The New Global Paternalism: Fuck You!
November 6, 2003 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Cyber-Coolies? Huh? Is There A New Globalization-Savvy Racism In the Air? I admit I was discomfited by this article - it seemed sly paternalistic and colonialist at best; racist if you read between the lines. Are these sort of attitudes going to ruin what the global telecommunications revolution has achieved? (Via should-know-better Arts and Letters Daily.)
posted by MiguelCardoso (58 comments total)
 
It happens that I'm one of globalization's enthusiastic supporters (partly because I know some of the people who aren't)

What a great reason to support something.

Bob Fulford's work is usually quite a bit better than this, but perhaps he tailored it to fit the National Pest's editorial policy. Okay, okay, so that was a cheap shot, but this article is pissy. How can he think working in a call centre gives anyone marketable skills?
posted by orange swan at 11:12 AM on November 6, 2003


what the global telecommunications revolution has achieved?

you mean the way it's made so many executives rich, or the way it hasn't manifested the global community naifs like me beleived it would? wait - are we talking telephony, television or internet? ah - guess it doesn't matter - when it comes to technonlogy profit will always trump any possible benefit to humanity. especially in america, where we use our cellphones for everything from phone calls to, um, phone calls, and um,...
posted by quonsar at 11:15 AM on November 6, 2003


(Via should-know-better Arts and Letters Daily.)

Why should A&L Daily have "known better"? If it's the use of "cyber-coolie," the phrase was used by an Indian professor quoted in the article. If it's the fact that they cited to a piece you consider dubious, I've never known A&L Daily to limit itself to any particular point of view (which is its main attraction, imho).
posted by pardonyou? at 11:20 AM on November 6, 2003


Miguel, would you care to explain why you think the article was racist, colonialist or even paternalistic? It seemed to pretty innocuous to me. The expression "Cyber-coolies" is simply quoted by the article's author:
a furious professor in New Delhi denounced her for failing to see that "These poor young men and women are indeed the cyber-coolies of our global age."
posted by gambuzino at 11:25 AM on November 6, 2003


It's said there are places where operators lie, claiming to be in Des Moines, say, when they are actually in Manila.

In India, which has been most successful in stealing call-centre business from the rich countries, companies teach their operators to understand American accents and imitate them. They watch American movies together, and those who can easily comprehend Sylvester Stallone's dialogue are said to be approaching perfection. Some companies try to create an American ambience by putting little American flags on the desks and providing pizza.


Perhaps I'm too sensitive but, like most Portuguese and Brazilians, I can detect the uppity, condescending attitude of paternalists a noun/mile off. Here in Portugal our wake-up calls, since last month, are all phoned in from Cape Vert. Numbers have gone up since the switch. Portuguese operators were surly and judgmental ("You should be up by now, surely"), whereas Cape Vertian operators are cheerful and efficient.

To think someone would disguise their accent is disgusting to anyone who is minimally fair-minded.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:30 AM on November 6, 2003


quonsar: I was thinking of the Internet, cheaper telephone calls - and that's about it. For the record, although (or because) I'm conservative, I'm completely against globalization. I would be less so if the rich countries didn't subsidise themselves and tariff the poorer countries' exports; thus making a mockery of the free trade they're supposed to defend.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:35 AM on November 6, 2003


the cheeleading capitalist foundation of the writer's thinking came through to me loud and clear. obviously another one of those trickle-down assholes. those little brown people ought to be grateful for the opportunity to help make some CEO make his bonus, right?
posted by quonsar at 11:36 AM on November 6, 2003


quonsar - how about the way it used to cost pounds per minute to phone anywhere abroad and now it costs pennies?
posted by biffa at 11:37 AM on November 6, 2003


Miguel: Disguising my Portuguese accent is something I aim for when speaking foreign languages. I suppose you agree that this is not disgusting.

