Saturday, July 17, 2010

On The Phones: Language and Racism

I work part-time at a call centre, doing surveys. One survey we do is for measuring customer satisfaction with the customer service call centre of one of our clients.

The other day I had this exchange with a respondent:

"How would you rate the service provided by the customer support representative: Excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor?"


"Why did you rate the service provided by the representative as excellent? I'll write down your answer here."

"Well, he was white, and he was very adept with the computer -"

"I'm sorry, what was the first thing you said?"

"He was white."

"And after that?"

"He was very adept with the computer, and friendly."

"Okay, I'm going to read this to make sure I've got it down correctly. You said the agent was... white? So I guess you have a videophone there -"


"And the agent was adept with the computer and friendly, is that right?"

"Yeah. See, the first guy I talked to was Filipino, and I couldn't understand what he was saying."

At that point, I really wanted to tell the respondent, "I'm Filipina," even though I'm not. But we're not supposed to engage in conversation with the respondents, and I technically shouldn't have even made the videophone comment, so I just went "uh huh," in a sceptical tone and continued with the survey.


One summer I worked in a customer service call centre for a satellite radio company. During a slow shift, a co-worker turned away from her computer and started telling us about the call she had just completed with an older American woman, the end of which went something like this:

"Thank you so much for your help, dear. And thank you for being American. What's your name? I want to send you a card to thank you for being American."

"I'm Canadian."

"Oh, well, same thing. What's your name, dear?"

My co-worker's father was from Ghana. Her name sounded Ghanaian. She told the woman what it was.

"Oh. Well thanks anyways."

The woman hung up.


Those two stories involved racist people who were upset about dealing with customer service representatives who did not speak English as a first language. The assumption that if someone speaks English fluently then they must be white is discriminatory and illogical. It's indicative of how disputes about language are deeply linked to racism, nativism, and/or ethnocentrism.

The thing is, I know that there are people who think that one can complain about customer service representatives not having English as a first language without being racist. It's very often that I get respondents who complain about representatives having accents, without the explicit racism of the above two examples. I have no sympathy for such complaints, and I believe that they require at least some unconscious racist and/or nativist sentiment on the part of the complainer.

My first day on the phones at the customer service job, I was partnered with another representative to listen in while she took calls. My partner had an excellent grasp of the English language, better than many of the Americans that I talked to that summer. But my partner had immigrated to Canada from India, and she had an accent. An accent that was far easier to understand than the accents of many Americans that I  talked to that summer. But that didn't stop customers from criticizing her language skills, complaining about call centres being in India, calling her names, and swearing at her.

The most difficulty I ever had understanding someone over the phone, at any job, was with a customer from Louisiana who spoke English as a first language. One time I did a survey with a woman whose first language was Mandarin and who wanted to participate so she could practice her English, which she was just learning. The survey took three times as long as usual. She was easier to understand than that guy from Louisiana.

I'm aware that English-speakers make fun of the accents of English-speakers from other parts of the world, or specific regions of the same country. My observation is that many people will complain about the mild accents of people who speak English as a second language, when they don't complain about the mild accents of other English speakers. They do not make the effort to understand what someone with a foreign accent is saying, but they make the effort to understand what other English-speakers are saying. And they don't consider the fact that they themselves might have an accent that makes them difficult to understand.

It's a privilege to not have to try very hard to communicate with your fellow human beings, to be outraged at the prospect of having to make an effort to do so. These issues with language can be used as a metaphor for privilege in general. Privilege is the assumption that everyone understands you, and that you understand everything that's worth understanding.

A respondent on a survey once exclaimed to me, "In Canada, we speak English!"

We do speak English. And we speak French. Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Chipewayan, Cree, Gwich'in, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey,  Tłįchǫ, and Gaelic are also officially recognized by certain territories and provinces. Official government surveys often employ Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hindi speakers. Toronto's 9-1-1 services can respond in over 150 languages.

The world over, people live and interact in multi-lingual environments. They have to deal with situations where they do not speak the same language as those around them, or where the majority language is not their first language. It's time for English-speakers to stop complaining, and get used to it.


  1. I probably shouldn't be this way, but maybe you know or can help me since you work with call centers a lot.

    I hate talking on the phone because I really rely on facial and body cues when talking with someone. I also have trouble paying attention, so I tend to need people to repeat things. I get absurdly embarrassed if I notice the person on the line has an accent because I feel like asking them to repeat things will make them think I'm commenting on their accent since they have to deal with the crap you're talking about all the time. I'm probably over-thinking it, but it does bother me...

  2. It seems to me that complaining about other's English is a "socially acceptable" form of racism.

    I work in a call centre too. As long as you're polite with the person I don't think you asking them to repeat themselves could be misconstrued.

  3. @ Anon
    I agree with lorelei-frolick. People in call centres are exposed to so many assholes that someone politely asking them to repeat themselves is unlikely to leave an impression.

  4. Anon: I both have that problem and have worked at a call center. Polite works; I also sometimes add "I'm having trouble hearing you (hence why I'm going to ask you to repeat stuff)," which is different from "I have trouble understanding you."

    The world over, people live and interact in multi-lingual environments. They have to deal with situations where they do not speak the same language as those around them, or where the majority language is not their first language. It's time for English-speakers to stop complaining, and get used to it.



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