Life in an Indian call center

Mmechanic sez, "Andrew Marantz wondered how BPOs [ed: Business Process Outsourcing, AKA call centers] train Indians who have never even known a Westerner to sound and act like one. Since the call centers wouldn't let a journalist in to their culture-training sessions, Marantz decided to become a trainee himself. The resulting article from Mother Jones magazine is alternatively funny, sad, and thought-provoking."

During our second day of culture training, Lekha dissected the Australian psyche. It took about 20 minutes.

"Just stating facts, guys," Lekha began, as we scribbled notes, "Australia is known as the dumbest continent. Literally, college was unknown there until recently. So speak slowly." Next to me, a young man in a turban wrote No college in his notebook.

"Technologically speaking, they're somewhat backward, as well. The average person's mobile would be no better than, say, a Nokia 3110 classic." This drew scoffs from around the room.

"Australians drink constantly," Lekha continued. "If you call on a Friday night, they'll be smashed--every time. Oh, and don't attempt to make small talk with them about their pets, okay? They can be quite touchy about animals."

"What kind of people are there in Australia?" a trainee asked. "What are their traits?"

"Well, for one thing," Lekha said, "let's admit: They are quite racist. They do not like Indians. Their preferred term for us is--please don't mind, ladies--'brown bastards.' So if you hear that kind of language, you can just hang up the call."

My Summer at an Indian Call Center

(Thanks, Mmechanic!)


  1. They are quite racist.

    Hello pot, this is the kettle, there’s something I need to tell you…..

    1. I agree with your point but hang on for a second… Yes, is racism… but is it bigotry?

      It seems to me the crowd is more dismissive of what kind of phone you have than where your genes have been for the last couple thousand years.

      I’d call it a reactive classism, more akin to people from the wrong side of the golf-course picking on people from the wrong side of the tracks. (both of which are hopelessly american phrases).

    2. I was in Australia 2 weeks, I was racially abused by complete strangers 3 times.

      I have been in the UK for 13 years. I have been racially abused once.

      I have been to Germany in countless occasions. I have never been racially abused.

      Now add your enlightening anecdotes.

      (Boing-boing: I can’t login anymore, why do you hate Firfox 5 in Ubuntu? )

  2. Meh, being yelled at on the phone when you are thousands of miles away is not nearly as frustrating as knowing that same person will be seeing you later that week to pick up their computer…

    That and I realize the number one thing we export is our culture…and that might be the most frightening thing of all.

  3. Also… Australians allow kangaroos to live in their homes. In fact, it’ll probably be the kangaroo who answers the phone. And the kangaroo will likely be drunk, no matter what day it is.

  4. Those flamin’ gallahs! Fair suck o’ the sav, mate. I reckon those bastards have kangaroo’s loose in the top paddock. One tinny short of a six pack. Worse than those pommie bastards. I mean, don’t come the raw prawn, eh! Speakin’ o’ prawns…

  5. Actually as an Australian, I can tell you that there is a lot of “perceived” racism by Indians from Australians. I’m not denying the racism doesn’t exist, but the Indian press recently went on an anti-Australian tirade, saying that Indians in Australia were being hunted and killed. This came from 3 Indians being killed/beaten in a two year period (out of 250000 Indians or so in Australia).
    NOt good, but hardly a target. Dealing with a lot of Indians and Indian-Australias in my business, none believe there is any real racist troubles.
    So, its ironic that the Indian supervisor is being so racist here
    A lot of the anger comes from the fact that you are getting cold-calls from people trying to sell you stuff you don’t want. , I hate it when Australians ring, but most people get angry because as soon as they here the Indian accent, they know are getting spammed.
    As for the phones, I actually believe the iPhone is the biggest selling phone in the last year (citation needed). Colleges, I believe the Sydney University began in 1850 seven years before the first Indian University.

    1. So, its ironic that the Indian supervisor is being so racist here.

      To the Australian race? lol. You kind of undermine your own point with the ‘reverse racism’ accusations. Talk of ‘reverse racism’ is right up there with the classic: “I’m not a racist, but..” line…..