To a certain extent, the same thing happens with people who speak linguistic variants of the standard language. For instance, my girlfriend grew up in the north of Portugal, and originally her accent was quite distinctively northern. Nowadays, she mostly uses the standard, Lisbon-centric Portuguese accent. Is this disgusting? Not to my mind. Is it that different from Indian workers learning a different english accent?
posted by gambuzino at 11:38 AM on November 6, 2003


Here in Portugal our wake-up calls, since last month, are all phoned in from Cape Vert. Numbers have gone up since the switch. Portuguese operators were surly and judgmental ("You should be up by now, surely"), whereas Cape Vertian operators are cheerful and efficient.

Miguel, this passage has me staring at the screen in open mouthed amazement. Wake up calls? From real humans? Even when staying in posh hotels, I don't recall the last time I got a real human on the line for a wake up call. Do you live in a hotel? Can I, in Portugal, pay the phone company to call me every morning (or afternoon) to make sure I'm awake - even at home?

I'd think some people would take advantage of this just to speak with a real human being each and every day....
posted by anastasiav at 11:41 AM on November 6, 2003


Here in Portugal our wake-up calls, since last month, are all phoned in from Cape Vert.

Do you mean that in Portugal, the phone company provides wake-up calls? Sheesh.
posted by kindall at 11:42 AM on November 6, 2003


I didn't think the article was particularly racist, or even paternalistic, but it did have that kind of breathless "I can't believe I'm talking on the phone to somebody in India" air about it. Forgetable at best, irritating at worst.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:44 AM on November 6, 2003


Miguel: Free trade does seem to be an odd thing, but I think the term has effectively become a shorthand for a process which acts to remove some barriers to trade where this is in the overall interest of the parties involved, albeit that some come out much better than others. I think it would be hard to argue that any country supports free trade per se, in the sense that they think there should be no controls over trade, instead each country will act in its own interests and to increase its own selling capabilities whilst minimising anything which reduces its comparative advantage in its particular specialist industries. That is, they want the barriers in the other guys market reduced while maintaining as many of the barriers to trading in their market. The problem is that the market power of the west (EU as well as US) means that it is the issues that provide most benefit to their industries that get tackled while the developing countries get screwed.
posted by biffa at 11:45 AM on November 6, 2003


ahem. Back on topic.

As a former call-center employee (inbound, customer service, not icky outbound), the outsourcing of this work to India has been a topic of conversation for some time. I'm in Bangalore (but I Dare Not Tell) (originally published in the NYT March 2001) was one of the earliest, and I think best, articles on this topic.
posted by anastasiav at 11:47 AM on November 6, 2003


gambuzino - we-ell it is a little bit different. Most of those Indian operators didn't learn English for the job, or because they were going to America. They learned English because it's a widely spoken language in India, and it's not unlikely that their schools taught in English. A more appropriate comparison might be if a French-speaking person from Montreal had to adjust his accent and idioms to be accepted by a Parisian. The Indians disguise their accents to avoid racism or backlash.

Did your girlfriend consciously change her accent? Or did it happen with time and a change in location? I'm an east coast transplant who now lives in California. I sound like a Californian after 10 years here, but nobody made me train my accent when I first moved.
posted by synapse at 11:50 AM on November 6, 2003


Here's a relevant article on the whole phenomenon, much less widely spread than is thought. This is a quote from it I found apposite:

Training also is seen as a solution to another cultural hurdle: foreign accents. Fattori says research shows that people on the U.S. east and west coasts don't mind the sound of a foreign voice, but other parts of the country are less tolerant. So Conseco's Indian call center workers are trained in "accent neutralization."Really, what we look for first is for them to slow down in their speech," she says.

Daksh also pushes for "accent neutralization." "They're not trying to imitate an American accent," Sengupta says. "They're trying to speak in a neutral and clear way."

Changing Indian accents to please American consumers might strike some as offensive.



Dear, fellow-Portuguese gambuzino: it's different disguising what part of the country you're from (even though I think every accent is beautiful - specially do Norte, carago!) from trying to hide what nationality you are. :)

Anastastiav and kindall: You really should come over, the both of you. :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:51 AM on November 6, 2003


Miguel, Indian call-center operators do, in fact, try to speak with "American" accents when calling folks in the US. It's not US "paternalism" that makes them do so, but the call-center operators' vision of better customer service.

