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 might have been fine in the strictly regimented feudal (Zamindari) system or even the immediately post independent "sarkari" set up, it makes us dysfunctional and misfits in the new corporate world order. It is 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 and professionalism. But it becomes a downright handicap when going abroad, working abroad, or dealing with foreign colleagues/friends/superiors in India, which young managers of today and leaders of the future must increasingly do.
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. You did not need to pay particular attention to politeness and manners, 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. Today, one of the major factors holding Indian employs back from cracking the international glass ceiling is global manners.
Yet, there wasn't, and isn't 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 international milieus for long enough to realize how important etiquette is. So, they try to learn on their own, from various sources, including soft skill classes. However, most still don't seem to care orbother. This can not only ruin the impression they make, and deprive them of global opportunities, but it also brings a bad name to the entire "Indian" community around the world, negatively affecting prospects of future generations.
So what do we do wrong? 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 won't 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 eitheer. 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 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 friendship", which doesn't help the overall situation at all.
The way I see it, and the way the world works, friends and loved ones are the most important people in ones life! All the more reason to request them to do something, rather than order them, or to say thank you, showing appreciation for whatever they may do for you. In fact, it's less of a problem to forget to thank the waiter than it is to forget to thank your life-partner for example. After all, your partner probably means a lot to you, and you shouldn't make them 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, and be marked as a mannerless boor? Get used to the magic words!
Oh! And who can forget 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 (although it is unbearably rude 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 reputation. The immense amount of irritation it will create in the one who has to wait will do nothing good for your life or career. 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, plan ahead? It is a good idea to get there at least 15 minutes early rather than even five minutes late.
There are other things to practice, like holding the door for someone. For example, a mother with a small child trying to enter a shop or a mall. She would be laden with bags, juggling baby's bottle of water, bag of snacks and change of clothes, and heading for the doors the child cannot manage on her own. Anywhere else in the world, someone would open the door for her. Or for an older person. Or for someone with disability. Here, unless there's a security guard at the gate, no such hope. Not only will the mother have to struggle the doors open, in the time that she waits for the baby to toddle out, at least half a dozen adults will shove the child aside and walk in and out as if the mother is holding the door especially 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". 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. Falling 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. It is immaterial if it is a 20-year-old woman sitting, while an 80-year old man or woman, 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. And, very often, young women will let elderly male passengers struggling with bags, stand. If he happens to be sitting in a "ladies seat", he will be argued and scolded out of his seat by some young girl who insists that she has more right to the seat because it was reserved for "ladies"!
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 everyone to an excellent view of our gullet with half chewed 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. And we do this at restaurants. Speak loudly, let our kids run around behaving atrociously, and having full-decibel-blast phone conversations. We never turn our phones off or silent in a movie hall or a theatre show.
This is all because of a lack of the concept 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 or otherwise, 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.
The list is virtually endless, and to mention them all here would only lengthen this even more. 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", this simply will not do! As young managers and leaders of tomorrow in a global work culture in a shrinking world, it is time to pay a little attention to how we present ourselves to the world, and how we interact with its members.