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Reversing the call culture

By B S Prakash
July 13, 2005 13:16 IST
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Reversing the call culture

Cross-cultural training is a relatively new term, but is already a big business. You may know the concept. In a simple form we have practiced it for long within India, the land of many cultures. For instance, wisdom has been imparted in the North for those going South:

'Don't call them Madrasis. Every South Indian is not a Madrasi'.

'If you see someone rolling up his lungi in Madras, don't look alarmed. It is as natural to them as rolling up the sleeves and they don't mean any harm'.

'Two by three coffee in Bangalore means that three small tumblers of coffee are consumed but you are charged only for two'.

And its reverse in the South:

'Don't stop at a red light if you are driving in Delhi, you will be hit from behind.'

'Don't say nonsense ever to a Bengali. It is the highest form of insult.'

'Don't be alarmed if you are invited to snake bitings in Ahmedabad. You will get dhoklas, kachoris and such other snacks.'

As befitting a Third World country such training was through word of mouth, in what is called these days, the unorganised sector. No schools and no fees.

With globalisation and people going here, there and everywhere new words and concepts evolved: accultarisation, trans-ethnic understanding, cross-cultural dialogue etc. One inexorable aspect of globalisation is commercialisation and the mushrooming of schools to teach some of these fancy techniques.

A new era dawned with the IT revolution and with the now legendary 'call centres'. The astounding success and growth of call centres inevitably created new training centers. At least a dozen PhDs can be written in the Jawaharlal Nehru University sociology department on the social, psychological, aesthetic and metaphysical effects that call centres have had on Indian society. Some of these I will reserve for another day. Here I will focus on the schools and more importantly, their American counterparts.

There is no question that the young boys and girls, who were taking calls from American clients, had to be trained. It was not just that Hema had to be called Helen, Arun as Aaron and Shanmuganathan, difficult even for Gurgaonvasis, as 'Sam', while working in the call center work environment. Their accents had to acquire a twang, a nasal drawl had to be cultivated and new swear words were to be sworn in. The entire aural aspect, what the listener perceived through his ear, had to sound American.

Scores of schools bloomed in India to train young college graduates for jobs in call centres. Opening educational institutions comes naturally to us and is the biggest growth industry. After all, don't we have schools to train babies to equip them for kindergarten interviews, mould models to face 'Miss India' contests, instruct candidates aspiring to go on the Indian Idol show on television?

The real job market was here. Not in the call centres, but in training schools for those who wanted jobs in call centres. In these schools, they teach you more about America than most Americans know about themselves. The basics cover subjects such as the weather in Chicago (while seated in Chennai). They teach you about baseball scores, beach ball escapades in the latest shows on American television and the critical differences between McDonalds and Burger King. Why? Don't ask me.

Not satisfied with all this they also run courses on 'how to take abuse and not to get into trauma while taking a 800 call. The assumption is that the average American caller whose call is being processed in India by this Hema/ Helen is one of the following: a chatty chap who wishes to discuss the weather, baseball scores, or politics before inquiring about flight schedules, or is a masochistic pervert who will taunt or abuse the person at the other end of the telephone line or an intellectual hell-bent on establishing your ethnic identity.

All this has already changed, of course. I find that most educated Americans now believe that all their requests and services are being processed in India. And will be startled if they get a real Helen at the end of the line and would not mind at all the efficiency of Hema/Helen. I met this all-American sales girl, who works with Teleshopping who wanted to know where or what Gurgaon was. I asked her why.

'Half the time, when I take a call, customers ask me whether I am based in Bangalore or Pune or Gurgaon and what my real Indian name is', she confessed plaintively. 'Where the heck are these places anyway and why should I have an Indian name?'

All this had me a bit worried. As an Indian diplomat, I did not want India known only as the back office of the world, however profitable it might be. We are more than that. Aren't we already in Space, in Antarctica and in every frontier area of research? Besides I was always told that globalisation is a two-way street. Burgers are coming to India but dosas are coming to America, I was told. Where was the evidence for this?

Imagine my happiness then, when I found the evidence. I came across a conference of real estate agents -- 'realtors' is the American term -- for training sessions being held for white Americans, who dominate the business in dealing with Asian customers.

Research has shown that among the ethnic communities with disposable incomes to buy houses, Indians (and Chinese) are a major segment. This should surprise no one. Essentially all immigrants, with no family roots or inherited properties, sizable incomes, very high savings rate and a desire to own a house -- isn't it natural that the real estate agent should target the Indian-American community? But to be able to do it, they must first get some cross-cultural training.

America is a highly organised society where courses are taught methodically and the basic course is always called '101'. It is the starting point for understanding everything. Here is what some of the basic lessons of 101 for realtors wanting to sell houses to Indians would look like:

  • Do not assume that a family means two or even 2 + 2. A family can consist of three generations living together. Grandparents, who also double up as resident baby sitters, two 'providers' both with PhDs (work room must need space for two computers, at least), and children (who will continue to live in the house, even when adults).
  • Do not emphasise the swimming pool. It will be regarded as a liability and not an asset.
  • Do not assume that the living room is the most important area. It is not, though there should be space for about a 100 when parties are held. (Seating is not necessary. Many will take the floor, so stress on the brown carpet, which will hide the whiskey spill).
  • The most important part is the kitchen. This is what they will see first.
  • Identify a closet large enough for about fifty pairs of shoes. Indian clients, however wealthy, will never throw away their old shoes.
  • If there is a small room, stress its virtue as a potential temple (if you can manage call it the pooja ghar -- it is an important sales pitch).
  • Do not ask how they intend to finance it or about the credit arrangements. Assume that they will not see the house, before they have saved up.

There are other cases of reverse cultural calls unfolding in these interesting times, which I will explore. Yes, globalisation is indeed a two-way street and Udipis will be as ubiquitous as Pizza Huts one day.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

Earlier columns:

How to be a millionaire

Sounding silly in Silicon Valley!

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B S Prakash