Unless you can come up with better reasons for suggesting that the article was "racist" or "paternalistic" than you have cited, I'm calling "Shenanigans!"

And in English, it's called "Cape Verde". Add me to the list of those who try (and fail!) not to sound like an American when I'm speaking Portuguese.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:53 AM on November 6, 2003


I'm at a loss to how making a call to a help line has anything to do with the location of the help line. It shouldn't matter to the user where in the world the person is as long as they can answer the help request.

This strikes me as an extremely stupid thing to hang this article on. The writer really needs to get over his "Wow, ain't the modern world great" routine.

There are no doubt many aspects both positive and negative to this outsourcing which could very well warrant this or other articles but to hang all of this on a thrill the author got from having support, well, it's just as amazing as "Wow my car started!"

He bonded with his support technician? Oh please. What a naive prat. There definitely is a great deal of "cooliness" in that comment.
posted by filchyboy at 11:59 AM on November 6, 2003


And regardless of what those companies claim in the article you cited, Miguel, my experience is that the call-center folks do, in fact, try to speak with an "American" accent (the floating-Midwest accent of Tom Brokaw).

I don't think, either, that it's because of mean USericans who don't want to talk to those darn dot-heads that the call-centers do the accent disguise--rather, it's because they are instructed to pretend that they are in the United States.

As a former English as a Second Language teacher, I know that it is hard for many USericans to understand heavily inflected colloquial English from other countries (for example, Scotland or Australia--the movies Trainspotting and The Road Warrior had famous problems with this).

So some degree of accent training might well be needed for folks in India who wanted to be effective in conversing with USericans by phone. Again, I don't see how that is "paternalistic"--it clearly isn't in the best interest of a call-center to have its employees not be understood by the clients it's calling.

But, to be honest, I think that most USericans would rather have someone say, "Hi, this is Raj and I'm calling about your XYZ Corporation account" and admit, when asked, that they are calling from Bombay, than to have the person conduct an elaborate pretense of being located right down the street.

Again, I don't see how that is "racist" or "paternalistic". I would describe it as "anti-bullshit".
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:03 PM on November 6, 2003


If it's the use of "cyber-coolie," the phrase was used by an Indian professor quoted in the article.

Talk about a rationalization of privilege.

***
I add my voices to those asking "wtf? wake-up calls??"

***
I think the notion of accents being indicative of anything unique, important, and needing to be preserved/protected is just silly. In the case of these call centers, I would imagine that there are two primary reasons they might try to (or be asked to) speak with an American accent: 1) to make the process more efficient by communicating more effectively (accents are often a significant barrier to communication); and 2) to disguise the fact that they are offshore, as the whole issue of job exportation is a touchy one at the moment.
posted by rushmc at 12:10 PM on November 6, 2003


> To think someone would disguise their accent is disgusting
> to anyone who is minimally fair-minded.

I don't get this. For twenty-odd years, when speaking French, I've been trying to disguise my American accent. Even if it were an employer who was requiring me to sound French when speaking to French customers I'd still think sounding native was just part of trying to speak a language properly. Did I miss something? I know I'm not famous for my sensitivity (and I skipped the training.)
posted by jfuller at 12:13 PM on November 6, 2003


Miguel, please, pretty please explain the wake up calls....
posted by anastasiav at 12:18 PM on November 6, 2003


now it costs pennies

the more suckers you have on the hook, the less you have to steal from each. besides, 'pennies' is a myth. to call somewhere for pennies, a whole list of expenses is omitted, things that have to be in place before you can call anywhere for 'pennies', like phone purchase (in the USA, each cell provider has phones specially locked so that they only function on their network), monthy service charges, the future value of signing a two year contract, even large deposits (as in my case because they don't like my credit report). you work for one of them, don't you? [evil grin]
posted by quonsar at 12:18 PM on November 6, 2003


Maybe this author has colonial aspirations but that doesn't mean that we're denigrating people by outsourcing our telesupport operations to India. Everybody has to start someplace, as does every country. So the poor downtrodden McDonald's employee may not be earning valuable skills but maybe he can save a few bucks for college. Similarly these Indian telesupporters may not be making top bucks nor may they be really learning valuable skills but they have decent jobs. Hopefully some of these people will save up their rupees and go to college, send their kids to college or start their own business.

