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.