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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Letter from... Baselworld

Come for the watches, stay for the surprisingly pleasant debates on politics

The editor of your favourite weekend digital magazine has just returned from a few days at the Baselworld trade fair. Each year in March or April, the creme de la creme of the world’s watch and jewellery brands assemble in Basel, Switzerland, for the largest trade fair of its kind anywhere in the world. I cannot even begin to explain the scale and scope of Baselworld.

This correspondent has visited every single edition of the fair for the last decade or so. (Among other things, I am Mint’s wristwatch correspondent. Yes, I know exactly what you’re thinking. I cover a largely obsolete form of technology for a largely obsolete form of media. The Vadukut household does not revel in career security, let me assure you.)

Despite these frequent visits, I am yet to see more than 10-15% of all the countless booths and display galleries and exhibition areas that comprise Baselworld. This year, in a blundering attempt to find a toilet, I strayed onto a floor full of jewellery brands displaying their wares. It was most disconcerting and highly disorienting. I usually confine myself to the one or two halls that house the major watch brands from all over the world. Patek, Rolex, Seiko, Breguet and so on and so forth. 

I find everything about Baselworld utterly fascinating. There is the straightforward narrative of new products and technologies and materials et cetera. I enjoy the art and craft of watchmaking. But, and this is usually even more interesting than the watches themselves, there are the subtextual narratives about the state of the global economy, national economies and cultural trends that consume conversations and discussions at Baselworld. How is China doing? How is the US? Are watches getting bigger or smaller? Is everyone sucking up to the Chinese again?

Basel is also where I get to meet the Indian "watch media" contingent for our annual tete-a-tete. This group features a tight core of perhaps a dozen people who travel to Basel each year, year after year, accompanied by a cast of ever-changing newbie editors and writers and marketers and sales guys. 

This year, one topic consumed most of the conversations within the Indian cabal: the abysmal state of the domestic luxury market. There are many, many factors at play here. And we spent many hours talking about all of them: demonetization, taxation, PAN card requirements for large purchases, GST rates, Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh elections...

But this letter is not about the Indian watch market. Nor is it about all those topics listed above.

No. This letter is about the act of discussing politics. And how I think I have figured out an actually enjoyable way of doing it. That does not require alcohol.

So, usually, I try to avoid discussing politics anywhere outside the home, or with anybody except close family. I try very hard indeed to avoid serious political chatter on social media or with friends in real life or on WhatsApp or any other such platform. I joke about it all the time. But serious debate? Oh my god, no.

There are many reasons for this. First of all, I dislike talking about things I am not particularly well versed in. If I can add no value I would much rather just shut up and listen. Secondly, I feel that far too much political debate quickly devolves into an argument about people rather than ideas. Thirdly, I usually find that an hour or so of careful reading and thinking helps me more than 40 minutes of a blistering Twitter row with someone. Books have patience. People don’t. And finally, I find most political discussions are people screaming monologues at each other. There is very little listening going on.

So, when I stumble upon a political discussion, I usually keep quiet and listen carefully. 

But then something magical happened at Basel. I was involved in several interesting political discussions that all took place with great civility. No one screamed, and no one got called names.

I’ve spent some time trying to figure out how this happened. And two factors seem to be at play here.

Firstly, we were discussing politics in small groups in real life. This immediately takes away most of the sources of the nastiness that pervades digital interactions. There is no point in virtue signalling or delivering rhetorical masterstrokes when four Indian people are talking politics over glasses of wine in a small restaurant by the Rhine. We weren’t looking for RTs, followers or virality. Instead, we were speaking to each other and not at or over each other, hoping to summon the troops to bolster our case. 

Also, human beings are generally more pleasant when they are speaking to each other, looking into each other’s eyes. We appear to show more... moderation. 

Thirdly, even if somebody said something stupid nobody was going to immediately amplify this to thousands of people all over the world. So, my companions felt they could do things that people never do online: express doubt, ask for help, ask for opinions, admit errors and so on.

Far more important, I think, were a second set of reasons arising out of a simple fact: While we were by no means strangers, we actually didn’t know all that much about each other. I cannot tell you how much a lack of familiarity enables pleasant political discussion. Familiarity breeds not so much contempt but context. And this context immediately loads conversations in certain directions. 

Thus, it is virtually impossible for me to talk politics with friends without my profession—mainstream media—becoming a factor in the direction and tone of that discussion. You can see this all the time on social media.

Malayali fellow: “Wow these racists attacks against African students are horrible..."

Other fellow: “Boss, you first figure out what to do about those murdering commies in your own state before teaching us about behaviour..."

But what happens when you assemble a small group of slight acquaintances in a small restaurant and ask them to discuss politics? Suddenly, people are more polite. Nobody is taking anything for granted. (Often, people have no idea what each other’s religion is. Sidin Vadukut is impossible to place for many. This instantly improves the tone of most conversations.) Suddenly, you're talking to each other like normal people. They are listening, thinking, talking, listening, being patient, offering to change their minds (even if they don’t) and so on. 

These last few days in Basel have really been quite enjoyable on this account.

So, in case you’re wondering how to have pleasant political conversations, my tips are as follows: Small groups of people who don’t know each other well, in person, over food and drink. Preferably without mobile phones at reach. You’ll be surprised how pleasant human beings are when they aren’t trying to “win".

But in case you’re wondering what is happening in the world of wristwatches, than kindly wait a bit. Detailed reports are in the works.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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