“The Sheep is on the Ship”: Hiring Accents as Skills in Indian Call Centers

A few weeks back, I was sitting in a room with a job-candidate, Lana, who had come to the company I was partnered with in hopes of being selected for a job at an international call center in Gurgaon.  For the past month, I had been working with One Direction Skill Solutions (ODSS), a research-oriented company that is a member of the skills hiring and training industry in the Delhi-National Capital Region. One of the founders of the company is Dr. Asher Jesudoss, PhD., who is an acoustic phonetician, a veteran of the voice and accent training industry and my friend. I had come to ODSS for the purpose of conducting research on the hiring processes of the call center industry. This summer, as a part of both my research and the company’s recruiting program, my job was to do initial language assessments during hiring drives with the people who came to our office looking to work in call centers. In other words, my job was  to determine if job-candidates such as Lana should sit in an interview for a voice profile (where she would speak to clients on the phone) or a non-voice profile (where she would send emails or chat with clients on IM).

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One Direction Skill Solutions (ODSS), the hiring and training company where I conducted research this summer on the CASI fellowship.

Sitting next to Lana, I listened carefully as she introduced herself, trying to pick out grammar errors or pronunciations that fall into the industry’s category of Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). I gave her a topic to speak on: “women’s safety in Delhi”. I checked to make sure her speech rate was slow enough and that she wasn’t making too many awkward pauses. I noticed that she wasn’t fumbling for the right words and hadn’t run out of things to say at any point in our conversation. Finally, I presented her with a list of words and sentences that we used in our office as a tool to diagnose whether the candidate’s accent was “neutral” or “fatal”. At the end of our talk, I assigned Lana a color that indicated her chances of being selected for a job. Red was what we call “fatal”; there were too many errors for the candidate to get any kind of job. Orange meant fit for a non-voice profile. Yellow was potentially a fit for voice profile, and green was a definite fit for an international voice profile (eg. what the industry calls a neutral or global accent).

As I spoke to Lana, I found out a little bit about her life. She was relatively new to Delhi and was looking for a job, so that she could send money home to her parents in Nagaland (a state in the North East of India). It’s a hard adjustment for migrants who come from the North East to Delhi. They face racism and harassment because they don’t look like the “prototypical Indian”. They get called “Chinese” and racial slurs, and they sometimes have difficulty finding places to live and getting work. During our chat, Lana told me that the job opportunities in Nagaland weren’t enough for her to find work there, so she had been forced to come to Delhi and was hoping to find work in a good company.

After talking to her for around ten minutes, I was about to write her down as yellow, when Asher stuck his head into the room. He looked at Lana and me and asked her a few questions. “Can you please say ‘the sheep is on the ship’ and ‘please sit in the seat’.” It was normal for Asher to stick his head into my assessments and give me guidance in the standards of the call center industry. After briefly speaking to Lana, he told me that it would be best for her to sit for a non-voice interview because her grammar was good, but she has too much Mother Tongue Influence to clear the voice assessment. She was an orange. At first, I was confused,  but Asher explained that the company for which we were sourcing job-candidates is particular about some of the vowel sounds, and she was pronouncing both “ship” [shɪp] and “sheep” [shi:p] as “sheep” [ship]. Later, I would learn that some of the call centers rarely hire North Eastern candidates because of this particular vowel sound.

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Me conducting a language assessment of a potential job candidate (not Lana).

After working with One Direction Skills Solution, I was starting to get a grasp of what it meant for an accent to be “neutral”, the goal that the training and hiring processes strove towards. The call center industry in India stopped training British and American English to their employees in the first decade of the 2000’s. In place of training foreign accents, many multinational companies started training something called a Neutral or Global Accent. This accent has been the subject of my dissertational research for the past two summers. This summer I was excited to get the opportunity to work alongside the employees of ODSS as they recruited new employees for various call centers in the Delhi area. It was hard work, and the hours were long, but the hardest part for me, as a linguist, was making the leap between what I had deduced a Neutral Accent to be on paper to actually judging human beings in terms of their accents.

