The following post will be randomly illustrated with unrelated photos taken around Delhi…since there are no photos that go with the text.
DID YOU KNOW that if you go to Amazon.com and search for books on “India Business” the list will include over 200 books. So much business has moved TO India FROM the US (and Europe), that there is an entire category of books about doing business in India. Before moving here for work, I was looking for some “cultural” guidebooks, as opposed to “tourist” type guidebooks. One of the books I got is called “Speaking of India” by Craig Storti.When I first read it, I thought “this guy is way off base, no way can it be like this”. The copyright is 2007, but I was sure the information was outdated. I can ASSURE YOU, this book is spot on. It is a MUST for anyone doing business here. The basic premise is this (please note: I have paraphrased, so the quotation marks indicated excerpts, not complete passages): One cannot lump all Indians in to a single category, nor can one describe “all westerners” accurately with broad generalizations. But history and culture do inform language, and there are general language patterns in the West that are different from in India. “Generalizations are only true in general”
…but then the author goes on to state that Indians are more “group oriented (collectivist). People who are group oriented identify first and foremost with their group – their team at work, their family – and only secondarily with their ‘self'”. Because people have lived in extended family groups for millenia here, the driving force for communication is maintaining harmony in the group. “Most of what is done and NOT done in Indian society – and especially what is said and NOT said – comes down to the need to save face, one’s own, and even more importantly save face of one’s elders or those senior to you”. And a person’s place in the social hierarchy is a dominant feature that drives how one communicates.
The things that cause LOSS of face (embarrassment, shame) are many: not being prepared in circumstances where one should be; correcting what someone else has done or said, especially if they are senior; making an overtly negative comment; saying something is not possible; admitting that one did not/does not understand something; asking for help; saying “no”. The list goes on…you get the idea.
“The primary purpose of communication in the West is to convey/exchange information”, while the primary purpose in India is “to preserve harmony and avoid giving offense”.
Now, before I start getting angry posts from readers…Storti (the author of this book) has ALSO noted that Indians who have gone to school in the US ro UK, or who have worked there, do tend to communicate more like “westerners”, and many of these traits are not present, or not as obvious.
So, back to me working in India: I refused to believe that what I read was true, but within a week of my arrival, the evidence began to accumulate. First, I had to get used to all the Indian PT’s I was training referring to me as “Ma’am” ( and Charles as “Sir”). Then, there was the time I made a minor error in my diagnosis of a patient’s problem, and thought I knew the primary cause of his pain. When I realized I was wrong, I apologized to the Indian therapist whom I had mis-directed, in terms of what specific structures to treat. “Oh NO Ma’am” he said, somewhat dismayed “YOU should NEVER apologize to me, you are senior to me“. I explained that where I come from, telling the truth and being honest is more highly valued…including apologizing for your mistakes. It should also be noted that this therapist was considered more “senior” to some of the others because of age as well as more clinical experience (and had some difficulty in coming forward to admit not understanding some of the material being taught…took him 6 months to ask me for explanation/clarification of some techniques and concepts, and then, only privately, not in a group teaching setting).
Part of maintaining harmony within the group is becoming incredibly sensitive to the subtleties of this indirect communication. When I first arrived, I was surprised at the Indian therapists’ ability to “read” me and Charlie. I would walk into the clinic, perhaps mildly irritated that I was late because the driver was late to pick me up, or worried about something regarding family in the US, and say nothing more than “good morning” (and that, with a smile on my face), and the person would say “What happened? Is everything OK?’. Charlie may have been up all night with a sick baby, or frustrated at one of the many “yes means no” management issues, but to my eyes was hiding it well…the Indian PT’s would come to me and ask “What is wrong, is he upset”?