Being trained to neutralize your accent may be offensive, on the other hand it's also business. You don't see a lot of anchors on the major networks with obvious brooklyn accents because it would interfere with their jobs. Many of them probably went for voice training to learn to annunciate and also to neutralize their native accent.
posted by substrate at 12:23 PM on November 6, 2003


A few disconnected observations:
- I know that I have to modify my (New Zealand-accented) speech to make myself understood by some Americans. At first, I felt embarassed, as though I were mocking them through mimicry. Then I felt sorry for people with such insular edars (I'm the one who grew up on an island!). Then I forgot about it.
- The film industry here is seen as a highly skilled, but low-cost provider by Hollywood studios. The phrase "Mexicans with cellphones" caused some consternation here. My apologies to any Mexicans reading this.
- When I was in England, I noticed that my calls to British Telecom were answered by people with lovely Hebridean accents. I have a strong suspicion that moving callcentres to northern Scotland was motivated by the impressions of sympathy and efficiency coveyed by lovely lilting Scottish ladies. ("Lilting". Now there's a patronising, colonialist-English adjective.)
- The fact that I can buy Youngs Double Chocolate Stout here in a Wellington supermarket is itself proof that globalisation is not all bad.
- I didn't think the article was paternalistic. If anything, the opposite. It quoted Indian sources for and against, steered clear of xenophobia (they're taking our jobs!) and the author seemed really quite happy. What, specifically, do you divine about the author's attitudes to Indians that we could call racist?
- imposition of tariffs and subsidies is anti-globalisation, surely?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:24 PM on November 6, 2003


Insular EARS.damndamndamn
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:29 PM on November 6, 2003


you work for one of them, don't you?

I work for a centre specialising in regulation, but personally don't do telecomms specific stuff. All the costs you list were present at the same time that calls cost pounds, its increased competition (and creating the conditions that allow competitors to enter the market) that has helped to introduce new (and cheaper) technologies and to bring down prices. Combined with good regulation naturally*.

*May not apply in all jurisdictions
posted by biffa at 12:49 PM on November 6, 2003


+1 to the wake-up call inquiry group

A quick google search shows that there are a number of companies that provide wake-up calls. Even NASA!

But, none of these begin to explain the "here in Portugal our wake-up calls" portion of Miguel's comment....
posted by stoic at 12:52 PM on November 6, 2003


Talk about a rationalization of privilege.

I wasn't rationalizing anything. I was confused by Miguel's post, so I was asking whether his problem was with A&L Daily's use of the phrase. If so, I was simply pointing out the origin of the phrase (as was gambuzino).

And Miguel, I'm still wondering why you think A&L Daily should not have posted this article (it did, after all, lead to this discussion ...)
posted by pardonyou? at 12:55 PM on November 6, 2003


I would imagine that there are two primary reasons they might try to (or be asked to) speak with an American accent: 1) to make the process more efficient by communicating more effectively (accents are often a significant barrier to communication); and 2) to disguise the fact that they are offshore, as the whole issue of job exportation is a touchy one at the moment.

Compounding number 2, and probably more of a reason: customers tend to be exasperated by the bureaucratic, impersonal nature of call centers, and them being offshore just compounds this perception. People still like to think they can call someone at the company who can do something in the office to help them, even if this never happens anymore. I don't think political awareness is as much of a factor.
posted by furiousthought at 12:59 PM on November 6, 2003


The Nat'l Post is the kind of unusual Canadian paper that once published a pre-war article saying the peace marchers were Saddam's frontline troops. Nuff said about this blather.
posted by inksyndicate at 1:17 PM on November 6, 2003


You really should come over, the both of you.

