Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.
In August, White House adviser Stephen Miller unveiled Donald Trump’s new immigration plan, a points-based proposal that would favor English-speaking immigrants. In an ensuing confrontation with Miller, CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta accused the administration of “bringing a ‘Press One for English’ philosophy to immigration.”
Acosta was alluding to a right-wing grievance that’s as common as it is curious: that when English-speaking Americans call an automated customer service hotline, they are forced to press a key just to be allowed to speak English. (Para Español, oprima el dos.)
If you’re an American who’s worried about immigration, customer service lines are a convenient transmitter of immigration anxiety you may not actively experience in your everyday life. “Does it bother anyone besides me to call a business with a question or for technical support and have to press one for English or press 2 for….?” Rick Robertson asked in July, in a letter to the Clarion-Ledger. “We shouldn’t have to press ‘one’ for English,” Orwell, New York resident Brenda LaRue told Syracuse.com in March. Neither lives in a county where more than 3 in 100 residents is Latino.
Conservative columnists have picked up the refrain. In a widely shared column that ran during the presidential campaign, talk radio host Howie Carr wrote, “You may be a deplorable if you don’t think you should have to press one for English.” The whole anecdote has become a sympathetic symbol of white resentment projected as a kind of staple experience of alienation in the new multicultural America. “Plenty of Americans do see the increasing prevalence of foreign cultures in the U.S., including Hispanic culture, as an unwelcome invasion,” wrote the Atlantic’s Molly Ball. “They resent having to press 1 for English when they call customer service.”
How did this trivial annoyance, which seems more suited to an Andy Rooney segment than serious political commentary, became a right-wing meme? Many accommodations for the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking population—the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than any country but Mexico—are largely hidden: Spanish-language baseball broadcasts, or Barack Obama doing a Spanish-language television ad. Online, UPS and Amazon both offer parallel Spanish-language interfaces that the average Anglo customer wouldn’t even know exist. But while Spanish-language functionality in customer service reflects corporate priorities for national companies like American Airlines and Verizon, it conveys national demographics to callers who may not have other interactions with immigrants to draw on. (Ironically, English-language callers to U.S. companies may find themselves speaking to deported Dreamers whose excellent English makes them stellar call-service employees in, say, El Salvador.)
And Americans are particularly sensitive about language. A Pew survey conducted in the spring of 2016 and released in January found that 7 in 10 Americans believe it’s important to speak English to be “truly American”—making English a more valued trait than religion, ethnicity, or cultural affinity. (Though several European countries consider language to be more important still.) “If you ask people to define American cultural identity, people will give you all kinds of fuzzy answers,” says Tomás Jiménez, a professor of sociology at Stanford. “But even the most strident multiculturalists will say that people should speak English.”
There’s also a trope that current immigrants don’t want to learn English as much as their predecessors did, says Deborah Schildkraut, whose 2007 book, Press “ONE” for English, explores the role of English in American identity. The perception is entirely inaccurate, Schildkraut says. In her research, she’s found that many immigrants have to sit on waitlists to enter English classes, sometimes for years. But for Anglophone Americans, language still strikes a chord. “Even people who are sympathetic to immigrants, this is the one issue that gets them,” she notes.
But while it may be annoying for native-born Americans to endure a momentary Spanish-language direction, it can be downright debilitating for immigrants who don’t speak English well to attempt to use customer service in a language they don’t understand. (Ask an American who has lived abroad.) Government forms and ISP helplines may make a convenient symbol, but no one ever learned English by talking to a representative from Delta Airlines—or decided they didn’t have to because that representative spoke Spanish.
For companies, the adoption of Spanish in customer service calls is an example of what Tod Famous, the director of product management at CISCO, called “market-driven multiculturalism.” As we’ve seen with corporate America’s blanket support of the gay rights movement, capitalism looks out for minorities because minorities are customers. “They’re just trying to make more money,” says Famous, whose company provides an automated call-response platform that companies can then customize individually. “The call center community is insular, and they’re all copying each other. Respect for language affinity improves customer loyalty. If you offer them options, they will be more likely to stay with you.” If there’s collateral damage in including Spanish-language prompts, the math doesn’t show it—no matter how many people complain about having to press one for English.
And that’s another thing about “Press One.” Do companies really make their Anglophone customers actively choose English? Turns out that hardly anyone does. In fact, if pressing one for English was ever a thing, it has ceased to exist at most of America’s largest companies. I called Albertsons, Apple, Amazon, American Airlines, Best Buy, Bank of America, Citibank, CVS, Dell, DHL, FedEx, Mars, Samsung, Spectrum-TWC, Target, T-Mobile, United Healthcare, UPS, Verizon, and Walmart. Blogs will tell you that some of these companies once forced customers to choose English. Today, none of them do. Most quickly tell you, in Spanish, how to proceed in that language. “Marque el nueve,” “Oprima el dos.” A handful—Albertsons, Amazon, Apple, Mars, Samsung, United Airlines, and Walmart—do not even offer Spanish. The only large company I found that asked callers to select English was Starbucks which also offers, inscrutably, French.
“Typically you’ll get a welcome message that says to speak in Spanish, say Spanish or press one, some combination,” says Judi Halperin, a principal consultant at Avaya. “I’ve never in 20-something years dealt with a system where you had to press one for English. I’m sure at some point it was there, but as time progressed and we started getting more and more experience, the last thing you want to do is get in the way of the caller.”
That tiny, short-lived impediment was spun out into an enduring web of resentment. What some white Americans perceive as a roadblock, in reality, constitutes a crucial bridge for their neighbors—1 in 8 Americans—whose native language is Spanish.