Vocal Whiteface 

Wednesday, October 12th, 2022

A company called Sanas thinks they have the solution to problems faced by call center workers: Make them all sound white.1

The tacit promise of Sanas seems to be that callers will be more polite — and more amenable to being helped — if they think the person on the other end is more like them. (This isn’t a new concept; call center workers in India, the Philippines and elsewhere already adopt American names, and are pressured to develop accents that will sound more “neutral” to Americans.)

But there’s a fundamental flaw with the tacit promises of Sanas…Accents don’t cause bias, they trigger pre-existing biases. That bigotry is supercharged by the power dynamics at play in the hellscape of modern customer service, where frustrated callers are trapped on the phone with agents who have little authority to solve their problems, and everyone is forced to interact exclusively through dehumanizing, uncanny valley scripts…

And Sanas does little to remediate this hellscape; it merely puts a filter on it.

The problem isn’t the accents, it’s the system itself.


Footnotes:

  1. The Sanas website currently provides a demonstration of this, toggling between an unfiltered audio file and a filtered one. I’ve archived a spliced-together version of that audio here. It contains a snippet of unfiltered audio first, then filtered audio, then a mix of the two. ↩︎


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