Though some members of the industry, Dr. Jesudoss included, rightfully argue that the term “neutral” is a misnomer, many in the call center industry and those who have studied the Neutral Accent (for instance sociologist Aneesh’s recent book (2015)) have described it as a region-less accent. Generally, the Neutral Accent is defined as a way of speaking without Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). However, in my work I have found that this accent is strikingly similar to the manner in which individuals educated in convent schools speak. It is also similar to how English news readers on the TV and radio speak and how the Upper Middle class of South Delhi speaks.

The Neutral Accent is not actually neutral. Accents, by their very nature, can never be neutral. Accents are social identities associated with a person’s speech patterns by a person. Where there is an accent, there must be some identity, even if the particular manner of speech is being proposed to be standard or identity-less. Accents are not equally recognizable for everyone, because they are social processes and their recognizablity is based on the life history of the listener. This summer, I was investigating  the social identity of the Neutral Accent and how that relates to language patterns outside of the call center. After working for One Direction Skills Solutions for almost two months, I have added another question to my list: what happens when an accent becomes a skill?

Though, on the surface, skills pretend to be abilities needed to do a job, they are not quite so straightforward when we examine how skills discourses function in actual workplaces. Take the term “good communication skills” that shows up on nearly every college graduate’s resume in the U.S. The presence of these words on a CV gives no actual information about the way an individual communicates. Instead, it tells us that they have learned that “communication skills” is a phrase that you should write on a resume. The presence of that phrase tells us more about a job candidate’s educational or work experience than the manner in which they speak. Bonnie Urciuoli (2008) discusses the shifty nature of skills as a metasemiotic framework in her work on skills-talk among college grads. She describes how neoliberal subjects (her students) become bundles of skills that are purchasable commodities for employers. However, skills do not only manifest on CVs, but also become the subject of training and hiring protocols where they are embodied in the behavior of trainers and human resource professionals.

Communication training and teamwork training happen frequently in large corporations. The purpose of this training is to assign concrete behavioral patterns to vague notions like teamwork and communication. In a similar manner, though the Neutral Accent is a vague notion that is difficult to pin down, when the Neutral Accent is trained or when a candidate’s accent is assessed based on the criteria of Neutral Accent, some features of this accent become cemented as industry standards. The behaviors that are associated with skills often come from specific class contexts. Good communication skills might manifest as the way in which college educated or middle class white people already tend to speak. This behavioral pattern is not necessarily more suited for the work place than another set of behaviors. The Neutral Accent is similar to Convent English because, according to Arjun Raina (one of the first accent trainers in the industry), the initial workers and trainers in call centers were mostly Hindi speaking members of the upper middle class that were convent educated. Furthermore, convent educated individuals and their manner of speech have historically been privileged in India. In short, both skills and accents are behaviors linked to social persona. The accent is a manner of speech that is stereotypically understood to be used by some people by someone. The skill is a category that is associated with behavior that is linked to an ideal worker.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, thing that happens when an accent becomes a skill in the work place is that some people are structurally excluded from the workforce. In the case of Neutral Accent, I saw numerous examples of individuals speaking with a North Eastern accents who did not get jobs. In many areas of the North East, English medium education is the norm, but still they weren’t getting placed. I discovered later that many states in the North East don’t have convent schools, unlike most of India. Neutral English, as a skill, therefore, carves out a portion of population as a potential workforce.

Another result of an accent being made a skill is that some people are more qualified to judge the presence of the accent than others, based on some aspect of their social identity or social history. I often found myself under-qualified as an accent assessor because the distinctions in accent that were the industry standard were not distinctions that I make on a daily basis living in Philadelphia. Recognizing an accent is a social behavior. Just like someone from Texas can tell the difference between a North and South Texan accent, people who speak with a Neutral Accent are able to judge who has a Neutral Accent or who has MTI. The people who assessed accents were usually from convent or international school backgrounds, and from relatively well-off families. This both created the context for the Neutral Accent, as well as created the need for experts who were already socialized to hear what the industry standard was. I, myself, often missed MTI features because I hadn’t grown up listening to different manners of speech in India and had never learned to make the associations that let others catch these “pronunciation errors” easily. Though I could easily point to what wasn’t American about a job candidate’s accent, I found it much more difficult pointing to what wasn’t neutral.

