As a culture, we don’t really learn global etiquette. The way our society is still largely structured, we don’t see the need for universal politeness. The feudal and caste hangovers (very much present today, just under the surface) make us very selective in who we are nice to. While we traditionally kowtow to our “superiors” (the thakur, the mahajan, the boss, the guru, the elder) we are notoriously callous to the “lower orders” (the junior at work, the waiter, the jamadar, the maid, the waiter, the hammaal, the list is virtually endless).
While this worked fine (or did it?) in the strictly regimented feudal system we seem unable to forget, it makes us dysfunctional in the new world order. It’s bad enough right here at home, where social-economic changes have blurred age old boundaries of categorization, replacing them with new, and still unfamiliar, categories of class. But it becomes a downright handicap when going abroad, working abroad, or dealing with foreign colleagues/friends/superiors in India.
Traditionally, the modes of behaviour for each section of society, with regard to upward and downward social intercourse, were strictly defined. Lateral social behaviour was left, in the main, up to the person. But, since lateral social intercourse was confined almost entirely within the family-extended family-business circles, it wasn’t such a big deal to be particularly polite, and all necessary guidelines were easily provided by the rules for “how to behave with those older/younger than you”. When circles expanded, to not only include non community, non family members, but non nationals or ex-nationals as well, things changed and suddenly etiquette began to matter.
Yet, there wasn’t, and isn’t (with no likeliness of being in the near future), any formal training in etiquette at the school level. Nor are these new laws of global social behaviour taught at home. As a result, most of us blunder extensively. Some of us have rubbed shoulders with “the other” for long enough, and imbibed enough of the exposure available today, to realize how important etiquette is. So, they try to learn on their own, from various sources, not excluding soft skill classes. However, most still don’t seem to care, and not only ruin the impression they make, but bring a bad name to the entire “Indian” community around the world.
So what do we do wrong? Where do I begin? It can be as basic as not knowing when to use Hello versus Hi. For example most “yo type” Indians have given up the Hello altogether, even in formal situations. While this usually passes muster in the local context, in the case of a foreign posting, an interview, etc, it can be an impression ruin-er. Hi is for friends, intimate circles, family, informal situations. In an interview, or when being introduced to someone “important”, hi just wont do! Hello is the only greeting for formal or important occasions.
We also have no concept of basic etiquette when someone asks “how do you do” or “how are you”. First of all how many people realize that “how do you do” is not a question? If someone says “how do you do” it’s a greeting…like hello….they are not asking the state of your health or life, so don’t tell them. The correct response is “how do you do”. If someone says it, you say it back. On the other hand, should someone say “how are you” or “how are you doing” you reply with a “I’m fine/great/good thank you”. It’s not an invitation to dump your troubles on the enquirer. It’s just “duniyadari”. So don’t tell them about the aching back, the corns, downsizing, or any other small upsets taking place in life right now.
With our feudal heritage, another thing we never learnt was to say Please and Thank You. Lower orders are CREATED to serve the higher orders, so where’s the question of thanking them? So we generally come across as very rude, uncouth people. We never say please when placing an order for food for example, or thank the waiter for bringing us our water, or the food, or anything. After all, we rationalise, it’s his/her job! Well, etiquette does not care if it’s their job, if someone does something for you, however trivial, you thank them; if you WANT someone to do something for you, however trivial, you say please.
Every time I say “good thnx” in reply to the regular “how are you”s from my friends (offline and online), I get the highly predictable “thanx for what?” Uhhh…. “thnx for asking??” There are two aspects of Indian social life acting here, making people wonder why I am thanking them because I am fine. One of course is the absence of any etiquette training, at any level, for the general public. The second is the concept of formality versus familiarity. Because of the way social intercourse used to be structured here, (and still is to a great extent) there were two totally different sets of behaviour for “others” and for “our people”. So, any contact with “apne log” was seen to be free of any necessity for FORMALITY. Plus, we have any number of Bollywood, and other, movies telling us really nonsensical and counterintuitive things like “no sorry or thank you in friendhip”, which doesn’t help the overall situation at all.
