Category Archives: managers

Why don’t we thank?

A month or so ago, when I was riding a scooter around the country side, a woman and her mother waiting near what seemed to be a bus stop stopped me and asked if I could drop the woman to another village on the same road (close to KRS, for those around Mysore). Apparently the bus service in that particular route was not the best, and I, a stranger, seemed to be the only option left to them. Loading a jackfruit, some coconuts and other things you would normally carry back from your mother’s home after a visit, we reached her village. After getting off, I received a smile and a ‘barteera’, roughly translating to ‘see you around’. Thanks, though implied, was never vocalized.

On the other hand, just a few hours before this took place, I was at Melkote with a few American students who were here on an academic tour. The scooter apparently is a very quaint thing to sit behind, when all you see is cars back home, and so one of them asked me to drive her around. The number of ‘Thank you soooo much’s that were showered upon me for a 5 minute joy ride was quite intimidating, to say the least. One wonders whether it would not be appropriate to give a kidney or something along with the joy ride for that amount of thankfulness.

If one thinks about it, at least in the places around south Karnataka, to hear thanks in any language is a rare occurrence. The Kannada equivalent, Dhanyavaada is something I have very rarely heard, and then mostly from the mouth of foreigners who have been reading up on some ‘Learn Kannada’ type of book. If any person asks me how to thank people in Kannada, I tell them to say ‘thanks’. Dhanyavaada is simply not common currency enough around here. In fact, it is not uncommon to see old village ladies saying ‘thanks’ (with a strong Kannada accent), maybe hearing it from their grandchildren, rather than Dhanyavaada. One can go on to claim that it has sarcastic undertones whenever it is used. On the other end of the spectrum, Americans and those who regularly converse with them, like BPO employees, tend to use the ‘Thank you soooo much’ as though it were the commonest thing to do. In fact, it is the easiest way to identify an Indian working in the BPO or hospitality sector. It is intimidating at first, after which it simply grates on the ear, especially the dragged ‘soooo’. I am not used to this level of vocalization of thanks at all and it seems very artificial to me at least.

The only people who seem to use the Kannada equivalent are those who consider themselves ‘cultured’ and for whom speaking anything other than ‘pure’ Kannada is unthinkable. This is however a conscious decision and has nothing to do with everyday language. Even here, the very fact that they are using Dhanyavaada shows they are not thinking in native terms. A native speaker might throw in a blessing or two, but never an explicit thanks. If anyone is very strongly thankful, they might use tumba upakaara aaytu, which translates roughly to ‘It has been a great help’, which is just stating the obvious rather than anything else.

It does not just stop at thanking others. In newspaper supplements, you very often see articles asking husbands, wives and parents to explicitly appreciate their wives, husbands and children respectively. Apparently that is also not something very common around here. To make people ‘feel appreciated’ is also a mantra among the managers and HR crowd of corporate India.

It doesn’t seem immediately clear why this came about, but it is hard to let go without a few conjectures. Normally, thanks is directed toward individuals, which implies both parties must concede that there is a very strong individual identity. In a land where people are addressed as X’s son Y or X-halli (village) Y, that is not the case. Also, it is not easy for a person who considers himself superior to the other to thank the other person. The only valid transaction would be for inferiors to act servile and for superiors to look superior and bless them. This would be not just among social classes or castes, but also between elders and the young.

However, more important than the above reasons is the fact that thanking is valid when the other person is not obliged to help, it is not her duty to do so. A society that places strong emphasis on freedoms or equivalently, rights would consider it important to thank anyone for anything. A society arranged along the lines of reciprocal duties (which in India is subsumed under the overarching Dharma) would not see any reason to thank others. After all, it is their duty. You can bless someone for doing their duty correctly, but it is hard to thank them. Thus, it is when a family becomes a collection of individuals with no overarching sense of duty toward the other that it becomes important to make everyone ‘feel appreciated’. That this is the case in any corporation is a foregone conclusion.

