Archive for Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Call centers become fodder for pop culture

October 21, 2008


A scene from "Hello," a Bollywood film about the lives of India&squot;s call-center workers, is shown in this promotional photo. As India&squot;s $64 billion outsourcing industry grows, the curious world of call centers is becoming rich fodder for novels, movies, TV commercials and stand-up comedy.

A scene from "Hello," a Bollywood film about the lives of India's call-center workers, is shown in this promotional photo. As India's $64 billion outsourcing industry grows, the curious world of call centers is becoming rich fodder for novels, movies, TV commercials and stand-up comedy.

— In a training session at a suburban call center, groups of fresh-faced Indian recruits jettison their Indian names and thick accents and practice speaking English just like the Americans do. They have hesitant conversations with imaginary American customers who complain angrily about their broken appliance or computer glitch.

The instructor writes "35 = 10" on the board, as though he is gifting the recruits with a magic mantra.

"A 35-year-old American's brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian's," he explains, and urges the agents to be patient with the callers.

That is a scene from "Hello," the first Bollywood movie about the distorted and dual lives of India's 2 million call-center workers. When it debuted this month, many in the audience cheered and laughed at such scenes, which pandered to the reigning stereotypes about those on both ends of the transcontinental, toll-free helpline - the dumb American customer and the smart, but fake, Indian call-center agent.

As India's $64 billion outsourcing industry grows, the curious world of call centers has become the stuff of Indian pop culture. Their all-night working hours, made-up names, adopted accents and geeky global troubleshooting are becoming rich fodder for novels, movies, TV commercials, text jokes and stand-up comedy.

"It was bound to happen. The glitz of globalization provides its own cultural cliches. The call center is the most widely shared temptation among the chroniclers of new India," said S. Prasannarajan, editor-at-large of the popular English-language magazine India Today. "For the metaphor hunters of Indian popular culture and fiction, the call center has replaced the old snake charmer."

According to the cliche, call-center workers sleep all day and work at night. They are more attuned to American holidays, weather and baseball team scores than to events around them in India. Their graveyard-shift hours have given birth to a range of businesses that stay open all night. There are special 7 a.m. movie screenings and bars that serve drinks to returning workers into the wee hours.

"Hello" is based on a best-selling Indian novel called "One Night @ the Call Center," which tells the tale of six call-center agents whose fragile lives come undone one evening. After four songs and lots of tearful drama, they get that all-important call from God, who fixes everything.

"It is a uniquely Indian story with global relevance. It is about new India, its youth and its aspirations, all trapped in the phenomenon called the call center," said Atul Agnihotri, the director.

The novel's author, Chetan Bhagat, said he hung out with his "call-center cousins," stole training manuals and snooped around offices at night for colorful details with which to fill his book.

"It is not just a different kind of job. It is a different social life. It is a subculture," said Bhagat, a banker.

He said three-fourths of his fan mail comes from readers in India's smaller towns.

"A call-center job is the easiest ticket for a college student to come to the big city and live the big life," he said.

The book's protagonist is named Shyam Mehra, although he morphs into Sam Marcy every night at the call center. He is the proverbial black sheep of his family because he is not a doctor or engineer like his cousins.

Bhagat said his characters love American food, movies and music but resent the irate, abusive and, at times, racist callers they have to handle. Many of the characters think Americans are dumb and wonder how the United States became a global superpower. But once a year, they still have to pick up the phone with a cheerful but culturally alien "Happy Thanksgiving."

In another novel, "Once Upon a Timezone," Neel Pandey is an upper-caste, middle-class Indian whose U.S. visa application is rejected. He settles for "a good second-best" - a job at a call center. By night, he becomes Neil Patterson and fixes America's computer snags. The job lets him pretend to be an American. Romance enters the picture when he falls in love with an American customer on the phone and hides his Indian identity to keep the flirtation going.


Jaylee 9 years, 5 months ago

yeah ive worked at affinitas before and it bleeeeeeeew, but it was also funnily pitiful sometimes. think about how funny it is to be a non-smoker in a room with 300+ smokers, all constantly streaming in and out of the ONE doorway in and out of the office to their little cold perch overlooking the dam. you simply cannot escape the smoke, and if you have ever been a smoker, there is so much nicotine in the thick air it gets you fixing and eventually smoking again, however ashamed you may be at the prospect of your clothes and breath smelling like an ashtray passing through a thrice-used coffee filter.and the ladies who compete on who can knit and sell cooler/more ear muffies to protect your ears from that hard plastic.and the drug culture involved with the serial-call center workers, wow! i had never actually SEEN crack exchanged in a work setting. or open discussions about meeting up on break or after work for such affairs. that isnt funny but conversations about how working class america needs drugs like that to keep droning were.the "stick to the verbatim!" attitude that feels like a dragging diplomacy, when all you want to do is figure out the problem and solve it as quickly as possible.the constant calls coming in that are supposed to have been sent to another department and the resulting earshot of the angry customer as they are delegated to the correct department but know they have to wait on hold another twenty minutes to get ahold of that department.the first time i had ever heard of DHT, or businessman's acid, then heard accounts later that day of its "wonders".ok so it doesnt really sound all that funny at all. just pitiful. but i would work at a call center again. even affinitas. at least now i know what to expect. keep to yourself and leave on lunch to maintain sanity.i would definitely like to check out both of these books.

Kristin 9 years, 5 months ago

For Americans who are patently offended by the Indians' "35=10" axiom, I suggest you read instead, the new paperback book, Handle Time by Lincoln Park. Handle Time is all about life working inside of an American call center; which no one ever seems to talk about. It is one of the funniest books I have ever read!

Commenting has been disabled for this item.