      1. So you can’t claim to not be a racist, and you can’t accuse others of racism, but if others accuse you of racism, that’s acceptable? That’s right up there with the classic ‘Talk of “reverse racism” is right up there with the classic: “I’m not a racist, but..”‘ line.

        1. Oh sure you can, it’s just comical that pretty much every time somebody prefaces a statement with a disclaimer about them not being racist, that what follows is nearly always racist. And yes, they are usually birds of a feather with those who talk about people being “racist against” *countries*……haha..

    2. For people who are saying that the call-center instructor in the post is being racist (or reverse-racist, whatever), lets understand one thing :
      These are private companies and all they are interested is in maximising their profits. They don’t care about anything else, so lets not attribute motives to the instructor’s or the generic Indian call center employee’s know-how. They probably describe, instruct and train their employees in a similar manner about how to talk to people living in different parts of India itself.

      1. “They probably describe, instruct and train their employees in a similar manner about how to talk to people living in different parts of India itself. “[citation needed]

        As for Colleges, that’s what we call it when a primary school joins with a high school into one larger school (we don’t have junior/senior high in Australia). There’s no College/University difference like in the USA, they’re all just Universities.

        I wonder if this course is designed to make the staff look down on Australians, so they don’t care as much about how they’re treating them, perhaps as a defense mechanism.

        I’ve worked in phone-based tech support jobs in Australia, next to very skilled people who have Indian accents, and they used to cop a lot of flak as the caller thought we’d outsourced the call centre to India, when in fact we’d hired highly-technically-skilled Indians who’d migrated here. I was embarassed when those people later called and got me, and they whinged about the Indians they had to deal with earlier. I always made sure to point out that we all worked in Brisbane and that the person they’d talked to was actually damn good at their job.

        I’m in an on-site job now, and we’ve paid extra for our computer support so we get to talk to a Sydney-based call center rather than an off-shore on, and one reason for that is that the Sydney office is given more lee-way when it comes to just sending a guy out with parts. If I call the standard number I get someone who has to run through a bunch of different steps before he can send a tech out, but when I call the special Gold support Sydney number, I just tell the guy what the problem is, what I’ve done to try and troubleshoot it, and they send someone within a day or two with replacement parts (not just one, but a stack, to save repeat trips).

        Australia has it’s share of yobbos and white-trash (we call them Bogans), but I reckon it’s fair to say that either the Trainer’s training program had some serious flaws (unintentionally or by design), or maybe he’s fallen for some classic foreignor-baiting Australian humour. When people from other countries keep asking you if we have A/C yet, kangaroos in every backyard, cars(!?!), that kind of thing, eventually you get fed up and start telling them huge lies, just to see what you can get them to believe. For years I explained my mass-produced (for the tourist market) kangaroo fur keychain tag as a momento from a Roo I had to kill with a machete, as I’d wandered into his territory and he attacked me.

      2. These are private companies and all they are interested is in maximising their profits.

        That’s how all the most pernicious forms of racism happen. People directly threatening minorities are more dangerous, but most of us recognize it for what it is, and hopefully few would openly support it.

        A company who won’t hire (say) Hispanics, though, need only point out some statistic or other to imply they’re slightly worse workers on average. Then anyone who thinks they shouldn’t discriminate is pushing affirmative action, which enough people will tell you is the “real” racism.

        Likewise police who disproportionately stop blacks, or security officials who disproportionately stop Muslims. People will tell you those are the groups to watch out for, so unless you want them wasting time with harmless grandmothers, it’s part of the job.

        It gets brushed aside because it’s supposedly incidental to their main goal, but the end result is the same: people get marginalized. I don’t think it’s a good enough excuse.

    3. ” Colleges, I believe the Sydney University began in 1850 seven years before the first Indian University.”

      Ahem, Nalanda University in India was set up in around 500 AD. 1250 years before the first Australian university.

