The Case of the Misunderstood Indian
A few weeks ago, my afternoon stroll to a shop in the neighborhood was interrupted by this very Indian looking Surinamese woman asking for directions. Listening to me, she blurted, “Are you British Indian?” “Heck, no”, I laughed. “You don’t sound Indian at all!! Where are you from?”, she asked me with suspicious curiosity. “From the South of India”, I said. “Oh!”, she went, with a look of unbelief and shock on her face. Then recovering slightly, she said, “I thought South Indians were uneducated!!!”
The last couple of years ever since I left Indian shores on numerous occasions and for several reasons, I have been the recipient of many interesting comments:
“Do Indians live in a hut and have a computer?”
“Do cows really walk on roads in India?”
“Do Indians own cows as pets?”
“Do you eat curry every single day? Is that even healthy?”
At times I have been asked to fix computer related problems because I am an Indian and therefore naturally born a computer genius! Many years ago, I accompanied some friends to a concert in Germany where they were raising funds for a social cause in India. The presenter went like this: “This is a typical Indian street” and showed a picture of a bullock cart pulled by skinny cows driven by an equally skinny old man on a dusty village road. Then he proceeded to show a picture of an Indian village woman with tons of heavy traditional jewelry and announced, “This is how an Indian woman looks like”. By the end of the presentation, I sat there feeling smaller and smaller until I just wanted to disappear! I was aghast at how my country was portrayed to a room full of Westerners. I saw many nodding with empathy. At the end of the show, I walked over to the presenter, shook hands with him and introduced myself, “I am an Indian”, I said, “and I don’t identify myself with anything you showed the audience this evening as being typical Indian.” He was a bit embarrassed (he had not anticipated an Indian in the room, apparently!) and apologized for not being accurate in describing my country. It was meant to be a fund-raising concert and apparently only such empathy inviting, deplorable looking pictures could melt hearts into a puddle and reap a sizeable donation.
Despite the world evolving so much and international travel being a lot more affordable, I still stumble across comments like the one I encountered weeks ago that leave me flabbergasted.
Therefore, I write today to clarify some of the Western misconceptions of my countrymen/ country, and hope to set the record straight in the process! 😉
1. Are all Indians computer geniuses? Considering that the majority of Indians abroad are employed by the IT industry, I can understand where this popular misconception comes from. However, not every Indian is an IT genius. We also have experts in other areas. Just ask us- we may surprise you!
2. Are Indians friendly? Oh yes, we are! Our friendliness may even come across as extreme for those in the West who are not used to the eagerness and helpfulness that accompany Indian ‘friendliness’. The Indian sociability is quite unlike that which you may experience in the West. Indians are usually quite approachable. The Indian society largely thrives on socializing and building relationships in the community. Take a trip to any of the major Indian cities and you will discover a plethora of restaurants and other eat-outs teeming with people- families, friends, colleagues, collegemates et al noisily chattering and dining together. Indians usually build their businesses on relationships. They need to have a relationship with you as a trusted friend before they can do a business dealing with you. Friendship is an important component. Its non-negotiable.
3. Are Indians hospitable? Yes, Indians are generally quite hospitable- there is no Western equivalent to the Indian hospitality. Guests are kings and hosts go out of their way to make their guests feel at home. Much unlike the Western world where guests try not to be bothersome to their hosts and make adjustments. You never ask a guest to wash your dishes in India. But this is not frowned upon in a place like Germany- where staying guests help their hosts with some household chores so the host is not overburdened with their stay! An Indian who is unaware of this practice is likely to feel undermined and disrespected.
I would like to also make a particular mention here about the hospitality of Indians belonging to the lower middle class and poorer sections of society. Their generosity, kindness and hospitality are simply mind-boggling. I have seen and experienced poor people borrowing money from neighbors in the village just to set a rich meal before their own guests!! The Indian hosts are self-sacrificial and giving and esteem their guests above themselves. Indian women slave at the kitchen for hours on end just to entertain guests over meals, although this trend is rapidly changing among Indian communities with women being employed and ‘cooks’ being hired at homes.
