Thursday, December 11, 2008

Paying for American Accents

I stumbled upon this article from the Washington Post while reading my morning news. Basically, it talks about how Dell will guarantee that the person who answers your customer service call will speak "American" if you're willing to pay $12.95/month or $99/year. It also guarantees that your call wait will be roughly two minutes less if you pay (so much for ending white privilege).

I do understand the difficulties associated with hearing "foreign" accents on customer service lines and have experienced my fair share of misunderstandings; however, I still think this idea is kinda absurd. It may take longer, but if you listen closely enough, I think you will be able to understand the speaker without diverting to any forms of linguistic prejudice if you really want to. It might be inconvenient and frustrating, but many issues of comprehension can be resolved if you really really need are determined and need the help.

I also think that such an issue can potentially pave the way for additional types of linguistic prejudices associated with "American" speakers in the United States. Some customers may eventually complain that they can't understand Ebonics speakers, Appalachian English speakers, those with New York accents, Italian accents, etc. even when the speaker can be understood. This whole Dell biz makes me wonder if there's really an issue with comprehension, or is it the prejudices that are associated with particular accents and speakers that is the real problem.

Not to mention the fact that no one's talking about the fact that American speakers of many different dialects often can't understand each other when traveling from one region to another. So this makes me ask: What type of "American" speaker does the customer get to talk to? One with a Midwestern Accent? Southern? Northeastern? California Valley? Is this "American" speaker White? Black? Native American? Latino? Asian American? Given the linguistic and racial prejudices associated with most ethnic minority groups, it would seem to me the "American" customer service rep would be code for a White speaker with a bland accent. Isn't that racial discrimination?

Like I said, while language barriers do often raise questions of comprehension, I am still left to wonder to what extent the problem is comprehension or just linguistic/racial prejudice.

No comments: