Twenty-First Century Foreign Relations

June 6, 2011 / General /

By guest blogger Gabriel B. Grant

Have you ever wondered why many people outside of the United States do not like Americans? Have you met me?

Overseas calling centers may be the greatest threat we’ve ever experienced to our foreign relations. Why? Because I represent you abroad. To understand this, pretend for a moment that in the past, there was careful consideration in the selection of foreign diplomats. These diplomats formally represented us, and played a significant role in crafting how other people related to us abroad. Now, beyond people travelling more throughout the world, institutions like overseas calling centers make it possible for people who never leave the country to influence how people in other countries think of us. In effect, I am the U.S. ambassador to India.

A routine phone call yesterday illustrates our predicament. First, U.S. Airlines is the exclusive carrier for New Haven Airport and my wife and I fly them routinely. So, I was excited when I received an offer for a U.S. Airways World Premier MasterCard that included bonus miles and companion tickets worth about $1000 to me in the first year and, most appealing, access to the priority security line. The offer seemed too good to be true; I applied online and was immediately approved. Wahoo! My card arrived.

A few months went by and I had not received the bonus miles or my companion tickets, so I called customer service. The first person spent about 20 minutes to figure out I had been awarded the “Platinum” card instead of the “Premier” card, for which I had applied. I asked “what can be done” and she instructed me to call back during a weekday. Over the weekend and then throughout the week, until I found time to make another call, my mind would float back to this situation over and over. I thought “that’s bait and switch” “they shouldn’t be allowed to give you a card you didn’t apply for” and “cancelling this card is going to ding my credit rating.” Finally, a few days later, I mustered up all of the frustration I had accumulated stewing in my head and made another call to customer service.

At this point, I had convinced myself that I had been wronged and Barclays, the company administering this card, needed to understand that this would not be tolerated.  “I’m standing up for everyone else,” I thought to myself, “for the little guy who always gets slighted and never speaks up.” After 2-3 min of navigating through the computerized menus and then waiting on hold, and another 2-3 minutes communicating the situation, the first service representative I reached attempted to transfer me and, instead, disconnected the call. My frustration grew. I called again.

I reached a nice Indian man who explained that he was unable to change my existing account over to premier. I expressed my frustration, yet his consistent politeness wore me down and he talked me into canceling the card and reapplying. He assured me that, if he notated the account, it is unlikely we would reproduce the first experience. I agreed to proceed. He began asking me for my information. The language barrier combined with our international phone connection made this tedious and it took another 20min to complete the application. I spelled everything multiple times, “Gabriel” “G, as in good; A, as in apple…; no, A, as in apple…” I asked him why he couldn’t copy the information from my existing account and he informed me he was not able to access that screen while he was filling out my new application. I suggested that he print it out. He said he could not do that either. He took down my occupation, letter by letter, and my household income, etc. etc.

Finally, he submitted the application and a minute later said, “Congratulations, Sir. You have been approved.” I asked him to verify it was the “Premier” account, and he told me to hold on for a moment. Then, 4 min later, he said, “I’m sorry sir; you have been given a platinum card again”. At this point I had spent 45min and I was back where I started… but with an additional ding on my credit. So, I told this representative I was upset, that this seemed like a scam, and that I wanted to speak to his manager. After being on hold for 3 more minutes, I just hung up.

As I drove to pick up my wife, it occurred to me that this guy was calm and peaceful throughout our entire conversation. He apologized over and over again and likely did everything within his set of available tools to make my life work. Nevertheless, I was bitter, frustrated, and angry. Then it occurred to me, in answering the application questions, I had revealed our combined household income to be just over $100k or approximately 50 times the $2,000 annual income he may have been making.

I thought of every conversation I’ve had with someone who waited tables or worked at the country club and was spoken down to. I thought of their encounters with angry rich people who assume the world revolves around them. Wow, I am that angry rich person. I am the guy who treats people like machines, specifically people who make a fraction of what I do and live in another country. I have absolutely no awareness of them as a person.

To the guy in India, it would sound as though I’m declaring “I make millions of dollars per year. You’re trying to screw me out of my time and money. Don’t you know how important my time is???” It may have occurred to him that his system was designed by people like me, the same people (Americans) that yell at him because it doesn’t work. It may have occurred to him that an American probably designed in this nifty bait and switch; but now, this poor polite Indian fellow takes my crap because he wants to keep his job. He’s doing his best to find a way around the system we’ve given him and I tell him his system is the problem and he screwed me over. I’m the guy making about as much money in a week as this guy will see in a year, he’s doing everything he can to help me, and I’m telling him he’s screwing me over.

My problems do not merely appear absurd to this poor man in India. My problems are absurd.

I find brief glimpses of wisdom in quotes like, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there” (Yasutani Roshi) or in the idea of ubuntu: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed… Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World” (Desmond Tutu).

Nevertheless, these philosophies, my experience as a Christian, and my upbringing are checked at the door whenever the universe forgets that I am in the center. You just better hope I’m not on an international phone call representing the rest of you whenever that occurs.

Starting today I have a commitment to be mindful of who I’m being with everyone I speak to. In the past I have ignored my impact on others, cloaked by the anonymity of speaking to a stranger over the phone. I now see the impression this could have around the globe. Our connectedness in the 21st century could threaten our foreign relations, but it also affords us all the opportunity to lift them. As we grow increasingly connected, I can imagine a time when relating to foreign people based on their governmental leadership will be as strange as relating to a fellow American from a different state based on their gubernatorial representative. Thus, there will come a time when our foreign relations are not created by our government, but by us. When I push myself to imagine when this time may be, I realize, the time is now.