Wider Angle | S.Mitra Kalita
Stop burping. Only disclose your salary to your mother. Don’t tell your colleagues they are fat, dark or have bad skin.
Finally, a book has crossed my desk —issued by a company, no less—that is actually blunt, useful and relevant, even necessary, for the modern Indian workplace.
In fact, the long list on page 33 of InCorporate: Communication etiquette for today’s workplace makes abundantly clear why such rules are needed. In a section devoted to the art of making small talk, the book advises Indians which topics to avoid.
Consider the banned: politics and religion, personal health problems or misfortune; stories and jokes of questionable taste; remarks about ethnic, racial or gender groups; gossip and hearsay; controversial issues such as abortion; intimate details about yourself or others; one’s income or the price of personal things.
If your family is anything like mine, we breeze through most of those subjects by morning tea.
And so this 103-page guide, published by Standard Chartered’s business processing unit Scope International Pvt. Ltd, offers insight into why assimilation can be so tough for new entrants to the workforce.
Over the last year, we officially became a nation obsessed with “soft skills”. Company after company decries the sorry state of the Indian education system, as well as the lack of exposure of new hires from lower-rung institutes and second-tier towns. The nature of networking and interaction —in and out of the office, the personal becoming professional—is changing rapidly. The chap who doesn’t remember which knife butters his bread warrants forgiveness—and instruction.
Scope International released the book just about one year ago, a part of its desire to give new hires “a strong foundation for stepping into the demanding lanes of corporate life,” writes Scope chief executive Sreeram Iyer in his introduction.
Noteworthy is that little of the book dwells on Scope’s internal ethos or systems. These days, far too many human resources managers seem stuck in the yesteryear of training for lifelong service to one employer or orientations about the mundane: Please download all 56 expense forms off our intranet. The canteen serves vegetarian cuisine on Tuesdays. All leave requests must be cc-ed to the new department of authorized absences.
So, Scope’s straight talk is refreshing. “…be a ‘solution provider’ rather than a ‘reason-giver’,” it advises. Do not instantly hit reply all on emails. Avoid composing emails when emotional or angry. Do not blow noses into cloth napkins; they are not handkerchiefs.
The cellphone etiquette section ought to be adopted by every office and posted as mission statement: Turn phones off during meetings. Avoid long songs as ring tones. (My addendum: Take the device with you as you roam the office or the bathroom.)
Scope spokesperson Shashi Ravichandran notes a difference among workers. “Soft skills are one such area which builds their capability and confidence and grooms potential managers and leaders,” she said. “It helps their development by enabling them to communicate effectively and adapt to multi-cultural landscapes.”
And yet as I came to certain commandments, such as “Thou shalt not eat with thy fingers” or “Thou shall respect two feet of personal space,” I began to wonder if what is becoming accepted as workplace etiquette is really a misnomer for Western etiquette.
What prevents us from dipping into the fish curry or mutton biryani with our hands because, practically speaking, that really is the best way to debone, eat and enjoy? And is it really rude to slip into mother tongues when the urge strikes? Can we see the silver lining in some elements of our unique Indian behaviours; bluntness as a plus point, perhaps?
The answer is ultimately dictated not by cultural supremacy but business. If a client is Western, then leave the Tamil behind and just bring on circuitous conversations about the weather. But if a client is Indian, is there a need to lose ourselves?
Ravichandran assured me Scope doesn’t want “change in our personal traits which make us stand apart as individuals, but change in our style of communication and an international approach to work practices.”
If 2007 wound down with a rebuffed Ratan Tata demanding respect and an apology from Orient-Express (with a name like that, sensitivity seems the last thing to expect), let this year begin as the one where office integration works both ways, or perhaps several. It’s not a bad idea for educational institutes to hand out new rules for the workplace with diplomas, and for companies to do so along with offer letters—with the caveat that exceptions must exist in a world trying to understand India as much as the reverse.
But East or West, the verdict on Kajra Re as ring tone is clear. It is globally accepted...as annoying.
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