Dunno. Is being awakened by a phone call compulsory, or can I just use an alarm clock?
posted by kindall at 1:33 PM on November 6, 2003


off subject perhaps, but would some one explain to me the logic of protecting Indians from jobs they voluntarily sought out?

Even if profits are split 1-99 between the call center technician and the 'gluttinous CEO', if he/she is making more money they he/she would have at another job, where is the exploitation?
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 2:09 PM on November 6, 2003


off subject perhaps, but would some one explain to me the logic of protecting Indians from jobs they voluntarily sought out?

It's seeking to protect people from their jobs which really smacks of paternalism. "You might think you want to earn a living answering calls, but we know better. Trust us."
posted by IshmaelGraves at 2:30 PM on November 6, 2003


I'm not sure what the problem is. What was a shitty, low-paying hellhole job in the West is a cushy, comfortable, secure position in New Delhi. Where's the downside?

In re: accents, what the fuck ever. I try to disguise my American accent when I'm speaking French, and in fact I try especially hard when in a customer service position (not that I've done that for a few years now). There's nothing offensive about it, just practicality and perhaps a smidgen of pride in being able to speak as one wishes.
posted by kavasa at 4:03 PM on November 6, 2003


And there's still something I can't understand: why why why why on earth are you guys so concerned about the accent ! It's like being concerned about what kind of tshirt or suit you dress at work ; I think users would rather have competent problem-solving help desk people then sexy voices that tell you "you need to change your cpu honeeyyyy ; no sweeeety you warranty is soooooo over"
posted by elpapacito at 4:42 PM on November 6, 2003


I wasn't rationalizing anything. I was confused by Miguel's post, so I was asking whether his problem was with A&L Daily's use of the phrase.

I get that, but it also seemed that your assumption was that it was okay for an Indian man to say something that it wouldn't be okay for someone else to say, and I disagree with that.

Compounding number 2, and probably more of a reason: customers tend to be exasperated by the bureaucratic, impersonal nature of call centers, and them being offshore just compounds this perception. People still like to think they can call someone at the company who can do something in the office to help them, even if this never happens anymore.

I totally agree and wanted to add that but couldn't think of a clear way to say it, as you have done.
posted by rushmc at 4:54 PM on November 6, 2003


I think users would rather have competent problem-solving help desk people then sexy voices

Noooow wait just a minute there...we ARE talking about a population of geeks here, no?
posted by rushmc at 4:55 PM on November 6, 2003


Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Miguel.

To think someone would disguise their accent is disgusting to anyone who is minimally fair-minded.

I agree with this statement in principle, but I do the exact opposite almost every day out of necessity.

I am a Canadian who works in a call centre (that's right folks, its `centre' not `center') for an American company. Every day I talk to Americans, and I am always mindful of how I say the words "out" and "about."

Why? It's certainly not because I am ashamed of my accent. It's just that I can't be bothered to listen to those hilarious `aboot' jokes anymore. In addition, I find that many people upon learning that I am in Canada either want to relate some damn anecdote about a trip they took to Toronto, or to ask me if I know "Bill from Vancouver."
This is nothing personal against them: I think Americans as a rule are great people -- kind, generous and friendly. However, I have a time target of 280 seconds per call, and too much chit-chat really fucks my shit up.

My accent evasion is driven by pragmatism, pure and simple.
posted by pooligan at 5:17 PM on November 6, 2003


PS. As a public service announcement to my fellow Canadians, I provide the following advice for speaking to Americans:

Just say "a-bay-out." It fools them every time.
posted by pooligan at 5:19 PM on November 6, 2003


Thanks to those who tempered my exaggerated reaction to the article with their persuasive arguments and examples - as usual on this blessed board, one learns much more from the thread than from the article(s) being discussed.

However I do stand by my main contention - that it is demeaning to disguise one's accent. It's not only that I think national or regional accents are fascinating and charming. If you listen close enough you can get an insight into -or, at least, a taste of - the original language/culture.