4. Do Indians engage in small talk? Yes, most of us do! I have engaged in small talk with people I met on the train while travelling together and made some long-term friends from such brief encounters. The Indian small talk is quite unlike the American small-talk. Americans indulge in small-talk with strangers but then they move on and do not bother to keep in touch with the stranger they meet. Indians, on the other hand, make small talk with the intention of a possible friendship. We invest our time and emotions in the process and the small talk leads to a potential friendship or business alliance based on mutual trust, until that is broken by either side. American small-talk can easily be misunderstood by Indians, since we do not have any such equivalent behavior in our culture. It can lead to hurtful misunderstandings since the Indian expects a relationship to ensue while the American had no such intentions in the first place! An Indian was once invited over a Thanksgiving dinner by an American ‘friend’ (I emphasize the word 'friend' on purpose since that was the Indian’s understanding of the relationship). The Indian thoroughly enjoyed the warmth and friendliness of the American host but was stupefied when this friendliness did not continue after the thanksgiving dinner. The confused Indian was hurt and perplexed at this sudden behavioral change and wondered if he did something that turned off the American ‘friend’. Turns out the American only intended to invite the Indian over Thanksgiving. Nothing more. Nothing less. The American did not intend this ‘relationship’ to continue beyond the thanksgiving dinner and could not understand why the Indian was being annoyingly clingy and needy. Do you recognize these behavioral patterns in your cross-cultural relationship with someone from another culture?
5. What’s with the Indian ‘sir/ ma’am’ titles for teachers/ professors/ other superiors in general? The Indian formality is quite different from formality in the West. In India students address their school teachers and professors with the titles ‘sir/ ma’am’. This can often be mistaken for formality in the West but it is far from it. The title is used to signify respect for the other person but it is not used to signal to the other to ‘keep a distance’. The Western formal akin to ‘keeping a distance’ is quite foreign to the average Indian. Growing up, I have had the privilege of experiencing really good friendships with my school teachers and university professors during and after studies. Students in fact visit their former schools and colleges regularly to meet their teachers and professors and break bread with them like friends do. Generally Indian students enjoy a cordial relationship with their teachers/ professors and the friendship that ensues lasts quite long (it is casual and laid-back and not formal and distant like in the West).
6. The luxury of the Indian cooks, drivers, cleaners et al: In India, a middle-class family is usually capable of hiring a cook, a cleaner, a driver, a maid (also doubles up as nanny) and even a gardener to work for them. This may look like luxury to the Western mindset. However, may I remind you that Indians seldom work the cardinal 9am-5pm shift the way those in the West do. Work hours commonly spill over 5 pm. This means that they typically work for over 12 hours a day and need additional hands to support them (the cook, the cleaner, the maid... you get it now!) and hold the fort at home. Moreover, such help is cheaper in India than in the West although this trend is rapidly changing. Maid agencies have burgeoned in India which typically charge an arm and a leg these days to ‘lease out’ maids on an hourly basis.
7. How are Indian bosses different from those in the West? I have had the privilege of having really good Indian bosses (although I know some others have not had this fortune). The Indian superior- subordinate relationship in the workplace, depending on the nature and personality of the people involved, is usually akin to a dependent and trusting parent-child relationship. The subordinates look up to their superiors to make right decisions for them and the superiors ensure that their team members are well provided for. This is when you have great bosses. Some other superiors can easily exploit the hierarchical system and be bossy and authoritarian with their team members.
8. How many warm meals do Indians eat per day? More than three!! I remember when we invited a good Dutch friend of ours over for an Indian breakfast, he was stunned when he looked at ‘the buffet spread’ I had labored to make (it really was not so much but he had never eaten beyond a museli/ cornflakes for breakfast and we had offered him luxury that morning!). He was surprised, confused and felt pretty bad that I had to slave from very early in the morning to make all that. But this is really what many Indian women still do back home. Bear in mind though that with working women on the rise, in some Indian homes, cooks have been tasked with this arduous chore. So, we eat a warm breakfast, a warm lunch, a warm afternoon snack and a warm dinner. There is no typical Indian food- we have a wealth of regional cuisine. Every region offers countless varieties that are so different and unique from each other. You will never get tired with Indian food. Indians use plenty of fresh herbs and spices in their food that are very healthy.