  6. “In a country where per-capita income is about $900 per year, a BPO salary qualifies as middle-class.”

    So… both the pay and the candidness of the trainer make it seem that their gig is BETTER than any call center job I’ve ever had, and I’m Canadian. Huh.

  7. I work for a large Indian IT company that is active in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO).

    Yes, BPO does include call centers, but it certainly isn’t limited to call centers.

    BPO refers to any business process (HR, Finance, IT, et al) that can be outsoucred.

    When I have seen BPO being discussed in the literature, it usually refers to the outsourcing of IT related manners and financial software programs.

    To equate BPO with call centers is a significant oversimplification and really doesn’t paint an adequate picture of what BPO is.

  8. Half way through this and so far some of it is similar to the training in America. I’ve been a phone employee for sadly about 6 years now & can say this is also trained in America. Maybe with slightly different wording:

    “First is your eccentric!” she yelled.

    “Second is your arrogant!

    “Third is your bumpkin!

    “Fourth is your quarrelsome!

    “Fifth is your prudent!

    “Sixth is your assertive!

    “And seventh is your sweet-spoken!

    I kind of feel bad knowing that Indians get paid bottom-barrel rates and get constantly berated. But as a phone employee, I have to worry about it because it affects my personal job security. And Americans call center employees get the same treatment. Is it any wonder corporations ship this job overseas? It is cheaper to torture foreign souls over domestic ones.

  9. Yeah – I knew an aussie once… drunk ‘roos are the *worst* – and the one that used to hang out with this guy, well… wow. The stuff they say when they think you can’t get to em – simply unbelieveable. On the other hand, being sober when the ‘roo is drunk does have it’s advantages… especially when it comes to fisticuffs.


  10. a great article. As for Racism, it’s everywhere, everyone does it everyone suffers from it– its human nature to notice differences and set themselves apart: watch for this new crop of torontonian kids tho, they really see no color, they themselves are of the most beautiful mixes, the world is changing, slowly but surely.

  11. Their preferred term for us is–please don’t mind, ladies–‘brown bastards.’

    My goodness, that’s horrible. That’s got to be the laziest racial slur I’ve ever heard in my life. Come on, Australians, put some effort into it! Although look at me, expecting those pommie layabout Matilda-waltzers to put in an honest day’s work.

    1. Yes it’s true we’re lazy drunk bastards. You can tell that by the way we name our animals (the names that weren’t taken from the locals).

      “Hey Dave what’s that snake over there?”
      “Well Bruce that would be a Brown Snake?”
      “Dave, why do they call it that?”
      “Because its brown, and a snake.”

      “Dave, what’s that snake over there?”
      “Well Bruce that’s a a Death Adder.”
      “Why do the call it that?”
      “Because they wouldn’t let us call it a ‘Fucks you right up snake'”

  12. I hate getting cold calls, but when I get them I usually pretend to be a drunk Australian. It really works in ending the call quickly!

  13. “I have experienced some Americans—please don’t mind—they don’t like Indians. They act rude as soon as they come to know I am Indian. Why is this?”

    It’s because we think, rightly, that American jobs have been sent to India where they pay Indians next to nothing so they can pay Americans nothing. But the corporations and the globalists are the villains, not the Indians on the other end of the phone. But we can’t get to the plutocrats responsible, so the people in the call centers get the blame.

    1. A job is a task. Tasks do not have nationality.

      Resentment seems to though. Funny that.

  14. A song for all those working in Indian call centers:

    Posted with love; now please don’t call.

  15. Having worked in an Australian-based call centre, I can confirm that a significant minority do express how happy they are ‘not to be talking to someone in bloody India’.

    If I headdesked every time I heard it, I’d be permanently concussed.

  16. Two of my brothers from another mother are Indian, born and bred. I’m you’re typical white boy, raised in country Australia far from places that new settlers to our country would ever think of visiting (it’s just too far out of the city).