Nor is it that the universalization of English is leading to a nondescript, characterless pronunciation which is neither here nor there, devoid of all colour or personality.

English-speaking people, notoriously lazy and inept when it comes to foreign languages, should be grateful others have taken the trouble to learn it and spare them the expense - in more ways than one.

Indians speak superb English - it could easily be argued that it's better English than what you commonly hear in England - and it seems singularly colonialist to encourage them to speak with an Iowa accent, whatever the blue blazes that is.

Which brings me to my beef with ALD - my favourite website after MetaFilter. Here is how they introduced the article - and I now realize my accusations probably spilt over - and not too subtly - to the article itself, which I regret:

A resident of New Delhi puts on an Iowa accent to persuade a New Yorker to pay her credit card bill. Is this okay, or is that Indian a cyber-coolie?

That last question is profoundly disagreeable. It only posits two answers: either putting on an Iowa accent is OK or that Indian is a "cyber-coolie". Never mind, for the moment, that "coolie" is not only offensive but, as far as I know, never applied to Indians, suggesting a horrendous, utterly ignorant "all Asians are alike" mentality.

The obvious truth, to me, is that I've yet to hear an English-speaking Indian whose English is not easily understandable - and charming, in its (often excessive!) passion for correctness and the language itself. India is an enormous and multilingual country and English accents vary accordingly. To tell operators to disguise their accent is, to me, unacceptably paternalistic.

I happen to speak English with no accent whatsoever (not even an English one) because English is my mother tongue, though I've spent all my life (apart from university) in Portugal, son of a Portuguese father. He (who also studied in England) always taught me that everyone should pronounce foreign words according to the language one was part of. Just as the English do well to pronounce "Madeira" as "Madeera" (hence the famous "Madeira, my dear" proto-meme), we Portuguese do well to pronounce "MetaFilter" as "Meh-ta-fil-térr".

I had just come back from Manchester and pronounced it the English way and he said I should pronounce it "Manxés-térr."
It's ridiculous to say "I'm going to Paree/Firenze" - all words should be rendered according to the rules of the prevalent national language.

Now about the wake-up calls: To be completely honest, to get the human voice you have to take the phone off the hook (or, even better, sleep through it, if you can - the mark of a true pro) when it rings (otherwise you get a robot voice). This is not a problem for a naturally lazy people.

If more than 10 minutes pass, you then get a lovely human voice, reminding you you should start thinking about getting out of bed. The robot voices are a recent addition, anyway. As late as the early 90s, you always got an operator (invariably female). I know of a lot of cases (repeat: a lot) where people have fallen in love with these meninas, which is what they were called...

Sorry for the gruesome length! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:19 PM on November 6, 2003


everyone should pronounce foreign words according to the language one [is] part of

For once, Miguel, I am in entire agreement with you. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's English speakers who ostentatiously refer to "nee-ca-RRRAH-ghwah" in the middle of an English sentence. (Of course, I also believe we should be able to use traditional English names for foreign places, like Peking and Burma, but I've been shouted down for saying that before, so I won't mention it here.)
posted by languagehat at 7:30 PM on November 6, 2003


The obvious truth, to me, is that I've yet to hear an English-speaking Indian whose English is not easily understandable - and charming, in its (often excessive!) passion for correctness and the language itself.

Well that hasn't been my experience. I don't know what it is about Indian accents, but I seems to have the most problems with it. And believe me, spending 4 years studying engineering in college, I have a lot of experience with a lot of Indian professors and students.

always taught me that everyone should pronounce foreign words according to the language one was part of.

