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Culture Shock - An Eye Opener

Culture Shock - An Eye Opener

October 30, 2012

Dignity of labor is a theoretical notion in India and much more in practice in many other cultures of the world.

People are different from one country to another, from one culture to another and it is this diversity that makes the world such a fascinating place to explore even though it means that sometimes you are like to receive a jolt or two.  Culture shock is such an eye opener in many respects. Recently, I was travelling through Europe and I woke up to a social reality that had not struck me before.

Here’s what it is: we meet people at work and we meet people in social circles. We predictably share some commonalities with people at work since there are similar educational backgrounds etc. What we are not so conscious of is the fact that In India when we socialize, we again gather around people of similar family backgrounds, educational and career profiles. Our comfort zone seldom stretches to include people of other family, educational or cultural orbits. When I’m at a coffee shop sharing ideas, the person(s) sitting at my table has (have) come from the same social rung of the ladder that I came from. Sometimes we even claim that when we socialize we wouldn't like to be surrounded by the kind of people we work with. However, lo and behold the person at my table is almost a carbon copy of me, only works at a different company.

So what happened to wake me up to this? I was in a Paris hotel, it was morning and I was walking down to the restaurant for breakfast. On the way, I was cheerfully greeted by the lady janitor who struck up a conversation with me. I went along with ease as I speak the language but with the strange consciousness that I was not at all likely to have such a conversation with the janitor of my office or residence back home in India. In India what happens is we keep all such conversation short, and matter of fact, generally restricted to the giving and receiving of instructions. Sometimes, we do inquire about their families and other stuff but more as an exercise in politeness than as real friendship. There is a tacit understanding that a social relationship will never be established between the duo. It’s a sad fact. The caste system in India is omni-present and therefore an IT executive in India finds it difficult to initiate a social bonding with someone whose profession puts him/her in a bracket other than that of his own.

However Europe certainly did not seem to function this way at least to me, as an outsider. Another instance, I could cite is that of cafeterias and bistrots where the proprietor also plays the role of chef, of waiter, of cashier- a factotum all rolled into one. A similar sized Indian restaurant would have different people playing all these distinct roles, with clearly defined hierarchical expectations set between them. Then again, one of my colleagues in France was telling me proudly about her hairdresser daughter and my mind was wondering about whether a parent in India with a similar corporate career would really be proud of the creativity of a daughter such as hers. I am not suggesting that the way ‘they’ think or function is better or ideal and what ‘we’ have is less so. I am simply thinking aloud here about the socio-cultural evolution that may be behind these not so obvious but yet so prevalent differences between cultures. Perhaps, if tomorrow I were to travel to the far-east, China or Japan, I would discover yet another perplexing aspect to relationships in society.

All said and done, dignity of labor is a theoretical notion in India and much more in practice in many other cultures of the world. I would like to wind off here by recounting another incident that shocked me out of my wits. We were visiting a friend’s workplace which was a municipality office where a high level conference was going on. We were randomly greeting people that we met. One of these people was an elderly man who walked out of the conference hall pushing a trolley of used wine glasses and dinner plates. My mind immediately assumed his status in that office, until seconds later I was told that he was ‘the dignitary’, the Law Minister that everyone else had come to meet. I only hope I was able to hide the sense of shock that my Indian sensibility had suffered. 


  • vishal
    06.11.12 01:22 PM
    Nice article. Some of my remark. I visited U.S., Europe, Korea and Japan. My experience is summed up here. I don't agree with you that people in India seldom mix with cleaner or other small jobs. While my stay in India security guard, cleaners, canteen operator all used to talk to me and we even use to have lunch together. It depends more upon the person. Some people give much importance to the income or the cloth of the other guys. Also, I find it stupid when people write the turn off "bad smell people", that is the biggest racist remark for me... This is also true in other countries also. I have seen people making faces when some one from not good economic condition goes to some good resturant. People avoid sitting next to him. For exercise, just grow beard, make your hair bad and wear dirty clothes and then try to go to resturant (in any part of world). You will get interesting reply.

    I am habitual of making friends, I went to Indian restaurant and all the chiefs are my friend, they go out of way to prepare dishes for me. When I go with my colleagues their, they find it strange (in Japan) that I shake hands with them and say thank you or greet them. So, I will not accept your article that in India, we are more castist.

    The main reason is that many people make friends, only those who will make his/her status good.. While outside India, we talk to people who make us comfortable as we are away from family..

    . I still remember, when I was small we use to live in 2 bedroom, 1 hall apartment and there were many homes nearby. One neighbour use to sell vegetable, one neighbour use to work as peon, one neighbour use to work as bus conductor, one neighbour use to have a shop, and so on.. Society was more mixed earlier (when people claim caste system exist).. But now, I find it very hard that people from all profession lived like this. These days, due to white collar jobs increase, it is very hard to see this kind of society. Flats are expensive and it is very difficult for people to live in same society. Society is becoming more and more separated now..... More security guards coming up.. May be my nature is different because my childhood was spent in a neighbourhood of different profession that I don't care about it. While many people do care about this. FYI, I am Brahmin by birth and it has nothing to do with caste.. This mentality is to do with economic status and poor people are really in bad state in INdia. Cleaner earn very less money (2000/-) as compared to white collar job (50000/-). Also his dress is not good and you know that you will never need his help. This is human nature. Most of human make friends whom they think can be useful. Also, I agree with Vijay comment. The people I made friends have common language.. My observation, friend from others jobs (which are low paid) are very humble and really respect you form heart.... Treat them with respect and you get lot of respect....
  • Vijay
    02.11.12 10:32 AM
    It is about: Common Language, Shared values and curiosity.
    If ingredients are present, then tow nice people anywhere in the world (and India) WILL socialize/have deep conversations, independent of work they do or money they earn.
    In your story, it worked because both of you spoke in French and curious to know about each other.
    Now imagine similar situation in India, in some cities I cannot be EVEN sure about other person's (say a Janitor) language.
    Then comes values. As mentioned in the other comments, if other person is worried about just somehow surviving and he works 12 hrs a day then is it even possible to have a interesting conversation with him?
    For women in Indian cities, how can she risk to talk to a stranger if she does not about his values? Who and what guarantees that such social interaction would be mutually pleasant.
    On the other hand French lady janitor probably works 8 hours, gets her salary on time and has had enough time know about other things in life (music, art etc.).
    To sum up, social interaction among diverse set of strangers will go UP only when large percentage of people in the society believe in same set of norms/values/ethics/manners and there is common language of communication.
    You and I know that this is not the cases in public places of Indian cities.
  • Atheist Indian
    Atheist Indian
    31.10.12 03:24 PM
    Harry has a good point. Class divide in Europe is far less than in India, since in Europe, the class divide isn't so in-your-face. A janitor in Germany for example, earns far more money than a janitor in India does. He is also more likely to be educated, lives a life of more dignity and personal worth than the average janitor in India who can barely afford to survive a medical calamity.
    Hence, socialising with a janitor in Spain or France wouldn't lower your value to the eyes of others, whereas in India, both men and women avoid being too social with their janitors, chauffeurs or househelp lest they be seen as 'one of the poor'. There is also a hygiene issue, but I wouldn't elaborate there.
    30.10.12 09:41 PM
    This is due to class devide being small in Europe that's the reason why people will react differently in comparison to India. At the same time people in Europe are not afraid to do menial tasks if it's needed doing but in India this will never happen, especially if you are the boss.

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