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ODSS language trainer teaching grammar.

This is not to say that there weren’t North Eastern accent trainers. I spoke to four accent trainers from different regions of the North East, but they either had extreme stories of how they worked their network of North Eastern connections to finally get their job, or stories of how they went to school outside of the North East. One went to a convent school in Shillong, Meghalaya (one of the few places in the North East with convent schools). The rest of trainers from the North East with whom I spoke reported that it was hard getting an into in the accent industry as someone from their home states. One woman I spoke to told me that trainers would often either say North Eastern candidates have too much MTI or have fake American accents.

A third thing that happens when an accent becomes a skill, is that the social roles associated with the accent and the job will interact with each other in unpredictable ways, effecting office demographics but also creating markets for things like accent training. In the case of Neutral Accent, the classed associations of the accent have created a conundrum. Those who are convent educated rarely seek to work in call centers. The pay isn’t very good and the night shifts can be very stressful. The people who were the most excited about the prospect of getting a job working the phones were from outside of Delhi, often from regions that are not associated with the Neutral Accent. This creates the need for accent neutralization courses, which are a growing industry in India.

One Direction Skills Solutions is unique in that it offers free training to candidates who cannot clear the interviews, but speak English relatively well. ODSS gets paid for each candidate that gets placed and stays with the company for at least three months, so the practice pays off. It also helps people from the North East and other “non-neutral” regions get jobs in the call center industry, while providing the industry with employees who will be more likely to stick with the same company for multiple years because they need the financial stability. The training gives people who were not socialized to speak with a privileged accent the chance to learn how to pass the language assessment portion of the interview. They also offer instruction in things like writing business emails and technical information that their future employers would expect them to know. Having a basic knowledge about online retail, credit cards, computers and cell phone technology can help them get through the other rounds of the interview process.

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One of the ODSS trainers training a batch of non-voice candidates. 

Another way One Direction Skill Solutions is working towards increasing the diversity of the call center industry is by actively recruiting North Eastern job candidates and employing North Eastern individuals in their company. In our office, there were multiple North Eastern employees. ODSS also has a its own small domestic call center in Imphal, the capital of the North Eastern State Manipur. By actively involving members of the North Eastern community in the voice and accent industry, ODSS is positioning itself as a partner for North Easterners looking for jobs in Delhi, a city historically unfriendly towards migrants from the region.

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One of the training batches with their trainer. Many of the students are from Nagaland and Manipur, two North Eastern States.

In a way, training offers a short cut to make up for the differences in class and regional backgrounds when appearing for a job interview. Though it doesn’t solve the problem of the inherent biases that exist in the Neutral Accent and other skills-talk, it does give people a leg up and helps bridge the gap that the Neutral Accent creates. It gives a window for increasing the diversity of the industry, which could lead to real change in the long run. They also offer a platform for research (including my own) into these types of the trends in the industry. The example of the Neutral Accent shows us how skills can do more than commodify an individual. They are an avenue for structurally imposing discrimination in hiring practices based on social history. Though the labels of “skill” and “neutral” obfuscate the social indexicality of the Neutral Accent, the market of accents that is emerging in India is a market where racial, regional and class identities are also for sale. We can take the Neutral Accent as an example of how talk about skills, whether they be communication skills, language skills or teamwork skills, can be used to covertly buy and sell social identities.

 

Work Cited:

Aneesh, A. 2015. Neutral Accent: How Language, Labor, and Life Become Global. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.

Urciuoli, Bonni. 2008. “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace.” American Ethnologist 35 (2): 211–28.

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About Kristina Nielsen

I am a PhD student in the department of Anthropology at the University of Philadelphia. I'm originally from the town of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, but have lived in Philadelphia for a few years and was living in New Delhi before that while completing my Masters in linguistics. The work I do is in the sub-field of Linguistic Anthropology. I study how language impacts how we, as humans, go through the world. Specifically, I study a specific accent of Indian English that is used in the call center industry and its social significance. This summer, I'll be investigating this accent and its ties to other accents that are associated with different class, region and group identities.