I am working with a company which has an office in India. It is used mostly for work that involves technical development and support/ maintenance of existing systems.
This office is staffed by mostly junior level consultants who work under the guidance of a few senior consultants. Most of them have never been outside India, and the lure of being called onsite for short-term assignments is one of the factors that makes many of them stick with the company.
One of the main reasons for an India office is reduction in costs. However, another important reason is also to be able to provide 24X7 support to the company’s clients in the USA. Needless to say, this requires the consultants in India to put in very long hours every day; pardon me, I should say every night! The consultants are also required to get leave/ vacations approved beforehand – not only by the India Office manager, but also by the USA project manager that they are working with at the time of making the leave request.
One of the consultants working with me sent in a leave request recently. This person is a brilliant consultant; he finishes his tasks in double quick time, and then asks for more. However, despite being a brilliant technical mind, he, like many Indians, who have not studied in English-medium schools, writes better English than he speaks. However, he still writes ‘traditional’ English. So his leave application went something like this “Most humbly and respectfully, I beg to state that………………….”. Those of you who did not study in an English-medium school will recognize this style of writing applications as something that you also learned in your high school days.
I never wrote a leave application like this. In fact, I had a minor run-in with my branch manager when I was working for the State Bank of India; this was more than 15 years ago. The branch had run out of standard leave application forms; you just needed to put in the dates for your vacation on these forms and your manager would approve them. As I said, the branch had run out of standard forms, so I just wrote a one-line application asking that I be granted leave for one day for personal reasons. My branch manager was shocked to read that one-line application – it did not make a request; well there was the mandatory ‘Please grant me leave’ part, but there was no hint of a servile request at all in the application, which is what the branch manager was looking for. It was just a regular request; I have leave due to me, grant me that leave. What particularly riled the branch manager was that words/ phrases ‘humbly’, ‘beg to state’, ‘eternally grateful’, 'your most obedient servant' etc. were missing from my leave request.
My colleague’s leave application reminded me of this incident, but it also set me thinking about the origins and/ or possible reasons for this kind of behavior. What kind of behavior? Ok, here it is – that of treating the boss like God, the ‘sarve-sarvaa’ ( a typically Indian phrase which means one with supreme authority over all that (s)he surveys) of your life. Is this something that we have inherited from our colonial past? Or, is this something that has come from our own hierarchical society and the British merely strengthened it?
I believe that it is the latter, although the strengthening made it so much more institutionalized. The British had a vested interest in doing so. They had to rule and that required them to be treated like the superior race, the chosen people. It also required them to constantly remind the lowly Indian of his/ her place in the scheme of things; the closing phrase in application, “I remain, Sir, your most obedient servant” was merely one of the language tools that they employed to good effect. This is in stark contrast to the lack of hierarchy in the English language. Notice that there is no respectful form of ‘You' in English, like we have in many Indian languages, ‘Aap’ is the respectful form of ‘You’ in Hindi, and is used for elders and people who enjoy a higher station in life than you do.
So, what impact does this have in our regular day-to-day life? There’s no doubt that Indian society is still very hierarchical and that this hierarchy is all-pervasive – it is also here in our work culture. We fawn over our bosses, and generally do not question their judgment / decisions. As a result, the decisions made are not necessarily the best decisions. I am sure that there is much more; more on that sometime later.
What can we do about this? How do we make our society, our workplaces less hierarchical? How do we promote more open debate and less of reverential dogma that passes for good decisions?
Looking for answers.
A very close encounter, too close for comfort
3 years ago