That India is transitioning from a duties-based society to a rights based one can be easily seen not only from this example but from everything around us, from advertisements to legal rulings. But a society which is not used to change will pass through a long intermediate phase in which there exist old ladies who know only one English word – Thanks.

The rise of the Individual

Have been working on a (one of many!) report for a class that Im doing this semester, and in one of them I have tried to try and get a feel for how humans got to be ‘civilized’, which in our times means asserting the rights of the individual and placing him into prominence. Just posting a few intersting things that I came across during this work. It is necessarily speculative considering the scope, so please adjust maadi.

First of all, we recognize that humans live in at least two worlds – the internal or mental and the external or material. Without doubt, these are inextricably linked, but the demarcation is very much present. The mental world is a world of possibilities and the material world one of actualities. However hard we try, not everything that we imagine can be realised in the material world, and this results in a tension between these worlds.

In the pre-Industrial times, the fact that malnutrition, disease and war were part of the daily life of every common person, and that it required the effort of a large number of people to sustain each one of them, it should not be surprising that the individual was not accorded the status that she is given nowadays. Even to this day, a villager in our own hinterland is referred to as ‘X’s son/daughter Y’.Whatever name is given to the group – clan, caste, village – the group was important simply because it provided security and shelter against the vagaries of nature and the kings above. Obedience and Commitment should be valued over Talent and Thinking if a group under severe pressure is to survive.

There undoubtedly would have been people who tried to stand apart from or rise above the group – that is not a peculiarly modern line of thinking. The complete lack of change in the basic social structure for millenia shows how little influence such people were able to exercise. Kings and administrators, however enlightened, were simply unable to change this pattern of life and this bears testimony to how strongly the group identity
was (and is) stressed over the individual.

The reasons for this are obvious: the individual simply was incapable of leading a life on his own. Clothes, food, shelter were not available without the collective labour of a larger group of people or commerce with this larger group. Remuneration was proportional to manual labor done, and manual labor required to lead a proper life was more than what would have been possible by a single individual. To go against this mode of life would imply becoming a thief, beggar, ascetic or king.

This behavior was thoroughly exploited by those in power, temporal or spiritual, to gain benefit for themselves and their kind, and their travails are the subject of most history. However, for the majority, the material basis for a society which preferred individual excellence instead of (or inspite of or at the cost of) group excellence does not seem to have been available – Liberty simply implies the absence of restraints, not the presence
of a good life.

In the post-Industrial revolution times, however, the tension between the inner and outer worlds of the individual that we mentioned earlier would have been considerably reduced. What Man could imagine, he could create. Of course, this applied only to those groups with money and power. The majority now had to get used to the excesses of the
industrialist as well as nature.

The individual rose to prominence, no doubt helped by the wonders of coal driven technology which enabled her to perform feats which were not possible before.With the easy availability of surplus labor or its mechanical replacement, limitations on what could be achieved was simply a function of what could be dreamed up (and sometimes paid for). With the expanding geographical extent of a single activity, the main challenge was no longer the availability of raw material or motive power, but of organization. It is therefore not surprising that the principles of ‘scientific’ management were explored in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

With information and not material being the main roadblock for progress, the so-called tertiary sector of society became dominant as well as desirable as a viable career choice for those who were born poor but had no intention of staying that way. With most traditional blocks to social mobility now gone, the tertiary sector provided the respectability and possibility of material wealth that previously was the domain of the landed or the wealthy. It is the dominance of this sector that has shaped the present world. Universities multiplied, with the intention of preparing high quality individuals who were capable of discerning efficient from inefficient, if not right from wrong. In fact, the race to industrialization was eventually won by the USA and Germany simply due the fact that they invested more in the development of engineers and technicians rather than philosphers and artists.

The rise of the heroic individual winning in the face of all odds was given an evolutionary twist by Herbert Spencer, who actually originated the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ in the context of his Social Darwinism. Emancipation from manual labor was exemplified by the growth of amateur sport, which was a way of exercise for the sedentary tertiary sector of society (along with the rise of the gymnasium in the mid-19th century), with the now famous Oxford-Cambridge rowing contests, the Ashes Cricket series representing the ideals of heroism rising above mere material concerns. This trend was of course crowned by the revival of the Olympic Games, whose motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ perfectly matching the prevailing spirit of the age.

