The Call Center Story That Won't Hang up

Let's all give call centers a break.

We've done the sitcom. Thank you NBC. We've done the novel. Thank you, Chetan Bhagat. We've done Outsourced -- the movie. Thank you, John Jeffcoat.

Now we're getting the latest in sabbatical lit -- my summer at an Indian call center. The story that's getting a lot of buzz in Mother Jones these days is about how Andrew Marantz spent a summer in a call centre in Gurgaon. He gets his first lesson on the way to work in the company car.

While we idle in interminable traffic, my coworker Nishant asks where I'm from. "America?" he says. "I'll tell you about America."

I must look wary, because he quickly explains that, after years of 50-hour workweeks, he's probably spoken with more of my compatriots than I have.

I try to digest the import of this. At least Elizabeth Gilbert left America to learn authentic foreign skills -- how to eat in Italy, pray in India and love in Indonesia. The newest form of sabbatical lit is when an American leaves America to come to India to learn how to be an American. Now that is mind-boggling.

To Marantz's credit he doesn't seem to be trying to resolve any midlife crisis of his own on the backs of the call center workers. He really tries to give his readers a glimpse into life at the other end of the line. He stays in a workers' hostel, a nine-by-six room with a double bed and newspaper on the windows. He discovers one day, unbeknownst to him, he has a roommate, a tech-support employee. They sleep on the same bed, side by side.

Marantz talks to the workers on their cigarette breaks about their lives. He dutifully takes notes during the orientation courses, swallowing cultural stereotypes whole. For example, about Aussies.

Australia is known as the dumbest continent. Literally, college was unknown there until recently. So speak slowly.

Technologically speaking, they're somewhat backward, as well. The average person's mobile would be no better than, say, a Nokia 3110 classic." ...

...Let's admit: They are quite racist. They do not like Indians. Their preferred term for us is- please don't mind, ladies -- 'brown bastards.' So if you hear that kind of language, you can just hang up the call."

Call centers have become quite the cultural phenomenon story even though its effect on the larger Indian culture is much smaller than all the sitcom scripts about it. They are not the vanguard of the new India even though many Americans seem to think so.

But it leaves me wondering why after all this time is America still so obsessed with what Indians call Business Process Outsourcing?

Is it just about the outsourcing of American jobs? But hasn't the story moved on? Why don't hi-tech jobs at the Googles and IBMs in Bangalore evoke the same fascination as the voice on the other end of the tech support line, or the person who is trying to sell you insurance from across the world? Why is outsourcing in popular imagination still stuck to the image of the Jagdeesh who becomes Joe for eight hours a day?

Perhaps there is something intrinsically romantic in that image of transformation, of chameleon identities, of this young man or woman taking on a persona he thinks will appeal to someone halfway across the world. It's the ultimate blind date.

But in many ways it is also about America's self-absorption. A call center is a hall of mirrors in which the West sees itself reflected endlessly. It's about American jobs being Bangalored. It is fascinating for Westerners to see how someone in Gurgaon or Bangalore is trying to distill the essence of American or Australian culture, even ape it. It is a midsummer night's dream that is ripe for a comedy of errors.

Despite all the furor over outsourcing it's also a little easier to be pissed off at some unknown Indian than someone who really does sound like them.

One commenter writes in response to Marantz:

You think these kids are "loveable"? I have never yet received any useful help from an Indian-based call centre. Ask them a question and the standard answer is, "Please hold". Just remember that every one of these "loveable kids" has taken a job an American used to do, a job that generated the taxes supporting our government.

Call center workers -- someone it seems we can all love to hate. And the reason is simple -- we never really know their names. They are just part of a "call center" story.

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