The way I see it, my friends and loved ones are the most important people in my life! All the more reason for me to request them to do something, rather than order them, or to say thank you, showing my appreciation for whatever they may do for me. In fact, it’s less of a problem to forget to thank the waiter than it is to forget to thank my man for example. After all, my man means a lot more to me than a waiter does, and I wouldn’t want him to feel taken for granted. All of us have, at some time or another, felt unappreciated and known the pain of a thankless job. Why should we inflict that pain on anyone, much less our friends and loved ones?
Oh! And who can forge the famous Indian Standard Time syndrome? When I throw a party, I tell my non-indian or ex-indian friends the right time to be there. For my Indian friends, I quote a time at least a hour before. So, if I want everyone to be there by 8pm, I will tell them 7pm, and STILL many would not have turned up by 9. We just don’t seem to get the concept of punctuality. And, while being late for a party or to hang out with friends may not be such a big deal (it is too! especially if it is a recurring phenomenon) the same cavalier attitude to time, in the case of a Meeting or for an interview, can have serious effects on one’s career and one’s general rep, not to mention the immense amount of irritation it engenders in the one who has to wait. why should we think that only our time is important and that everyone else exists but to wait for us, indefinitely? Whether it is traffic, or the inability to get dressed fast, or whatever, why can’t we plan ahead? Personally, I’d rather get there an hour early than five minutes late.
And is that all the list of our transgressions? Not even half. Basic things elude us. For example, I take my little daughter to a shop or a mall. Now precocious and self reliant as she is, the heavy glass swing doors are more than a three and a half year old can manage. So, most of the time, I would be laden with bags, juggling baby’s bottle of water, bag of snacks and change of clothes, and heading for the doors I know she cannot open on her own. Anywhere else in the world, someone would open the door for me. Here, unless there’s a security guard at the gate, no such hope. Not only will I have to struggle the doors open, while I wait for the baby to toddle out, at least half a dozen adults will shove her aside and traipse in and out as if I am holding the door for them!
We are completely unable to queue for anything! Given any situation where an orderly queue is required, whether at a ticket counter, the bank, the bus stop, or wherever, Indians will invariably all try to get to the counter at once, or at least look over each others’ shoulders and press forward for a better view of the proceedings, thus subjecting others not only to sundry shoves, and body odour, but also considerably slowing down the basic process itself. If everyone just took their turn, not only would everything proceed much more smoothly, and faster, but would cut out the immense frustration, irritation, and even anger, felt by the better behaved!
We have even given up some good habits we were forced to follow under the “older system” too. As we give up the traditional values, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and have totally failed to reach the standards of the “western” world that we are aiming for. The “yo” generation has given up trying to be, and is indeed actively resisting being, “good” in the age-old Indian sense, but seems to have stopped short of achieving, or even coming close to, international standards of polite social behaviour.
And the malaise has spread into all age groups and all classes. No one, for example waits a few seconds to let older people pass anymore. Everyone is in a tearing hurry, in this age of instant gratification, and anyone – old people, kids, or people who are ill --- who can’t keep up will be trampled underfoot or shoved to the side. And this is not true only of the “office time” rush hour when people seem totally blind to anything else, but happens at any time of day or night. Not only do we shove past anyone who is moving at a pace fractionally slower than ours, we don’t even have the manners to say “excuse me” when we do! No one, and I mean no one – youngsters, mature people, men, women, -- ever offers their seat to an elderly person in a bus or a train anymore.
