This Silicon Valley startup wants to help call centers sound more white

SFGate recently published an in-depth feature on Sanas, a Bay Area-startup in the burgeoning field of what they call "accent translation" — which is to say, make the people working in call centers sound more like a standard white person.

You might be thinking, "Well, what does the 'standard' white person sound like, exactly?" or perhaps "This sounds racist" or maybe even "Wait isn't this literally the plot of Sorry To Bother You?" In which case … congratulations, you've got it.

"We don't want to say that accents are a problem because you have one," Sanas president Marty Sarim told SFGATE. "They're only a problem because they cause bias and they cause misunderstandings."

The tacit promise of Sanas seems to be that callers will be more polite — and more amenable to being helped — if they think the person on the other end is more like them. (This isn't a new concept; call center workers in India, the Philippines and elsewhere already adopt American names, and are pressured to develop accents that will sound more "neutral" to  Americans.) 

To be fair, the ultimate goal of Sanas is not to make everyone sound Neutral Standard White Default, but rather, to "translate" accents to serve different needs. Not everyone is comforted by the sound of a Neutral Standard White Default … unless your data is biased because of the junk that you put into it from the start.

Or, as SFGate put it:

To buy what Sanas is selling, you have to believe that the solution to harassment for people with accents — international call center workers or otherwise — is making yourself better understood to Americans. Experts who spoke to SFGATE were troubled by Sanas' emphasis on people in the Global South making themselves understood to Americans, as opposed to Americans accepting other accented voices.

As the article rightly points out, accents themselves aren't not a cause of any bias, but rather, they can trigger pre-existing biases. People make assumptions when they hear a Southern accent, or an Indian accent, or a Black Vernacular English accent, and so on. In this case, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: establish Neutral American White as the Default voice, translate everything into that voice, and then everyone will desire Neutral American White Default regardless of where they live because they've been socialized to associate that accent with authority and compassion, while learning to dismiss other accents as indescribably undesirable.

Fortunately, Sanas President Marty Sarim assured SFGate that, "We don't foresee anything bad coming out of this."

Clearly he didn't sit through to the end of Sorry To Bother You.

Sanas, the buzzy Bay Area startup that wants to make the world sound whiter [Joshua Bote / SF Gate]

Image: Public Domain via DepositPhotos