Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Call From "Steve"

My son and I were happily playing in his mother's art studio in the attic (shh... don't tell!) when the phone rang. Now, ordinarily I wouldn't rush downstairs to answer the phone, but there have been a couple or recent developments which compel me to answer every time my phone rings:

1.) Adam has developed a keen interest in the phone. Every time it rings he says “da, da, da, da…” until someone picks it up. As annoying as having to answer the telephone is, it is that much more annoying to have a one-year-old repeat the same sound over and over again for as much a fifteen minutes after the phone has stopped ringing.

2.) In what is perhaps the next great sign of the apocalypse (or at least yet another sign that my “freelance writing” career isn’t exactly taking off) I have applied for a sort of menial (soul sucking?) job.

How did this happen? Good question.

I have written on my love of chocolate, and my aversion to selling anything, here before. In the comments section of that post, my friend Brian Cubbage suggested that, since:

a.) I need to make some money
b.) I hate selling products I don’t believe in, and
c.) I clearly believe in chocolate,

I ought to look for a job selling chocolate.

Last week Sami, Adam and I were trucking through the mall, and we passed a Godiva outlet. The first thing I noticed was the giant chocolate covered strawberry (yum) on the advertisement in the window. The next thing I notice was the small sign below the luscious strawberry, which read:


Given the context, I just had to apply for the job. I doubt I’ll get it, since I’m not cut out for retail. Every single thing that I’m good at fails totally to impress the bottom line orientated managers of retail outlets. They don’t care if you are a well educated, intelligent, articulate, witty and insightful observer of politics and religion. They don’t care if you finished at the top of your college class (unless you got your degree in business or something, rather than philosophy) or if you won a few writing competitions. They certainly don’t care if you’ve spent the last 4+ years of your life serving in various ministerial roles. They only care if you’ve worked similar jobs in the past, can work the hours they want you to work, and are willing to sell your soul (or, at least your right to have a soul) for peanuts per hour.

But I still had to apply for the job. And, now that I’ve applied for a job, I rush to answer the phone every time it rings, in the vain hope that the person on the other end will hire me for a job I won’t regret taking.

So, I picked up the boy and ran down the attic stairs to the main floor of our Cape Cod style house, which has the only operational telephone. There are phones in the attic (my wife’s studio) and the basement (my office); they just don’t work.

We got to the operational telephone on the third ring. I answered it, and immediately knew I’d made a mistake. There was a brief pause, followed by a dial tone, and then more ringing. Like a fool I stayed on the line, and was redirected to the voice of an Indian-sounding (as in from India, not Native American) man.

I’m not sure what I think of outsourcing, but whatever I think about it doesn’t matter, since it isn’t going anywhere. I’m certainly not so jingoistic as to blame people in countries like India for taking the “American” jobs that no American wants. Anyway, we all know that many telemarketing agencies outsource to India. So why should I care if the guy trying to sell me a product I don’t want sounds Indian rather than American?

The short answer is, I don’t. The long answer is, well… long.

I would say that there is a certain amount of racism in a marketplace which assumes that we are more likely to buy something from someone who sounds like us and has a name like ours than we are from someone from India, even if it just so happens that the person who sounds like us and has a name like ours is actually calling from India. I would say that, but, of course, the market itself isn’t racist. It’s capitalist. It does whatever it is that has been deemed to be most likely to make money. So, rather than being racist, the market reflects our own racism.

Why does this bother me? Aside from the obvious reasons, it bothers me because the very obviously Indian man on the telephone did not give me an Indian name. Rather, he said, in a thick Indian accent, “Hello, sir. My name is Steve, and I’m calling on behalf of…”

Why should this man have to be “Steve” for me?

Once again, I don’t have any nice, neat moral to this story. I can’t come up (at least at this moment) with some kind of comprehensive theory for marketplace ethics in a global economy. I can’t come up with a great moral theory of outsourcing. I can’t even identify all of the ways in which the marketplace reflects our own biases and prejudices, much less come up with some sort of plan of action to overcome it. I can simply ask that question:

Why should this man have to be “Steve” for me?

If you’ve got any answers (or even guesses), leave a comment or send me an email.


Amy said...

I e-mailed this portion also - However, for the general interest... I work in a call center here in Louisville, and we used to have a branch office in India until it closed because the workers there weren't familiar enough with US jargon to do the job. We asked our Indian employees to take on US names in part because if there was a complain, or it was necessary follow up on some type of error by the representative, the customers were much more likely to remember and record a name like "George" than one like "Gurinder." For us, it was primarily administrative...

Sandalstraps said...

Thanks, Amy. I guess that removes me from my soapbox.

Brian Cubbage said...

In a similar vein as Amy's post, I had a student once who worked in telemarketing. He told me that at his workplace (which in the U.S. and staffed by Americans, mind you), everyone was instructed not to use their real name. I forget the precise rationale my student had been given, but I recall that it had to do with protecting their identities.

Now that I write that, I wonder if it's technically legal to misidentify yourself over the phone? (It used to be illegal to say swear words on the phone; I wonder if it still is?) Of course, telemarketers identify the company on whose behalf they are calling, so I guess everything's kosher.