Telephonic Love: A Misreading

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

41kiXhcF-uLIn January of 2009, I was browsing through news networks when I came across a headline that read: “Indian call centre employee punished for harassing British woman”. Seeing that I was in the process of writing a dissertation on call centers around that time, my interest was piqued. The article reported that British Telecom (BT) had received a complaint from one of its customers saying that she had been receiving creepy messages from an employee at BT's call center. She had earlier called the customer centre in order to have an engineer sent to install a landline at her house and had subsequently been contacted by the agent who wanted to know where she lived and what she was doing for the day. The agent's name was reported as Hemant; the woman's identity was not disclosed. Hemant was reported to have subsequently begun sending her text messages on her phone, some of which are included in the article.

“Hello, Hemant this side with whom you spoke two hours ago regarding ur BT order. U must be thinking dat why I called u up second time without any reason of the call but to be honest I got attracted towards u and ur wonderful voice. Can I be ur friend?”

“As precious as u r to me, as precious only few can ever be, I know all friends r hard to choose but u r someone I never want to lose. Take care xxx.”

The woman is also reported as having complained: “The messages were inappropriate and very creepy. I felt as if I was being stalked.”

The messages are inappropriate in many ways. They transgress privacy, professionalism, and grammar all in one text. One wonders what manner of desire fuelled this transoceanic burst of sentiment. Did Hemant in his cubicle, attending to one British call after another find a moment of connection in the caller's “wonderful voice”? Did he see this as a way to bring nearer one of the many callers who were to him not even a face, but only a voice? Did she speak kindly to him and chat in a manner that assured him that she was ready and waiting for him to make a move? Was he egged on by colleagues who saw him flirting on the phone with a caller? Was it merely a dare? Did he, in the Lacanian sense, read beyond the phrase-ology of polite customer communication, in itself a complete economy of empty language gestures? Did he fill the emptiness with content of his own and break the symbolic understanding of customer-agent communication?

To be a good “professional” the call centre worker, like many of us deployed in the service sector, must read and deploy efficiently the emptiness of the language he uses. He must use pleasantries, allay fears, restore confidence and ensure that the hundred odd people who call in every night are assured not only a useful, but also a pleasant conversation. Small talk, politeness and interest become part of the work that the agent must perform. In these new regimes of the service economies, the emphasis is on what is termed the “customer experience”. It is not just the product or service that is bought that needs to be evaluated, but the sum total of processes that the customer experiences while skirting anywhere near the process of purchase. Any point of engagement must therefore be marked by the organization.

From the point of time that the customer comes in contact with anything that the organization can claim its own; a billboard, a television advertisement, an employee, the clock starts ticking. The seller's store frontage, an article in a journal, a newsaper report, sales personnel, their terms of speech and tone of voice, all become part of the “customer experience”. The corporation stands defined not as one physical entity, but as a vast network of nodes of contact; contact defined loosely as the affective production of the sense of contact. The worker must therefore be taught to actively produce “positive” affects.

Training for customer service offered through the phone (one which is fast becoming the primary mode of service) therefore usually includes notes on “feel good” communication. The worker's modes of speech as much as the content of communication must make the customer happy . The inclusion of standard phrases like “I'm happy to help”, “Have I managed to solve your problem today?” and “I am very sorry about the problems you have been having”, are drilled into the person making contact so that every possible situation that might require a solicitous remark and mode of empathy display a corresponding mode of speech. Even when the content of communication may be inappropriate, unpleasant or not to the liking of the customer, the manner of voice must smooth ire and manage affect. Both language and voice must come together to exhibit the true feelings of the body that cannot be seen or read and the person that is only available through a voice.

In his work, A Voice and Nothing More , Mladen Dolar argues that the voice both stands between and connects body and language, noise and meaningful articulation. In his understanding, the voice is uncanny, a product of the body and yet separate from it and in itself alone, therefore both singular and true. The paradox here, of course is that this production of affect through a “truly” empathetic self is produced through a voice and a tone that must often be affected.

While it is obvious that the voice belongs to a docile body, the body itself is further called to transformation through a very clear articulation of the need to manage posture, comportment and facial gestures. In training workers, it is constantly iterated that the voice is contiguous with body. Only when consistent in its component parts will the self come together as truly willing to the task at hand. Hence the calls to smile and maintain an erect posture in order to project a proactive attitude. Some organizations have mirrors at individual computer stations so the agents can observe their faces while speaking on the phone. An online advertisement for such a “PC Mirror” reads, “Increase sales and customer satisfaction by up to 16%”, and goes on to explain, “By checking your image before and during a conversation, you can help ensure the success of your sale.”

A common story around the call centre industry in India is that Indian customer service agents (unlike workers in the US, because the US or the Western worker is always the Other of this industry) are more humane; they connect better with the people who call and are hence able to provide superior levels of service. This humaneness however is also alternatively read as excessive familiarity, untoward curiosity and an indiscreet sociality. Distance is a keyword, but friendliness is encouraged. Conditions of gender, race, class and context underline, and interweave between various forms of speech, innocent and otherwise, to mediate friendliness. In the varied hierarchies that are both denied and affirmed in the daily activities of the customer service worker lie the cues for managing distance.

To return to the story that I left dangling, was Hemant merely logically concluding the feelings he had begun to deploy in order to be a good worker? Would it have not been inappropriate to be cold and unfriendly? Given that one who employs language purely in its instrumentality and is insensitive to its performative dimension is the sociopath of this symbolic universe, was Hemant merely trying too hard?

This symbolic world, however, is in itself, I argue, a realm of speculation and a field fraught with many such symbolic breaks. What happens in these instances of inappropriate behaviour is not, an inability to read, but a misreading.

Many scholars of globalization are in agreement that capitalist modernity is without a doubt, intimate. However, what is often puzzling is how social relationships can be understood in relation to modernizing markets. Are they produced as collective subjectivities by laboring practices? Are they corralled into the service of new forms of work, thereby rendering the production of human connection central to the practice of work? Are they the casualty that falls prey to the bulldozing effects of capitalizing markets?

Intimate life within globalization narratives of the twenty-first century follow a familiar rhetoric. Those living in the city seem to be beset by a loss of emotional connection, a condition of contagion as widespread as the movement of good, capital, and people. Even as mobilities of capital create possibilities of connection, human relations are said to be ravaged by an increasing distance from communitas. Coming to modernity seems to bring with it a necessary alienation. Georg Simmel's Metropolis and Mental Life for example, speaks of this constitutive loneliness in a city inhabited by the blase subjects of modernity.

A contrary view holds that globalization itself builds on registers of intimacy and indeed, practices of consumerism, production and work stem not from the homogenization of the world but through and within the intimate feelings of participating subjects. Globalization in this alternate conception is a set of culturally, but also intimately specific ways in which subjects respond to large-scale processes of economic and political change. Hemant's love, in other words, may well become known very soon as what in professional parlance is termed an “occupational hazard”.