    When I moved into the city I went to school with Lebanese, Indians, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Spanish, Japanese, South Africans – and most were refugees. In all my time growing up I don’t remember any racism against these people because they were our friends. I got to learn of new ways of doing things, new beliefs and ideas, and names! Names like Cevat, how awesome!

    I don’t drink, my friends do and they have a terrific merry time with their social lubricant of choice. The last thing anyone is thinking about is calling Tech Support on a Friday night. Internet down? Use your phone! No reception, use wireless! That desperate for Internets? SMS someone who isn’t at the party and ask them why.

    My point is, the people described by this Helpdesk operator are ALWAYS going to be the worst of Australia because they’re the people fed up, angry, and quite frankly should be cross about the lack of support that they receive in country Australia. Telstra sells them modems that aren’t compatible with the network for starters – of course you’re going to be livid!

    Having spent 5 years in a Call Centre you can EASILY assume that every single person from the company you support are self absorbed ego maniacs. You’re a CALL CENTRE. It comes with the territory.

    You will always be able to label Australia many things but that’s because we’ve got it all. Take the worst of every culture on the planet, we’ve got it. But we’ve also got the best of every other culture and I find it quite ridiculous that we’re labelled so poorly by anyone who hasn’t lived in Australia. That’d be like me basing my opinion of Americans off of the television.

    That mentality exists across the planet, and it is that mentality which breeds ignorance.

    Lekha should pop over to Australia and join us on a Friday night for a drink. I’ll make a rare exception and join in and shout a round. And if any of my friends aren’t there i’ll grab my iPad and send a message out, i’ll guide people to me via my iPhone, they’ll get lost along the way with their satnav, we’ll laugh and they’ll get shouted a drink when they finally get there and tell us a good story about their travels.

    I’m no racist, but then again some people are. Lead by example *shrug*

  17. Here in Oz, I get called at least twice a day from someone wanting something from me. It’s annoying no matter what country they’re calling from. But when I call customer service for any of the super mega corporations, and I hear someone from another country handling my call, trying to affect a poor accent, or use alien idioms, it really bothers me since I know it’s cost cutting that directly effects me. I am always courteous, and I am never interested in what they have to say. Sucks for everyone, except for the executive a-hole cashing in on everyone’s good manners.

  18. That trainer is bloody clueless. For example, we’re phone crazy here. I seem to remember hearing a couple of years ago we had more mobiles than people. According to the Bureau of Stats, two years ago 31% of kids aged 5-14 had their own phone.

    I got tired of being harrassed by Indians with impenetrably thick accents pretending to be Aussies in order to sell me crap I couldn’t care less about, so I put myself on the Do Not Call list for the win.

    A couple of years later, I’ve noticed I still react badly when answering the phone to an Indian accent… it’s a conditioned reflex. I generally like Indians, but the call centre business has pretty badly tainted their useage of phones, as far as I’m concerned.

  19. If you call me at home on Friday night (or any time) and I’m rude, it’s not because you’re from India – it’s because you’re a useless c*n* disturbing my peace and quiet.

  20. How to write an article about India:

    1. Make sure you mention cows and goats on the street, for local color.

    2. The Himalayas *have to* be mentioned somewhere, even if only as ‘Himalayan towns’ – even if the story is set in Delhi, far away from hills of any sort.

    3. Mention how poor every single Indian is, and how the rest of the world, even if indirectly, is helping them prosper in life.

    4. Oh, yes – mention the heat. And Arranged Marriages.

    Bonus points missed by this article – Diarrhea, Taj Mahal, Bollywood.

    (end of sarcasm) While the article’s good, stuff like this is going to make any Indian roll his eyes in disgust.

  21. We get frequent cold calls from India trying to scam us into buying phoney antivirus that they know we need because “..we scanned your computer over the internet.” !? :-(

    I think it’s dismay at being bothered by cold calls and disgust at outsourcing that they face, rather than racism. Even my wife (also Asian and speaks English as a second language) berates them for not having the decency to try and cheat her in accent she can understand before slamming the phone down.

