Cultural Complexities and Conflicts

Two weeks back I had given my laptop for repair. The computer guy first said that he would repair it in a day for Rs 1500. Then he called up and said it will take two days. Then he called up and said it will take Rs 2500. I asked him to return the laptop without repairing and ended up paying Rs 350 as service charges as he had identified the problem. Last week I asked a person to recharge my TV subscription and I am still waiting for the same. Why am I ranting on the blog?

Reason is these things happen in India. Based on these experiences the foreigners visiting India formulate an opinion on India. Secondly, the foreigners either formulate opinions on Indians from media reports or base it on their experiences of Indians living abroad. Media thrives on negative information and hardly report on positive aspects. Indians living abroad are just a small slice of the country and they do not completely represent the culture at home.

Some westerners visit India to understand it better as it is a growing economic power. However, whenever I have read their views, I feel they have a superficial picture and do not really understand the cultural complexities of India. They attempt to dissect each part independently and try to fix the jigsaw puzzle. However, Indian culture is akin to a seven-layered cake. The multitudes of flavours need to be tasted as a whole.

In India, there is a saying. To understand the water flowing in Ganga check the origin from Gangotri. To understand the culture of the country and the behaviour of the people, one needs to see the history of at least 100 years. I know in this age we believe world is changing so fast that people change quickly. However, I was reading Gandhi ji’s autobiographies and was surprised that most of the causes of conflict and misunderstandings between western people and Indians remain the same. For example, I understand what is being said by a westerner but sometimes I don’t get the logic behind the behaviour. From an Indian context, it just doesn’t make sense.

1)     The Western Civilization

The difference lies in the approach to life. The western civilization conquered the world in past centuries with the primary motive of getting richer. Though they entered as traders in countries, they soon became rulers. Establishing supremacy by war, brute force, aggression and breaking the spirit of locals were considered good tactics. The morality of their decisions and the suffering caused to human race wasn’t an aspect that got importance. The enemy had to be destroyed by whatever means possible.

So even today, the western corporates mostly have an aggressive organization culture with profit motive. Money is still the primary driver for most activities. The star performers are aggressive men who achieve their positions by cutthroat completion in the dog eat dog world. Ethical competition was until the last few decades an alien concept. Deception, cunning, and breaking the rules are valued traits for winning the game. There are few women at the top, as feminine traits were never respected. They are considered too soft.

2)     The Indian Civilization

In contrast, the Indian civilization since ancient times valued simplicity and the focus was on progress of the soul. In young age, a person was required to set up family, have a career and earn sufficient amount to keep the family in comfort. In old age, an Indian gave up all attachments and desires to focus on purifying the soul. Hence, during their lifetime Indians were required to develop virtues of truthfulness, simplicity, humility, patience, perseverance, frugality, and  other worldliness.

Cunning, aggression and deception were looked down. As Gandhi said – “a thing secured by a particular weapon can be retained only by that weapon” hence enemies weren’t destroyed but converted to friends wherever possible. That is why Indians used non-violence in the struggle for independence. Even when wars were fought, rules were to be followed and the person breaking the rules was considered unprincipled and cowardly. Breaching trust was shameful, contrary to the western opinion where the person whose trust is broken is considered a fool for trusting.

In respect of leadership also, since centuries India has propagated servant leadership and not that of arrogance and supremacy.

3)     The Global Organization

With globalization, one can see these two divergent approaches to life in close quarters interacting daily. I have heard many of my western colleagues comment about a mild-mannered Indian – “X is not aggressive enough, will he get the job done?” Whereas the Indian colleagues say – “What is wrong with this person, why do we need to fight? We can cooperate and get the work done peacefully.”  Team workers are always more valued than star performers. Cooperation is encouraged than competitive behaviour.

Each group doesn’t get the motives and thought process behind the other group’s behaviour. Westerners can’t figure out how Indians succeed in business with all these traits and attributes. They predict failure, and see success in the long run. Quite a few Indians considered unemployable by western standards (unassertive, weak, too humble, or polite) have successful careers in India.

While both groups now attempt to understand the behaviour of other, it is quite impossible to change it in a short time. A person brings to an organization the culture s/he has been raised in. The personal values and attributes can’t disappear on joining and neither can they be left at home during office hours. Respecting the person’s culture and giving space is the best approach.