Well that poses a problem for multi-lingual speakers like me. If I were to say a phrase in English that includes the word Beijing, do I pronounce Beijing in an American way or pronounce it in Mandarin? The Mandarin way would sound silly in the context of an English sentence, yet it seems silly to use an American pronounciation when I know how to say it natively.
posted by gyc at 7:43 PM on November 6, 2003


The obvious truth, to me, is that I've yet to hear an English-speaking Indian whose English is not easily understandable

This is true (but not obvious) for me as well, I was raised in Asia by a Bajan father, American mother. However this is decidedly not obvious or true for most of the people I work with today in central Texas. Accent is a consistently relative thing. People in the U.S. and in Asia always say my father has a British accent, no one raised in England would say that. The people I work with often call me into a room to translate for them what I find to be perfectly understandable english from our ERP support group based out of India.

English-speaking people, notoriously lazy and inept when it comes to foreign languages, should be grateful others have taken the trouble to learn it and spare them the expense - in more ways than one.

Sheesh, let's jump back a hundred years. I can just picture some Englishman at the height of the empire sitting back in his wingback leather chair saying "Indians, notoriously lazy and inept when it comes to running a civilized country, should be grateful others have taken the trouble to run one for them and spare them the trouble - in more ways than one." Language and its accents are by nature local, and my lovely mother, originally from Rocky Mount, West Virginia at one time spoke with an accent that I suspect would challenge and horrify your refined ear.


and charming, in its (often excessive!) passion for correctness and the language itself

BTW, if you really want to fume about sly paternalism and colonialism, best to avoid phrases like this. It smacks of a certain superior condescension to the charming little Indians.


I happen to speak English with no accent whatsoever (not even an English one) because English is my mother tongue,
By the way, I've never heard speak, but you speak english with a *strong* accent. If you don't believe me come on down to Texas sometime and meet some people, we'll see if they don't tell you so. .
posted by tcskeptic at 7:44 PM on November 6, 2003


If someone is trying to teach these Indian call center workers to speak with and understand American accents they're sure doing a piss-poor job of it. I hate getting connected to call centers in India, the person on the other end may understand the words but not the context which can lead to much confusion and more than a bit of frustration.
posted by MikeMc at 8:09 PM on November 6, 2003


Don't forget folks, there is no one Indian language, but lots, many of which are not Indo-European, and likewise, there is no one Indian English accent.

From my experience the best educated Indians seem to be aiming for BBC-style RP. Sounding American when brought up on English models is probably an extra challenge.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:10 PM on November 6, 2003


Charming is charming, tcskeptic - it doesn't mean "quaint" or "enchanting". It's an utterly uncondescending word of praise. Who doesn't want to be charming? Besides, Indians, like Southern Europeans, often strive to be charming - and succeed. They have such a rich, ancient civilization, only an ignoramus (or, I have to say, an old-style Englishman) would be condescending towards them. When the first Portuguese disembarked in India in 1498, they were taken aback by the amazing splendour, culture, good manners and civility they found. We were the savages and, comparatively, still are. The same happened in Japan and China.

The Portuguese have a very long history of encounters with other civilizations and, unlike other colonial powers, have learnt much from them. Being also regularly condescended to, our antennae are particularly sensitive in this regard.

That self-defense apart - I wonder whether the spectre of "snake charmers" made you decently and quite deride the idea of charming little Indians - thanks for your lucid and illuminating comment.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:14 PM on November 6, 2003


quite rightly deride, I meant.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:16 PM on November 6, 2003


MikeMc: I can't find a link but English friends of mine have told me operators in call centres in India are daily trained to discuss the weather in England, as in "Yeah, lovely day today!" during the monsoon season.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:23 PM on November 6, 2003


If someone is trying to teach these Indian call center workers to speak with and understand American accents they're sure doing a piss-poor job of it. I hate getting connected to call centers in India

Except when they do a good job of it, and you can't tell you've been connected to a call center in India.
posted by kindall at 9:42 PM on November 6, 2003


If there's one thing I can't stand, it's English speakers who ostentatiously refer to "nee-ca-RRRAH-ghwah" in the middle of an English sentence.

There's a person who lived through the 70s.

Just say "a-bay-out." It fools them every time.

You say a-bay-out, I say a-boot.
posted by y2karl at 10:09 PM on November 6, 2003


We were the savages and, comparatively, still are.

