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Reach out and touch someone … with overseas labor

Like I said in that post a while ago about Cybracero, telepresence work is already here — with foreign workers effectively “existing” on national soil. When you call customer-service for American Express or General Electric, chances are you’re talking to somebody in Mumbai, India. And, according to this lovely story at Wired online, those workers are told to pretend they’re calling from a U.S. city. For the customer, anyway, the illusion is entirely of work being done on U.S. soil — since part of service work takes place, as it were, in the the mind of the customer.

The call-center companies are so keen to appear American that they’ve begun using Ally McBeal episodes and Sylvester Stallone movies to instruct their Indian employees:

Their training includes a smattering of U.S. history and geography, along with speech therapy so that they will sound “American.” Some call centers are adorned with American flags to give a cultural feel to the place.

Along the way, these employees are exposed to a way of life that can come into direct conflict with their conservative values and, sometimes, their sanity.

Partho Banerjee, a 24-year-old employee at a call center in Mumbai for TransWorks, a computer outsourcing company, blushes when he recalls a sales pitch that he made to a 45-year-old American woman.

“She asked me to marry her,” he said.

On another occasion, Partho let his accent slip and had to confess after being pointedly questioned that he was, in fact, an Indian sitting next to a telephone in Mumbai.

“The man told me, ‘You guys blew up the WTC,’” he said. “I tried to explain India had nothing to do with it, but he just banged the phone down.”

It’s a grand old flag.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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