Last week’s column, featuring my musings on queuing in India, generated a large response from readers. Some found me overly optimistic on the speed of improvement in lining-up behaviour in Indian cities. Readers reporting from Mumbai informed me that their city is far better than the rest. Yet others indicated that large numbers of ill-mannered people on trains gave rise to a sense of disorder. Clearly, following the rules (or disobeying them) is a topic that bothers many in India.
It is fascinating to consider that whether we join voluntarily or out of peer pressure, anyone who stands in a queue automatically adopts the politeness to others that is embedded in them. And such conformity makes interaction in the public domain more egalitarian and pleasant. But unlike most countries of the West, India is not egalitarian by nature. Traditionally, India has one of the most vertical and stratified societies in the world and, by their own confession, most Indians have accepted their place in it. So when it comes to collective rule-following, India may face some unique challenges. It seems that two cultural forces are competing for prominence—hierarchy and conformity.
Anyone betting on India’s conformism would argue that once following the rules reaches a critical mass, it will spread like wildfire and the vast majority of people will fall in line. The community then begins to recognize the sovereignty of the whole community, treating each other as equal citizens. Those who think that hierarchy will win, on the other hand, will argue it is a matter of pride for most people not to follow the rules that others do but to demand an exception for themselves. Then, public life might not become a common ground for all but remains more chaotic, hostile and unforgiving. Both forces are strong and it is as yet unclear which will win.
Another fascinating thing, however, is to watch how Western rule-abiding citizens behave once they are dropped into India’s bustling public life. Take the traffic. When we started driving ourselves around Delhi, I was naively bent on driving inside the marked lanes. Our most sticky moral code “do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you” kept me in line—literally. My wife—who exaggerates with humour—briefed me after a few drives of her own that the lines must be seen as purely “decorative” and that pedestrian crossings painted on the asphalt are just forms of “street art”. When I courteously allow others to pass, I am causing half-accidents, honking concerts and confused stares from the recipients of my favour. And so I now happily go with the traffic flow in which the only rule is to avoid hitting something.
Yet there are situations where the rule-following Western people dodge the social rules followed by most Indians—to the amazement of the latter! One reader had this in mind when emailing me last week and I will give you the abridged version.
“I live in a condominium in Gurgaon with a swimming pool. The rule is that all children and women with long hair must wear a swimming cap. All Indians follow this rule. But it is flouted by many Western women and their young girls, who never wear caps even after several reminders by the staff. It seems India leads many Westerners to give up their civil social behaviour. Like many educated Indians they are following the philosophy, when so many break the rule why shouldn’t we. What are your thoughts?”
My sense is that these Westerners do not disobey this rule because India teaches them it is useless to follow rules in India. Instead, wearing a bathing cap in a pool is something most Westerners find hard to adopt anywhere in the world. It reminds us of beach holidays with our grandmothers, who wore them, and caps are, therefore, seen as very old-fashioned. Women with a more feminist mindset would add that hair is hair, so men should then also wear a cap—which is not required, so why should they? Many younger women will resist wearing one because they feel a bathing cap makes them look “ridiculous” and inelegant. So the reasons for disobedience are very specific in this case.
Yet once they are convinced that a rule has merit, many Westerners will stick to it out of their own free will. Hence, they behave quite coherently across situations, making our societies often appear orderly and robust. Western governments, therefore, often prefer the power of persuasion and convincing to develop rules, before turning to enforcing them.
And India? In the absence of a strong apparatus to convince or enforce, it seems to me that a more rule-based society in India is developing, but in the tension between hierarchy and conformity. This may be a slower process. But it has its own beauty. Because it is a more organic, authentic route that does not rely on a sudden break with the past. Instead, it operates on continuity. Like so many things in India’s ancient and long development. India encapsulates and incorporates until it fits, based on a logic that is deep and unimposed.
Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. His column will deal with the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.