If you picked a guide-book written for expats to help us navigate in the turbulent waters of cultural customs in India, one advice would inevitably be to pay attention to the need of Indians to “save face”. Some writers go as far as to suggest that Indians are taught never to answer directly with “no”. There is usually a way to “get around” saying “no”. This would allow Indians not to “lose face”, which saying “no” to anyone would force them to do. Hmm….in the everyday life you can only imagine the not so great implications of this custom.
My most recent lesson in this nightmarishYes/No binary took place this past week. A North American friend of mine is about to arrive and spend a month in India. I had to buy a mattress for her to sleep on; never mind getting an extra bed, a good mattress will do, she assured me by email. It’s now over a year ago since I moved to India and dealt with the purchase of furnishings for my flat…how quickly I had forgotten what an ordeal this simple purchase could be in this culture. Especially since I don’t own a truck or a pick up van to drive the purchases home myself.
So, I bought the mattress and was told it would be delivered by 11 a.m. on Saturday… You guessed right: nothing had arrived by 1:30 p.m. I called the number the store had sent to my iPhone to check on delivery. Only, this number connected me to the Hyderabad Police Dept! I re-clicked and got the same rather annoyed officer who assured me that local cops had nothing to do with mattress deliveries. I bet not! While a rather hilarious misunderstanding, I wasn’t too amused in the moment, was I? Now, I started to get pissed off….not just a little annoyed and called the store number on the receipt. It was changed to another number that took me to the HQ in Mumbai. Once the clerk on the phone had spent half an hour pouring over every single detail on the receipt plus getting my life story on record in the process, I still didn’t have an answer, never mind yes or no! By now, I was beginning to see red!
So, I decided to go to the store – what the devil else to do, huh? I asked the question that would make any store clerk in Canada tremble from fear of having screwed up: “Can I speak to the manager, please?” Three of them showed up, running around but not accomplishing much other than trying to smile while looking at my stone-cold totally hostile stare. I communicated that “YES” was the only answer I expected and I expected it right there and then. Finally, one of them checked the delivery roster and made at least a call while I was breathing down his poor neck. At this point I was only interested in either getting my money back or getting the darn mattress. How did asking for a delivery to be done as agreed get me to this point?
The mattress arrived in one piece by 6 p.m. and the delivery guys didn’t even speak Hindi or pretended not to understand any of my efforts to communicate…I paid them tips to try to stop myself from throttling them on the spot. See what happens? I paid to get rid of the people who screwed up but needed to “save face”, pure and simple! And I suspect this is exactly what they wanted all along and knew they would get The mattress was intact, and my BP was settling down to a semi-normal reading. Mission accomplished.
“Welcome to Asia !” That’s what my Indian friend said after I shared the story with her to ask what I should/could have done differently. Nothing, she said. Reminds me what I once heard someone say about the horrid corruption in Russia: “nothing works, but everything can be arranged”!
The lesson here if there is one? One culture hangs onto “saving face” at the expense of another having to lose theirs? Some of these cultural practices on boths sides are already changing and the boundaries will become more blurred in time. Perhaps not always fast enough, so If you land a job in India, it might be a good idea to make sure there’s a bonus to go with the salary to pay off the “extras” that are bound to come along.