9. Do we eat curry every single day? Now all that talk about food brings me to the next frequently asked question- do we eat curry every single day! Umm, what exactly is your understanding of the word ‘curry’? In Germany, curry is a powder that they sprinkle on the delicious Currywurst. In the UK, curry is a sweet and mildly flavored powder. To an Indian, curry simply means a ‘gravy’ (no, not the American gravy that goes with biscuits- emm no, not the Indian ‘biscuits’!) It simply means something of soup consistency (sometimes thick, sometimes thin) that is poured over rice or eaten with an assortment of Indian bread. So, if you hear an Indian say they ate dhal curry, fish curry, chicken curry for a meal, you now know what they are talking about! It helps you also understand that the Indian curry is a ‘staple’ meal component that is needed to pour over rice/ eat with bread. We cannot do without it featuring on our daily diet! And is it healthy? Well, it depends on what goes in the curry! North Indian curries feature cream and sugar in them which can be rich and a bit unhealthy (although delectable!) South Indian curries may feature coconut milk instead (again some do not) which may be a bit less unhealthy.
10. Why do Indian kids address friends of their parents as ‘aunty XYZ’ and ‘uncle ABC’ even when they are not related? Indian children are taught to respect those older than them. One of the ways they indicate this respect is by addressing an older person with an aunty/uncle suffix (eg: Anita aunty-NOT Aunty Anita!) To a Western ear, this can be quite confusing. You are probably left scratching your head wondering when this sudden Indian family relation happened! Besides, Indian children never address an older person just by their first name. They are taught that this is disrespectful behavior from a very early age.
11. No, I will not invite you! A good German friend of mine was in India for a few weeks and I took him to work to share some interesting details about Germany with my Indian colleagues. After work my colleagues and I hung out with him and they asked him about his girlfriend and when he was planning on getting married to her. As he shifted uncomfortably navigating the increasingly personal questions, he finally snapped with a “No, I will not invite you!” when they asked if he would invite them for his wedding. Now in India weddings are huge. Our guest lists run easily into a few thousands. It is an insult if you forget anyone- even someone you remotely know in your extended family. Weddings are occasions to get to know people you barely meet otherwise. My colleagues had assumed that my friend was now their friend and were deeply insulted by his snappy response declaring they would not figure on his wedding guest list.
12. Do all Indians do the infamous Indian nod? A German friend of mine sat across me over a conversation and suddenly remarked after observing my non-verbal cues: “Why don’t you do the Indian nod? Show me the Indian nod please! I find it so interesting and funny!” Now really, although many Indians do the typical Indian nod, I know of many Indians, particularly those in the North of India where I grew up, that do not engage as enthusiastically in swaying their heads effortlessly in all directions to convey an essential nonverbal message as do the South Indians. In fact, in a South Indian town called Tanjavur, you can buy this figurine famously called the ‘Tanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai” (Tanjavur nodding head doll) that ‘does’ the Indian nod- the head wobbles sideways- it is a funny souvenir to take home from India, if you are ever visiting the country!
13. How do you say ‘good evening’, ‘good morning’ in an Indian language? Umm, I must admit I was stumped on a recent conversation when I was asked to give an Indian equivalent for this phrase. We usually say an equivalent of ‘welcome’ in Indian languages. We do not do the formal ‘good morning’, ‘good evening’ equivalent during everyday conversations. Such kind of formal expressions are reserved for formal occasions like when a politician is addressing a press conference or when a person is speaking in a religious meeting. And even if we do want to greet someone with a 'good morning' or 'good evening' in our everyday conversations, we do so in English.
So, there you go- my non-exhaustive list of a few observations from my interactions with non-Indians! When you communicate with someone from a different culture, always remind yourself not to immediately rush into the conversation assuming that they think, act, react, behave, reason the way you do. What is normal to you is most likely not normal to them!
A very misunderstood Indian (sigh!!)
I thoroughly enjoy writing and would like to use this space to write on a wide range of topics pertaining to cross-culture and international business. These blog posts will range from anecdotal personal encounters to latest cross-cultural business issues on the news, personal musings et al.