The corporate production of Indian-Americans in the Indian tech sector

At this point, the cringey and over-hashed stereotype of the Indian call center worker who, despite a thick accent, pretends to be from somewhere in the American Midwest, is well ingrained into popular consciousness.

Yet, few seem to be interested in the underlying social and economic dynamics behind why workers in Asia laboring in outsourced/offshored industries routinely pretend to be American or British in the first place.  In fact, this is all part of an explicit and planned process by multinationals in order to better enable these workers to deal with Western clients and Western sensibilities, that extends past simple accents.  From Shehzad Nadeems’s Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves (2011):

The demand for globalized speech has led to the creation of specialized institutes for accent “neutralization”…To sensitize trainees to the subtleties of American culture, they sit for viewings of popular movies, such as American PieIndependence Day, and JFK…The trainers even show videos of pet shows to convey Americans’ intense fondness for pets–so that they can understand that to an American, “a cat is like his baby” (57).

The assumed need for this kind of cultural training stems from the nature of the work of the tech service industry.

As opposed to physical labor, service work involves “emotional labor,” wherein workers are called on to amiably display a particular emotional repertoire.  In call centers, these management technologies penetrate to the very core of your identity.  During training sessions, employees are told that the customer can see their smile and sense their mood through their voice.  Workers must be able to “pass” as American or British.  Maintaining your composure in the face of sometimes racist abuse by irate customers is simply part of the job. (58)

Perhaps most intriguingly, many workers are quite keen on Westernizing their own identities, even outside the workplace.

In describing the problematic aspects of labor practices in call centers, the question that often goes unconsidered is why workers are mostly indifferent, sometimes exultant, about their apparent cultural alienation.  Where some see tight control over emotions and personality…many workers see the freedom to create an identity.  Even when companies try to relinquish the practice of using pseudonyms, workers are often reluctant to let their fictive personalities go.  One small company in Bangalore, for example, reached a compromise with its employees.  They may take a Western first name but they must keep their given surname.  “Thus we now have Britney Gupta”, says an executive, rubbing the bridge of his nose with bemusement.

It is well-worth noting that this is all a fascinating inversion of the traditional “culture clash” that defines much of the Asian-American experience.  Instead of the children of immigrants grappling with growing up in the US while trying to situate their family’s cultural background, here we have global capital essentially producing this experience via the needs of the workplace.  Indian-Americans who have never set foot in America.

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