Call Center Musing

Call Center Musing

Ending up talking to someone in a call center, half a world away, about a lost package or a flight cancellation, is as trivial an experience as it gets in today’s world. Sometimes it gets me thinking though. About the human being on the other end of the line. About what we have in common. About the distance between us, apart from just those thousands miles.

As someone whose French accent is not always understood by automated phone services, I have a personal reason to prefer talking to a human being rather than to a machine. I am also interested in the variety of accents I encounter when communicating with call center people. For a great many of them, English is a second language. That’s something we share.

A few months ago I was helped by a skilled customer support person with an Indian accent who introduced himself as “Brian.” I know it is standard practice for Asian people to switch to a simple English name when they interact with English speakers on a regular basis. I suppose most of them would say they don’t mind that. Still, it reminds me of how some upper class families used to rename their servants…

Is it expected that someone who serves you, or otherwise depends on you, should erase as much of their identity as possible, up to their very given name? That does not seem to be the case for American call center people. So is it a rule that applies only to different people? Lower class people in the past, non-Western foreigners nowadays?

Having to change one’s name is not something Indian Brian and I have in common. But, as we were talking, I was thinking about a connection we had and he was not aware of: India. Because he was efficient and friendly, I was tempted to ask him where he was from and to mention I was married to an Indian guy. I refrained from doing so because chances were very slim he would have been genuinely interested in this tidbit and I knew he was supposed to finish his calls as quickly as possible anyway.

I first came across the Minutes-per-Incident (MPI) concept in a good rom com Appa and I watched in the 2000s. Outsourced tells the story of Todd, a Seattle salesman whose call center department is outsourced. Todd goes to India to train his replacement. His assigned goal (with a financial incentive) is to get the new team’s MPI under 6 minutes. At first Todd struggles with linguistic and cultural differences, including being called “Toad”, but things get better as Indian problem solving and cross-cultural love win him over. It’s a rom com, remember?

I guess what a film like Outsourced conveys, what I feel when I pause for a minute, is that people from far away we briefly talk or chat with to get something done are as real as we are, even though they show us just one of their facets. They live in different places. They speak different languages when they go home. They have different dreams — or do they? They may be out of our reach but they are flesh and blood all the same. Nearly as opaque to us as the little figures above, but different from them in every other way.

One Reply to “Call Center Musing”

  1. My ‘religion of origin’ so to speak is Christian, which is what I was raised on. As I questioned aspects of my upbringing, I became disillusioned with how Christianity was, in part, manifest in the world. But one of the things that made a deep impression and is part of me still though I don’t belong to a church, was that Jesus met the humanity of people with his own. There’s humility and grace to the desire to do this, both of which are valuable whether on a call center line or talking to the person checking groceries through. It can feel like a patronizing gesture I think without those qualities. The thing about it is that these small human encounters add up to a richness. I’m glad you’ve focused in on this continuous gift.

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