This has become so much of a rare occurrence, that when I did so recently, in the Shatabdi Express, a supposedly up-market train, the lady I gave up my seat to was completely astonished! We seem to all be coming from a “plane” of entitlement. We feel that this is “MINE”, “I deserve it, I got to it first, so why should I give it up?” its immaterial if it is a 20-year-old sitting, while an 80-year old, or a pregnant woman, or someone carrying a lot of stuff and older, might be standing precariously in the rapidly lurching behemoth. We have ladies seats in buses. However, no seats reserved for the elderly. And, this has happened with me, when I give up the seat to an elderly male passenger struggling with bags, he was argued and scolded out of his seat by a 23-24 year old at the nest stop who insisted that she had more right to the seat because it was reserved for “ladies”! Very un-lady-like behaviour as far as I could see.
We also don’t have basic table and social manners. We shove, sneeze, cough, burp and belch in public, all without seeing any need to either cover our mouths or apologise. We chew with our mouths wide open, and we pick remnants of chicken from between the teeth with a toothpick, without feeling the slightest need to cover up the gaping orifice. Since this is not a big deal to us personally, and since we don’t notice this kind of uncouth behaviour in others, we assume we have the right to treat all and sundry to an excellent view of our gullet with half masticated food…. Surely they find it fascinating!
In a supermarket…the lack of manners is worse. Supermarkets are quite a recent concept, and most of us have no clue of the rules of etiquette necessary to negotiate through these places without being a total barbarian. We park our carts in the middle of the aisle while we browse the shelves on both sides, blocking the entire stretch to anyone else. We let our kids loose to run around, cannoning into people, carts, and shelves, and driving the attendants up a wall. We block an entire shelf while six of us have a “family conference” about which brand of coffee to buy. If there is even one person in front of the canned soup, we think nothing of reaching over their shoulders, or under their arms, to snap up that can of our favourite, before They decide they want them all.
This last transgression is a factor of another major lack in our concepts. The idea of personal space. Living in an overcrowded developing nation, traveling cheek-by-jowl in buses and trains bursting at the seams, and being brought up in a culture that gives zero importance to the individual, and places full emphasis on family, community, and so on, we never learn the idea. Yet, the people we are now interacting with and working with have a very clear, and strongly held, belief in personal space! We DON’T get the fact that getting too close, physically, makes most foreigners, and some urban Indians, very uncomfortable.
The same social structures also make us nosy and over-familiar. A French friend of mine, a woman of a certain age, always found it extremely offensive that Indians, after about half an hour of acquaintance, asked her why she wasn’t married yet, and whether she was seeing someone. This is a common issue. Culturally, we place so much importance on marriage, and have so few boundaries, that we don’t realise how personal a question of this sort is to the rest of the world! A close friend might ask something like that, but not a passing acquaintance or someone in a more formal social situation!
Along the same lines, a couple, married for about four years, always complained of how everyone not only asked about why they were not having kids, but also assumed there was a problem, and offered a plethora of unwanted advice! The idea of a couple “choosing” to wait some time before procreating, or “choosing” not to have kids seems to be something we cannot grasp. In our system, by the time you are 30, if not before, it’s a given that marriage is the next step. And since this marriage is usually with a total stranger you know nothing about and care less about, the only purpose of marriage is to “have issues”. The concepts of consolidating a relationship before taking on a huge, lifelong responsibility does not exist. After all, having kids is something everyone HAS to do, and as for bringing them up? “bacche to pal hi jate hain”
The list is virtually endless, and I encounter more and more examples every day! To mention them all here would only lengthen this far beyond the immense length it has already managed to acquire. So many little things escape us, because of our total unfamiliarity with the politeness principle, and basic civic sense, but they all affect the way people around the world look at us, deal with us, and feel around us. Seemingly small, tiny, things can leave a bad taste in the mouth for the visitor or foreign colleague. It ranges from the way we speak, what we say, to body language and “nosiness”. Considering that India is going all out in a bid to be a global power, and Indians becoming more and more “unconfined”, maybe it’s time we paid a little attention to how we present ourselves to the world, and how we interact with its members.