I Shouldn't Have To 'Pass' On The Phone For You To Take Me Seriously

Yes. I can speak and understand English quite well.

My name is Nicole Breedlove. My name is not necessarily a culturally specific name. When you speak to me, my voice doesn’t sound culturally specific either. In fact, my last employer told me that she did not know I was African American when she spoke with me. She was shocked when I showed up for my interview.

My mother named me after a character on a soap opera that has long been off the air: The Edge of Night. She said she loved the name. So do I. My name and my voice have allowed me to “pass” well enough to get my foot in the door for job interviews. And, when you’re African American in a competitive job market, getting that foot in the door is half the battle.

I’ve worked at a lot of different companies since my mid-teens. I worked at the Harris Poll conducting telephone surveys in the 1980’s. Here is where I learned that “sounding white” on the phone would help you get a better response. So, I perfected my voice. I never thought of it as passing. I took a speech class, began reading more and was very careful my New York accent didn’t come through. We New Yorkers tend to add an “ah” at the end of words with -er. I quickly learned that a culturally specific name and/or voice can trigger a different response from callers at the end of your line.

If you "sound Black" the person on the other end of the line automatically assumes you are incompetent.

If you “sounded Black” the person on the other end of the line automatically assumes you are incompetent. You can always identify those types of callers. They are cheerful, mannerable and very patient when they introduce themselves. But, for those customer service representatives with culturally specific names, or “black-sounding voices,” the caller is ten times more likely to ask to speak with your manager.

Apparently De’Shawn is not trustworthy or knowledgeable.

I used to work alongside a coworker named Tanesha. Almost every day her callers would ask to speak with someone else when providing any payment information. Why did callers ask to speak with a manager, or even another coworker, when providing their credit card information? Is Tanesha more inclined to steal a customers’ identity than Brad or Becky? It was the callers racial bias that triggered the fear.

Another issue I’ve encountered is the lack of trust in your ability to do your job. There have been other coworkers that have culturally specific voices. Customers would insult them and asked to speak with someone else. This applies not just to “Black-sounding” voices, but also those with Spanish accents or any accent that is not considered American.

Customers assume because you have a strong accent or sound “ghetto” that you did not have the proper training to do your job. I have witnessed the same customer calling more than once. Customers are unaware that call centers are very small. We all know each other. The next representative asks the same questions. They are trained similarly to retrieve information and locate accounts. It is not until the customer gets on the phone with someone without a cultural accent that they allow themselves to be helped. Why is the customer put at ease with a rep with the same training but a differently sounding name?

This racial bias can also be experienced as a customer. If I am making a personal call, I tend to relax my voice. I have called Sprint’s customers service or Cox cable provider or my credit card company to obtain information about a bill or service. I am always knowledgeable, polite and prepared. I have my account number, PIN number, a pen and a piece of paper to take notes. I’ve had customer service agents who have asked me if I can understand what they are saying. Yes. I can speak and understand English quite well. They have told me they will repeat what they just said and purposely spoke slowly like I have a learning disability. Or, my favorite, the agent will say, “Let me start over for you.” All phrases to make me feel like I’m not intelligent enough to understand what they are explaining to me.

The racial bias is based on my voice. I hang up the phone questioning whether I was intelligent enough to match wits with a customer service agent. Sometimes I log a complaint. Other times I feel so angry and powerless about the experience I just vent to a friend.

We all call customer service. It could be for your cell phone carrier, your banking institution, your internet provider or your car insurance. Customer service positions probably employs more unskilled and under skilled workers than fast food companies.

If you are unable to find a job, or need a job with more flexibility because you are in school or have kids, customer services positions are ideal. However, what callers don’t know is that they are VERY well trained. Some are trained for a week. I was hired for a job where the training was seven weeks long.

People have asked me if I can understand what they are saying. Yes. I can speak and understand English quite well.

Companies invest a lot of money to ensure their customer service agents are properly trained, knowledgeable and able to handle belligerent callers. What they are not properly trained to deal with is the racial bias of callers. To all those customer service agents with culturally specific names or voices, hang in there. Your shift is almost over.