Miguel, while I commend your sensitivity to the history of the nations you mention, I wouldn't be so quick to label Western Europeans (who I'm guessing you're referring to) as savage in comparison to them. Consider how India treats the Untouchables; Japan's 1937 rape of Nanking and comfort women system; and China's Cultural Revolution. It's a comforting thought, one that I once believed myself, that maybe somewhere on this globe there's a place that's everything it ought to be and nothing it shouldn't, but really, I think every nation has its dark side.
posted by halonine at 11:57 PM on November 6, 2003


maybe somewhere on this globe there's a place that's everything it ought to be and nothing it shouldn't

There is! Now, if I could only find my way back...
posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on November 7, 2003


I happen to speak English with no accent whatsoever (not even an English one) because English is my mother tongue,

there's no such thing as no accent; if you used the same accent when speaking a foreign language, would you claim to be speaking that language neutrally? The standard middle class/urban american accent, the one most people on tv use, etc, is still a way of pronouncing the language, which is to say, an accent.

I think the issue here is which accents we deem okay or even sophisticated, and which ones we look down on. Americans try to speak with a french accent in french, but a lot of french people don't bother trying to learn an american accent when speaking english, and for the most part, we don't mind that much. Likewise, my british half brother speaks half a dozen languages, but never worries about the accent - people in russia love british accents as much as americans do; speaking their language with his british accent isn't seen as problematic.

But it seems like british and french accents are more or less alone in that. My other half-brother suggested this was because power is sexy and the brits ruled the world until pretty recently, but then you'd think the american accent would be considered sexier or more acceptable within other languages. But perhaps it just takes time for these norms to take root. In any case, the fact that french or british accents are commonly considered a plus, while chinese or indian or mexican (etc) accents are not, definitely reveals something about conceptions of other cultures.
posted by mdn at 2:25 PM on November 7, 2003


I work with dozens of Indians (both her in San Francisco and offshore in India) every day. And just like everywhere else I've been the "passion for correctness and the language itself" varies quite a bit from person to person. Both written and spoken.

And after a day of conference calls with our Russian QA leads, Indian back end programmers, and Spanish-accented system administrators (I have no idea where those three guys are from, but they live in Arizona so they're probably Americans) the selfish part of me really would prefer that we all pick a single accent (I don't care which one, I'll learn) and go with it.
posted by obfusciatrist at 3:19 PM on November 7, 2003


Never mind, for the moment, that "coolie" is not only offensive but, as far as I know, never applied to Indians, suggesting a horrendous, utterly ignorant "all Asians are alike" mentality.

For the record, "coolie" came to English from Hindi. It certainly has been applied to Indians. I don't know how offensive it is either. In Malaysia it is used simply to mean a menial or unskilled laborer or even an office boy (now there's an offensive term!). Maybe it is one of those words that sounds worse when your British colonial master calls you by it.
posted by BinGregory at 7:57 PM on November 7, 2003


Absolutely right, BinGregory. From Yule and Barnell's great 1886 dictionary Hobson-Jobson ("a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical, and discursive"):
COOLY, s. A hired labourer, or burden-carrier; and, in modern days especially, a labourer induced to emigrate from India, or from China, to labour in the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion, or the West Indies, sometimes under circumstances, especially in French colonies, which have brought the cooly's condition very near to slavery. In Upper India the term has frequently a specific application to the lower class of labourer who carries earth, bricks, &c., as distinguished from the skilled workman, and even from the digger.

The original of the word appears to have been a nomen gentile, the name (Koli) of a race or caste in Western India, who have long performed such offices as have been mentioned, and whose savagery, filth, and general degradation attracted much attention in former times...
So, Miguel, you might want to get your facts straight next time you start feeling the urge to hurl phrases like "utterly ignorant."
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on November 8, 2003


The phrase was correct - only the application was wrong. It should, of course, have applied to me. Though "savagery, filth and general degradation" are not nice things. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:07 AM on November 8, 2003


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