The part about saying “NO”: Almost weekly since my arrival, there have been instances when someone has looked me in the eye and said “yes” or “OK”…but what they really meant was “maybe” or “no”. On my card it says “Clinical Director” along with my colleague Charlie, who has the same title. Both of us have been in management meetings when we requested that something be purchased, or moved, or some change be made in the schedule…”yes” has been said…but then it never happens. One person who is fairly senior in the Times actually said this to me: ” There are two ways that an Indian says ‘no’, one of them is ‘no’, the other is ‘yes, right away Sir'”.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that the higher up one stands in the hierarchical structure of whatever group you are in, there are certain roles or tasks that are assigned, based on one’s position. I am fairly certain that at home (where all of the therapists live with their parents, even those that are married), they are expected to pick up their own plate and clear it from the table at the end of the meal (most of them are not of the socio-economic class that they have a live-in cook/housekeeper). Yet, at the clinic, there is a young man who washes dishes, puts cups in the dispensers at the water coolers etc. So, at work, the therapists were just getting up and walking away, leaving their plates on the lunch-room table. I have walked into the kitchen at work numerous times and found dropped/broken cups, spilled food or tea on the floor, and someone just walked away and left it…because it was not their job to clean it up, because there was someone “beneath them” to do it; and when I first told them they had to pick up their plates and take them to the kitchen, there were a few looks of consternation int he group.
In the guest house where I live, the water filter is downstairs in the kitchen. There are 2 one liter bottles of water placed in my room each day. Sometimes I use more than that (if I cook something for myself on my hot plate, I use filtered water to wash veggies, cook with and when I wash dishes, for a final rinse. So, sometimes I go down to the kitchen to fill my own bottles. Initially the kitchen staff had a minor freak out about this…the guys actually dropped what they were doing ran over and took the bottles out of my hand and filled them for me. After sometime, when I just laughed and waved them off, they let me fill them myself. Then, one day, the manger was in the kitchen when I came in, and when I began to fill the bottles, the manager gave the kitchen a stern “talking to” about letting me fill my own bottles…so they got in trouble because I like doing things myself.
The other side of the coin of the hierarchy of communication is that sometimes a question is perceived as a request. Shortly after I arrived, I asked one of the therapists where I would go to get tweezers; I had been out shopping a bit and discovered that the there is nothing like what an American would call a “drugstore” – you got medicine from the “chemist” but I had not seen tweezers there. The following morning, the person I had asked (the previous day) gave me a new tweezers. There have been multiple occasions when I have asked where to get something, or how to do something, and if the inquiry was made to someone “junior” to me, often the response is “I’ll do that for you” or “I’ll get that for you”. In general, American culture is a “do it yourself” culture, we value self-sufficiency. This is particularly disconcerting to me, since I have been on my own since I was 17 years old. Everything I own, I bought with money I earned, including my education (loans for that, and still paying it off).
The other side of the coin:The amusing thing is the look on people’s faces when Charlie or I say a flat, blunt “NO” to someone who has ‘asked’ something of us that is really meant as an order from a superior, not a request. Indians understand that anything other than an exuberant “yes”, means “no” according to Storti, they have learned the subtlety, that a slight hesitation or questioning look before saying “yes” means “no”. So a direct “no” results in a rather stunned-but-trying-not-to-look-stunned face, with the only feature moving being rapid eye blinks, for a split second, then a forced smile.
“NO, you can’t charge people the same amount of money to see a therapist in training – who knows half of the material of the therapists that have completed the training”. This exchange occurred during a management meeting, a week later, we come to work and find that they did it anyway.
Ryan (one of the other American teachers) ” Why are we charging patients to see the Tier 2 therapists”
“We are following orders”, one of the front desk girls nervously replied.
“WHOSE ORDERS?” (Ryan, loudly and angrily). This is met with, you guessed it, frozen-faced blank stare, rapid blinking, weak forced smile. If they answer, they will get in trouble from their superior, if they DON”T answer, they get in trouble from us. One of the girls tries a compromise tactic of offering SOME answer…”We got an email”. It doesn’t work.
Ryan is now just short of frothing-at-the-mouth. “WHO sent the email”. Downcast or averted eyes on the expressionless faces all around…”I’ll just call someone” one of the girls stammers.
I will reward anyone who has even made it this far in the post, by NOT detailing the almost daily myriad examples. The incidents are frequent; I privately refer to it as “death by a thousand cuts”.