Call center agents’ skills

Invisible, illegible, and misunderstood


  • Johanna Tovar WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business)



call centers, text trajectories, emotional labor, ethnography, articulation work, invisible skills


This article follows previous research arguing that skills of call center agents, which often include emotional labor, communication, procedural and substantive knowledge, and articulation work, are mostly invisible. Moving beyond previous analyses linking call centers to low-skilled standardized work, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork and transpositional analysis in the Philippines and the UK to show which real-world processes and written practices make agents’ skills not only invisible and illegible to industry outsiders but also to their managers. I argue that textualization practices such as data entry and script work are important, and that deemphasizing quantification in favor of qualitative assessment could produce better outcomes for agents and skill appreciation by others.

Author Biography

Johanna Tovar, WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business)

Johanna Tovar, née Woydack, is Assistant Professor at WU Vienna, Austria. She received her PhD in Sociolinguistics from King’s College London. She is the author of Linguistic Ethnography of a Multilingual Call Center published by Palgrave. She is also co-editor of an upcoming volume on Language and Country Branding (Routledge). Her publications have appeared in journals such as Language in Society, International Business Communication, and English for Specific Purposes. Her research interests include text trajectories, call centers, migration, and place and nation branding. 


Belt, V. (2002) Capitalising on femininity: Gender and the utilisation of social skills in telephone call centres. In U. Holtgrewe, C. Kerst, and K. Shire (eds) Re-Organising Service Work: Call Centres in Germany and Britain 123–146. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Belt, V., Richardson, R., and Webster, J. (2002) Women, social skill and interactive service work in telephone call centres. New Technology, Work and Employment 17(1): 20–34. Doi:

Bolton, S. C. (2005) Emotion management in the workplace. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cameron, D. (2000) Good to Talk? London: Sage.

Duchêne, A. (2009) Marketing, management and performance: Multilingualism as commodity in a tourism call centre. Language Policy 8(1): 27–50. Doi:

Hampson, I., and Junor, A. (2005) Invisible work, invisible skills: Interactive customer service as articulation work. New Technology, Work and Employment 20(2): 166–181. Doi:

Hatton, E. (2017) Mechanisms of invisibility: Rethinking the concept of invisible work. Work, Employment and Society 31(2): 336–351. Doi:

Hochschild, A. R. (2012) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Updated with a New Preface. (1st edition, 1983). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Houlihan, M. (2003) Making Sense of Call Centres: Working and Managing the Front Line (unpublished). Lancaster: University of Lancaster.

Korczynski, M. (2001) The contradictions of service work: The call centre as a consumer oriented bureaucracy. In A. Sturdy, I. Grugilis and H. Wilmott (eds) Customer Service: Control, Colonisation and Contradiction 79–101. London: Macmillan.

Maass, S., and Rommes, E. (2007) Uncovering the invisible: Gender-sensitive analysis of call center work and software. In I. Zorn, S. Maass and E. Rommes (eds) Gender Designs IT: Construction and Econstruction of Information Society Technology 97–108. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. Doi:

Muller, M. J. (1999) Invisible work of telephone operators: An ethnocritical analysis. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 8(1–2): 31–61. Doi:

Poster, W. R. (2007) Who’s on the line? Indian call center agents pose as Americans for U.S.-outsourced firms. Industrial Relations 46(2): 271–304. Doi:

Sallaz, J. J. (2015) Permanent pedagogy: How post-Fordist firms generate effort but not consent. Work and Occupations 42(1): 3–34. Doi:

Scheeres, H. (2011) Talk and texts at work: Beyond language and literacy skills. Literacy and Numeracy Studies 15(2): 5–18. Doi:

Silverstein, M., and Urban, G. (1996) The natural history of discourse. In M. Silverstein and G. Urban (eds) The Natural History of Discourse 1–21. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, D. E. (2001) Texts and the ontology of organizations and institutions. Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies 7(2): 159–198. Doi:

Star, S. L. and Strauss, A. (1999) Layers of silence, arenas of voice: The ecology of visible and invisible work. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 8(1–2): 9–30. Doi:

Woydack, J. (2017) Call center agents and the experience of stigma. WP 215. Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacy. London: King’s College London. Retrieved from:

Woydack, J. (2019) Linguistic Ethnography of a Multilingual Call Center: London Calling. Cham: Springer International Publishing. Doi:

Woydack, J., and Lockwood, J. (2017) ‘Scripts are beautiful’: Managers’ and agents’ views of script use in call centers. International Journal of Business Communication November: 1–25. Doi:

Woydack, J., and Rampton, B. (2016) Text trajectories in a multilingual call centre: The linguistic ethnography of a calling script. Language in Society 45(5): 709–732. Doi:

Wray-Bliss, E. (2001) Representing customer service: Telephones and text. In A. Sturdy, I. Grugilis, and H. Willmott (eds) Customer Service: Empowerment and Entrapment 38–59. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zuboff, S. (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books.



How to Cite

Tovar, J. (2021). Call center agents’ skills: Invisible, illegible, and misunderstood. Sociolinguistic Studies, 14(4), 437–458.