories or with a certain identity, and it seems that this is the root of the problem behind Indian call centers. But what if you couldn’t tell? What about the idea that Indian call center workers can learn to take on American accents and identities to the extent that a caller wouldn’t know the difference between Bangalore and Birmingham? Would it matter then?

I Googled “why do people hate Indian call centers” and found an article called, “Even Indians Hate Indian Call Centers.” The article didn’t make a lot of sense to me but again the reactions in the comments section were strong. I noticed a trend of posters defending themselves with a claim that they like Indians, have Indian friends, or are certainly not racist prior to making a statement that refutes these claims. PLATTWORX is no different:

I truly having nothing against the Indian people and have several Indian friends. However, I cringe when I call a company for support and hear what appears to be an Indian accent from the representative, a often less then perfect connection for the call (since my call is being transferred across the damn Globe!) and a greeting such as "Hi, my name is Sally, how many I help you" (Because they are not allowed to use their own Indian names and it's clear the rep is NOT "Sally" or "Bob").

I agree, I have no idea what is accomplished here. My experience is the reps at these call centers can't understand any problem that varies from one of the several scripts they have been given to read, can't make any decisions and are often curt when you are unhappy that they can't do a thing for you.

I have so often stopped doing business with a company after experiencing one of these call centers, I am surprised US companies have not shut them all down by now. Ugh!

It was a comment by user BenjaminMMartin in response to this article, however, that led me to my pot of gold:

"30 days Outsourcing in India 
A laid-off programmer from the US goes to India looking for his job. What he found is probably something he would’ve never imagined."

If you watch this episode of 30 Days with Morgan Spurlock, you'll have a better understanding of WHY this is happening and how it's been misinterpreted from the get-go.

Luckily for me, the episode titled Outsourcing in the reality series 30 Days was available to watch instantly on Netflix, so I did just that. The episode follows Chris, who lost his job as a computer programmer, to India as he goes on a literal search for his job, which was outsourced. Chris lives with an Indian family with multiple relatives who work for a call center and ends up working in one himself. Chris starts off the episode trying to educate his Indian hosts about the fact that they are taking jobs away from deserving Americans. His host family, however, doesn’t think that the new jobs created in India take jobs away from Americans. But when pushed, Chris’s host brother Ravi admits that he thinks Indian workers are more talented, and that’s why they are being given the jobs. When he first goes to work in the Indian call center, he must be trained. He sits in on American accent classes and takes practice calls, watching other recent hires perfect their American identities. He tells the camera, “It’s not job training, it’s different. It’s American training.” And having that much America in India is “shaking up their culture,” Chris reports. They take American holidays and speak in a funny mixture of American and Indian slang. Ravi’s wife, who also works in a call center (interestingly enough, there’s no gender bias in call center hiring and about 50% of workers are women) speaks of wanting to “grasp the good things” from Western culture while “not grasping the bad things” and losing their own traditions. “For if we lose our traditions,” she says, “we lose our identity.”

So there here we are again grappling with identity.  If Indian call center workers can’t be American enough for consumers in the USA and are losing their connection to their own culture in the process of trying, no one wins. What I learned from Chris in his episode is that the widespread hatred of outsourcing is an issue of being replaceable. The idea that we’re not needed and our jobs can be done just as well by a community halfway around the world is a deeply psychological threat to our identity as Americans.

The call centers and techno-parks are causing trouble in India, too. As Chris says on his trip, “there are millions of dollars here, with no visible signs of it being used to take care of their own people.” He tours a slum located very close to his workplace and meets a man who works at the call center as a janitor. Chris is amazed that this man is living in a one-room hut with his entire family. The increase in outsourced jobs is just widening the gap between the classes.

When Chris gets home, he exhibits a changed perspective from the man who ran off to India in search of his outsourced job. He tells the camera, “People who think Indians are taking our jobs are insane. It’s the billion-dollar companies that run the world, not some guy who grew up in the back streets of Bangalore…and even if you lose your job, you can turn around and redefine yourself without restrictions. There’s just no place like home.”

Call center workers end up in no man’s land, a middle ground where they are more aligned with the American identities they take on and the customers they serve than the lives they must return to when they emerge from the technology parks. What I learned from my research was that outsourcing in its current form isn't working for anyone except the mega-companies that reap the profits. This is a system that seems to be making everyone from American consumers to all levels of the Indian community unhappy. But is that just because the charade isn't working thoroughly enough? If Indian call center workers were able to more effectively convince American callers that they too were American, would people still take to the internet with rants about incompetency? Surely they would, only they'd have to find something other than an accent or location on which to blame their troubles. What long-term effect will this job have on workers, who get the message every day that who they are isn't helpful, useful, or good enough? It makes me wonder: do we actually need to connect with others over a common identity, or do we only need to think that's what's happening? 

As Eliza Sayers would say, "Give it a ponder."

This project seems to have raised just as many questions as it answered for me, so I hope someone out there might be able to respond to them. And of course I’ll be taking both rants and suggestions for a better system in the comments section ;)


Anne Dalke's picture

"Only connect"

When I spoke about Raka Shome's essay, "Thinking through the disapora: Call centers, India, and the  new politics of hybridity," in class a few weeks ago, I emphasized what Shome calls the "privitized disappearance" and "biopolitical invasion of the body's natural time" on the part of the Indian call workers. What your going "undercover" reveals is a counterstory to Shome's: the deep sense of threat on the part of American and English people, who feel that their own identities are under assault when tasks once performed "at home" are taken up by others "halfway around the globe."

What I see in your analysis is the suggestion that apparent complaints about competency are actually veiled complaints about identity theft. Which suggests that your final query--"do we actually need to connect* with others over a common identity, or do we only need to think that's what's happening?"-- needs a bit more refining: what does "connecting" mean here? Recognizing a shared sense of culture? Or getting the answer you need? Would you feel better about not getting that answer, if you knew that it was someone in the same town/county/state/country who was letting you down?

*I'm thinking here of the very famous--and very ambiguous--epigram from E.M. Foster's 1910 novel, Howard's End (do you know it?): "Only connect." There's been 100 years of debate about whether Forster meant us to take that instruction literally, symbolically or ironically. How hard is it "only" to connect? Is it possible? Or, as your pal Mike Chorost insists, will "perfect, unambiguous communication... always be impossible"?