Closing thoughts

The oriental nations – India and China – are the biggest emerging markets. The western world can’t ignore it and neither can they change it. Hence, they have to understand it and learn to survive in the oriental culture. It is among the biggest opportunities today to bring peace and prosperity in the world. In my view, to reduce the cultural risks and related conflicts more Indians should educate the western population about their historical and social culture. This will give deeper understanding and remove prejudices. The 21st century is bringing change; it is up to us on how we manage it.

8 comments on “Cultural Complexities and Conflicts

  1. I think this is too black and white. I worked for The Wellcome Foundation, a philanthropic pharmaceutical company who operated with decency and humility. Having travelled widely, I can cite examples of brutal management in developing countries. I agree that we need a better approach tho’

    • Peter,

      I agree that in developing countries there are many cases of brutal management, specially in rural areas. However, I see some westerners taking that approach when they become managers in India, though they would never do the same in their own country. I think the logic they use is – “in India corruption level is so high we will buy the police. Some Indians get away with it, so why can’t we.” It is quite surprising that the culture in head office of these organizations is entirely different, with full attention to equality, no discrimination policies etc. However, it looks to us Indians that either the worst managers come to India, or they just are exalted in shedding the rigid control required in their won country and indulge in all bad practices. The Indians will judge their countries population by their behavior in India, the same way the others judge Indians by the behavior of Indian tourists.

      It is one thing to see racial discrimination in another country ( e.g Britishers doing racial discrimination in UK against Indians), it is quite another to see them do the same in India on Indians. India is a country of Indians, we don’t expect or accept discrimination here. The behavior if not laughable would rankle. Indians would assume them downright crazy.

      One thing we need to see is the cultural sensitivities. What is considered in west the ideal traits – (aggression,passion, individualism, egoism), Indians consider them weakness. Same applies for Indians traits – (humility, compassion, teamwork, sacrifice) considered positive in India aren’t held in much value in western organizations. These are diametrically opposite society values. Unless, each shows respect with the other and refrains from attempting to push down their value system on the other, there will be conflict. Each society and person has self-respect, dignity and pride. Trying to kick them into submission to show supremacy isn’t going to work.

      So yes, I would agree westerners need a better approach to manage differences with Indian managers and society.


      • I don’t quite agree. Having worked and travelled in India I saw huge discrimination on the basis of class and caste. Wellcome India stood out because it did not pander to the type of behaviour that I’m sure some westerners use there. The problem is one of humanity and the human being and not located within any one part of the world.

      • I agree that India suffers from the malice of caste and class discrimination and this practice has negated the positive aspects of Indian culture because it sticks out so badly.

        However, that doesn’t give anyone outside of India the justification to show the same behavior to Indians on the premise that they are used to it and do it themselves.

        Yes, it is a problem of humanity, and humans tendency to exploit the weaker. Humans are the only species which kills and hunts for enjoyment, all other animals do it to satisfy hunger and abide by the law of nature. Maybe that is what makes us worse than the animals.

        So that is why we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. Rather than use negatives to justify our own behavior, we should aim for the idealistic behavior. Then maybe we won’t reach the target, but we will definitely be in a better place than we are now.

        It is something like human race being the emperors, and all emperors are without clothes. Instead of rectifying behavior and doing the honorable thing, we wish to run around naked because our ego gets hurt that someone pointed out our nakedness. For an intelligent species, we seem to defy basic logic at most times.


  2. “During their lifetime Indians were required to develop virtues of truthfulness, simplicity, humility, patience, perseverance, frugality, and other worldliness”…Seriously?.Out of the 1,2 Billion indians it would be difficult to find 100 of them having all the qualities mentioned by you..
    Politicians, bureaucrats the rich businessman and even the so called middle class, all of them doesnt have any principles or ethics or any humanity left in them…Every1 is just money minded..Like to showoff their wealth and completely dishonest and corrupt…(How much of the tax payers money is looted by politicians and consumed by their families?.Doesnt the corporate houses bribe the system and loot resources?..Mukesh ambani the most recognizable indian businessman has built a grand home in Mumbai which is the biggest mockery on the poor living in the slums nearby there..Arent you pained at seeing children working in restraunts cleaning plates and tables?.Poor living on the streets dying because they dont have blanket or due to lack of food?..How many of your corporate leaders give back to the society?…Is there anybody here left with Truthfullnes or humility?..I cant find many…The virtues mentioned by you are not present in any indian leader (be it politician or businessman) or the people in general..

    Btw i am an ardent follower of your blog..I like your views on corporate governance, complaince, risk etc..Sorry that i take a strong exception to your above opinion.. keep writing..May god bless India!!

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