  22. I definitely agree that Lekha is being completely hypocritical with his inaccurate generalisations about so-called “racist” Australians. It would be ignorant to say that racism doesn’t exist in Australia but the prejudice in this situation is based more on line of employment than race. My parents had a private number and had phone calls from telemarketers every day without fail despite this. Needless to say, they were frustrated and would sometimes just hang up the phone (regardless of the caller’s race). I’ve never heard the expression “brown bastards” before and I lived with a Sri Lankan guy and a guy from Bangladesh (ok, not Indian but “brown”), both of whom seemed to enjoy living in Australia.

    It’s true though, we don’t have “college”… we call it “university”. It’s incredible what this Lekha guy is trying to pass off as reality. Most of my friends are in the middle of postgraduate studies and almost everyone I know has an iphone. I haven’t seen the Nokia 3310s around since I was 15 or so (ahem… almost 10 years ago now).

    Stereotypes are a dangerous thing, their perpetuation results in unwarranted racial prejudice. If we took each individual on their merit instead of lumping them into groups based on something as general as race, we’d be a lot better off. It’s a shame this Lekha guy is filling their heads with this prejudiced nonsense rather than informing the employees how to optimise communication.

  23. Five of our universities are ranked in the top 50 universities in the world. Not bad considering our relatively small population of 22 million.

    “Research found more than half of Australians with a mobile phone own a smartphone. More than a quarter of those owned an iPhone.”

    I think Lekha’s comments are based more on prejudice than statistics (or reality)

    1. Indeed – she does sound like Everything She Ever Needed To Know About Australia She Learned from Crocodile Dundee. But what’s really deplorable is that she feels OK taking money to spew this racist claptrap, and her company has no qualms preying on desperate young folk and delivering this nonsense in the guise of preparing them for a job.

      You know what people in Indian BPOs should learn about Australia? Cold call canvassing doesn’t work here (less than .5% conversion) and warm lead transferring is usually handled by local companies. So they should stick to handling incoming calls, and shy well clear of anyone who wants them to mouth a sales spiel to a randomly called number, especially if they work on commission.

      Also, drunk ‘roos aren’t a problem; the feral wombats have hunted them damn near to extinction. But the crocs – they’ll come right into your house and go through your cupboards. Is it any wonder we’re always drinking?

  24. It would be interesting to know; but somewhat hard to tell, how much of that is racism/nationalism per se and how much is a (largely valid) inference concerning quality of service.

    Since offshore call centers are cheaper, companies who see customer service as a cost-center to be grudgingly endured tend to offshore. Shockingly enough, service provided by the low bidder for a customer who doesn’t care tends to be pretty lousy. Other than the occasional unintelligible accent, it wouldn’t be any better if the same company were buying it onshore; but companies that don’t give a fuck generally don’t buy onshore anymore. If, on the other hand, you get an onshore call center, there is no reason to expect that the personnel are intrinsically any smarter; but somebody is paying rather more for them, so it is typically the case that they are better trained on whatever it is they are doing, and that they are doing whatever it is for a company that is willing to spend more on customer service.

    Then, of course, you just get the people who are willing to scream about the Pakis stealing their jobs. Their motivations are rather clear.

    In my capacity as a sysadmin for a small to medium sized enterprise(~50ish servers, ~1400 clients, bunch of switching, etc.) it is usually the case that onshore call center = company gives a fuck, offshore call center = company realizes that they have to get you to go away somehow. Given the number of Indian expats in the American tech sector, it isn’t terribly uncommon to speak to an Indian in a US call center, and the ones in the offshore call centers are generally pleasant and comprehensible; but it is definitely the case that getting an offshore is a clear sign that the help is going to be significantly less knowledgeable(which is only fair, since they are probably employees of a call-service contractor, with access only to the scripts provided), while an onshore center usually means that you are getting the company’s “customers we actually care about” treatment.

  25. Amusing extract, but it’s worth reading the whole article to put things in perspective.

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