I am waiting for a company cab, now an hour and a half late, to drive me across town to a call center, where an Indian “culture trainer” will teach me how to act Australian. For three weeks, a culture trainer will teach us conversational skills, Australian pop culture, and the terms of the mobile-phone contracts we’ll be peddling.
Bright recent college grads pore over flashcards and accent tapes, intoning the shibboleths of English pronunciation—”wherever” and “pleasure” and “socialization”—that recruiters use to distinguish the employable candidates from those still suffering from MTI, or “mother tongue influence.” The lucky ones will secure Spartan lodgings and spend their nights (thanks to time differences) in air-conditioned white-collar sweatshops.
Indian BPOs work with firms from dozens of countries, but most call-center jobs involve talking to Americans. New hires must be fluent in English, but many have never spoken to a foreigner. So to earn their headsets, they must complete classroom training lasting from one week to three months. Speaking Hindi on company premises is often a fireable offense.
Next is “culture training,” in which trainees memorize colloquialisms and state capitals, study clips of Seinfeld and photos of Walmarts, and eat in cafeterias serving paneer burgers and pizza topped with lamb pepperoni. Trainers aim to impart something they call “international culture”—which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one. The result is a comically botched translation—a multibillion dollar game of telephone. “The most marketable skill in India today,” the Guardian wrote in 2003, “is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else’s.”