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Lost in translation

Lost in translation
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First Published: Fri, Apr 27 2007. 12 46 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Apr 27 2007. 12 46 AM IST
A few weeks ago, when everything was going horribly wrong, as three information-technology specialists huddled around my computer, as they assured the infamous “five minutes”, I snapped.
“Oh (expletive). What the hell kind of country is this?! What tech boom?”
“Hey,” called a voice one cubicle over. “We love our country.”
She then laughed, this kind co-worker, letting me know she wasn’t entirely offended. Just enough to shut me up.
Eventually my email worked and I, a New York-born child of Indian immigrants, stopped blaming a nation of one billion for my computer woes. But I pondered my slip and wondered if my colleagues thought they had seen my true colours, the red, white and blue ones that exude superiority.
West has been looking East for some time now, so long it’s actually become a cliché. But a report this week indicates a whole lot more of us might be on our way. A study by human resources consortium IMD International Search & Consulting finds that India needs 1,000 CEOs, against the trend of US-based managers welcoming work overseas to gain exposure.
Watching last week’s theatre adaptation of City of Djinns, I imagined the likely newcomers in journalist William Dalrymple’s place as he meanders through Delhi’s government offices, monuments and less-discovered areas. Some in the audience were not amused, yawning over another story of a firang trying to understand India.
Perhaps the director should have changed young William into a first-time CEO leading a team of Indians and let us know what each really thought of the other.
For all the money and effort Indian companies pour into understanding western culture—firm handshakes to accent training to cutlery lessons—not so much goes the other way.
My search for consultants or trainers on the Indian way of doing business, posed to human resources managers and even a popular expatriate email list, yielded only two names.
Somehow in the zeal to understand and kowtow to western clients—understandably so—there’s been less focus on integrating diverse and truly global offices back home. Holger Siemons, a German student at the Faculty of Management Studies doing his PhD on culture in multinationals, says communication might even get lost in translation between a Delhi-ite and a Bhubaneswar native, let alone people from different countries.
Business history has shown us that cultural frictions can doom partnerships and workplaces. One case study termed DaimlerChrysler AG’s failed merger a “cultural mismatch”—an important lesson indeed for Indian companies going on buying sprees elsewhere. Yes, we need to understand them. But let’s make sure they understand us. (By the way, Them, if you’re reading this, one session with a cultural trainer will illustrate Indians’ measure of time as polychronistic, or flexible, but their approach to teamwork and indirect communication can be used to your advantage.)
Wait, which side am I on again?
Fearful of my own perceptions, internal and external, I headed to the offices of relocation agency Global Adjustments in Gurgaon—for some straight talk.
I recounted my day of rage, which started with a power outage, a late driver and a snarled commute to work. Vice-president Preeti Bindra nodded understandingly, but I knew she’d heard this countless times before.
“Then I said, something like, um … uh …well, I said: ‘What kind of country is this?’”
I toned myself down and dropped the cursing. I smiled.
Bindra stopped smiling. “You said what?”
“I don’t know what I was thinking. It just came out.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what your office was thinking,” she said, now starting to look humoured. “Just who does she think she is?”
Sitting next to Bindra, cultural trainer Ruchika Srivastava piped in: “And they also probably thought, ‘She’s an Indian, too.’”
As if to make me feel better, she assured, “NRI clients are among the most difficult.”
Bindra nodded: “They are neither here, nor there. They feel they are not Indian any more and then the other times, they think they know it all.”
Yeah, I deserved all that.
But the agency imparted some hope, too. Over the last two years, Global Adjustments has seen a surge in expatriates trying to understand Indians and work on their terms. “We’re meeting halfway now,” Bindra said.
They introduced me to a successful client—a Chilean immigrant to the United States, who moved to Gurgaon with her husband, a pilot. I was sceptical. She could help me understand India better?
Among the first things Patricia Bunster-Kunard said to me: “Something I’ve learned from Indians—patience.”
I’m trying.
Your comments are welcome at widerangle@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Apr 27 2007. 12 46 AM IST
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