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Humanizing Outsourcing?

I’m trying to figure out how I feel about Outsourced, NBC’s new sitcom about an American employee sent to run an Indian call center, that’s the reason Parks & Recreation is being held until mid-season. On the one hand, I really do worry about how the Indian characters are going to be portrayed, and jokes about how foreign food is so crazy and will poison otherwise sophisticated Americans are just exhaustingly tired:

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On the other hand, it appears that the show does a fair amount of work to develop believable characters out of what could be otherwise indistinguishable brown faces. The girl who is super-quiet isn’t necessarily a submissive Indian daughter: she’s just really terminally shy until she finds her voice selling fake vomit over the phone. The Bro in Translation also seems a promising way to look at how American culture translates, and what aspirations folks pick up from it. And the hierarchies based on American companies seems like a decent way of playing with both Indian class dynamics and the impact of the call center economy itself. In other words, the show seems to be as much about the Indian characters as the Americans sent in to work with them, and that seems like a good — and important — thing.I admit I may feel this way in part because of an epically terrible experience with outsourced customer service. Back when I was foolish enough to still use Dell computers, I needed to upgrade my memory. I got the chips, installed the first one fine, but it wasn’t clear where to install the second one. So I called a Dell help line. After a typically interminable wait, a guy started talking me through removing part of the computer’s casing to get to the slot for the second chip. Except the directions he gave me started cracking the plastic. I told him that. His response? To suggest that I get my husband to do it. I blew my stack, and gave him and his supervisor what may have been slightly obnoxious lectures about cultural sensitivities and the plight of American single women. A week later, they sent a tech to my house, who told me he’d seen tons of these cases where the wrong instructions had broken people’s computers (he was also a hilarious slightly hippieish libertarian, making this a hilarious political potpourri). I still feel guilty for blowing up at the tech support guys on the phone. They were wrong to assume I was married and that I couldn’t handle the computer on my own, and I was wrong for being obnoxious. I do think demystifying what I think is probably going to be a fairly permanent relationship (at least until all customer support is complete automated) is a useful project. And if it can be funny, and humane at the same time, that’ll be a good thing.

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