The middle class household was another centre of emancipation from manual labor. Piped water, electricity, the pressure cooker, the vacuum cleaner being typical inventions from this era. The nuclear family was also probably materially viable only in this stage of societal development. The now considerable leisure time available was spent in exploring recently developed mechanical wonders like the Ferris Wheel and the roller coaster as well as the incredible moving picture.

It was very rarely that the average, emancipated middle class person ever experienced a material world that was not imprinted upon by the internal world of another human. The line between actuality and possibility was blurring, and is almost completely absent in the present day wonders in the desert like the Burj Dubai.

How watertight can we be ?

Was reading a book that I previously mentioned, about an introduction to the notable sociologists from when the term was coined. Among one of the greatest among these was undoubtedly Max Weber, and a small section of the chapter devoted to him talks about his prophecies of doom, that social organisation would tend to more and more rational organisation in terms of efficiency, run by a scientifically guided bureaucracy.

Thankfully, we do not yet live in an age where managers rule every aspect of our lives, from what we eat to who we sleep with. Though it is obvious that an efficient bureaucracy will lead to maximally efficient organisation of human productive output, it is far from obvious that that is what people want, and far less obvious whether it can really be implemented.

An incident narrated by a friend working in a company in Bangalore comes to mind. A romantically involved couple, both working for the same company, were said to be seen smooching in the office. Now, the reaction was one of complete disbelief and shock at how unprofessional people can be. Looking at it from the other side, can one not question as to why a person in love (with what/who ever) cannot show her/his affection where and when one feels ? The answer would be that the office is a place to act in a certain way, and there are unwritten codes of conduct which govern osculatory behaviour here. Why are certain modes of behaviour permissible and others unprofessional ? Because they cause a disturbance, a distraction from the normal activity of efficient production ? While it definitely not my intention to condone smooching in corridors and cubicles, it is definitely my intention to question why any person is required to curb certain parts of her personality. It is hard to see how such an environment would help in formation of a well rounded personality. Also, one finds a tinge of hypocrisy in such attitudes. One is told not to bring home worries into work and vice versa, but one never hears about people told to leave their happiness at home and wear a surly mask at the workplace. Certain things which are beneficial to production are always welcome, the rest, please excuse, please.

Romantic escapades apart, there are many instances of companies cutting employees off the Internet, and similar restrictions in the name of ‘distractions’. But employees find creative ways to overcome such things where possible, and a purely machine-like worker will hardly ever surface. To the horror of the top brass, people seem to want to waste time in idle chatting, gossip, tales of woe, trip discussions and many other such uneconomic behavior (I almost forgot the coffee machine ;). Nowadays, many companies seem to have recognized (or resigned to) the fact that people do not enter the office in the morning just to work continuously for 8 hours and then get back to their normal lives, and provide a much more liberal atmosphere, where one gets an opportunity to explore other aspects of social behavior and grouping. Far from Max Weber’s tight bureaucratic dystopia, bureaucracy now seems to recognize human inability to divide space and time into watertight compartments, each requiring a kind of behavior that provides maximum efficiency to the task at hand.

Similar to the managerial expectations and frustrations, are our own wishes that sometimes go unfulfilled. We would like a park to be neat and clean and we end up seeing beggars and homeless bums in them. We would like our roads to be clean and free from disturbances but find religious processions and bales of ragi put out for drying. We wish to watch movies undisturbed but end up covering our ears against the cat calls as soon as Bipasha comes onscreen. We want our footpaths wide and safe, but end up walking on the road due to the sudden appearance of a temple overnight on the footpath. Just like human behavior, his cultural creations overflow and confound the best laid plans of the urban planners and middle class.

Just as we want to do things ‘our way’, so do so many others. About time we recognized and respect the non-watertightness that is so natural in the world.