School for Advanced Research Resident Scholar
Neutral Accent: The Cultural Seams of Global Talk
Somewhere in India, a twenty-something call center trainee using the name Tim White is learning that a “geek” is “someone who is more intelligent than most, works too hard, and is slightly unattractive.” After voice and accent training has neutralized Tim’s regional affect, he takes classes in American geography and culture—he can now identify a boulevard, a credit history, and a gross out, and he knows how to decode the numbers on a credit card. His next training phase will be process-specific: Tim will learn everything there is to know about mobile phones. He is becoming a telemarketer.
“When a person sitting in Gurgaon, near New Delhi, India, calls an American in Little Rock, Arkansas about purchasing a mobile phone, how are they able to communicate with each other?” asks Aneesh. His book manuscript Neutral Accent: the Cultural Seams of Global Talk brings to light “what happens to social life when two different linguistic worlds are technologically integrated in real time.” The problem of double contingency—the phenomenon when one person must anticipate the expectations of the other before communicating, and vice versa—is infinitely compounded in the absence of shared cultural norms, values, and role expectations. “The problem has far wider implications for global communicative practices, seeking to bridge through software and telecommunication links the worlds that are culturally and geographically removed from each other,” says Aneesh.
The “neutral accent” of his book’s title refers to a recent shift in training practices in India’s international call centers, moving from imitation of American or British accents to neutralization, the creation of a “global English.” Call centers learned quickly that the “cultural gulf was not as easy to cross as previously imagined,” says Aneesh. “Even a single mistake in recognizing the other person’s accent or mispronouncing a common word meant sounding completely fake, and losing the trust of the customer.”
Building on his previous book, Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization, Neutral Accent also explores the lived experience of call center workers in India, now numbering over 300,000, who operate in a disconcerting parallel universe of American or British time zones, holidays, and other cultural markers. Aneesh points out that for the world economic system, the goal of neutrality masks the need to annihilate global differences and to create globality. “With a view to uncovering the actual and possible social vulnerabilities that emerge out of technologically mediated, cross-cultural work practices, my study hopes to bring out the crisis tendencies that haunt projects of globalization,” says Aneesh.
Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee