Rainbow Road – to a multicultural workplace

“Rainbows introduce us to reflections
of different beautiful possibilities
so we never forget that pain and grief
are not the final options in life.”
Aberjhani, Journey through the Power of the Rainbow

Let me take you to another era. My father was in the steel/mining industry and for a while in our childhood, we had largely British neighbors, because Britishers had come down to help set up coal mines and steel plants etc. Our neighbor was the family of Mr Edmund. They had a daughter my age and two sons who used to come only during vacations from their British boarding school. But Samantha, Mark and Ward were our great friends. Our entire childhood features these very energetic and fun trio in all our escapades. There was one particular neighbor we all disliked, – both the man and his stuffy sons. Mr Shrivastav had his car – one of those large Beetle- like cars, we used to call them frog cars – always parked outside his gates. One night he came charging to Mr Edmund’s house and then to my parents’ complaining that the Edmund brothers and mine, had put sugar in the radiator, making the car useless. As it turned out, my brothers did not do it, and Mark and Ward were the culprits, for which they got a sound thrashing from their dad, but my brothers were there all through in the planning stage. Kids all over the world behave the same way, get the same kind of wicked fun in the same kind of idiotic things.Cultural differences never came in the way of friendships between kids. We loved going to their house for their fancy English dinners and they would fight with their parents to come over and have our chapatti and mutton curry. Samantha had a car she rode every evening – or was supposed to ride – which was a (then) state-of-the-art car, with working headlights, brakes, horn etc. My brothers’ hand-me-down, from I can’t remember where, was a tin car, painted by our loyal driver, which had manual pedals and almost nothing else. But Samantha would ride their car and my brothers, hers, obviously. No accounting for tastes and children’s behavior.

I was very amused to see one day, many moons later, from the first floor window of our house in the outskirts of Cambridge, my neighbor’s son swinging on a tyre tied to the branch of a tree with a long rope. We did that in our childhood – our kids mostly don’t, because somewhere in all this consumerism, we have lost the wonder of simple things. And we have allowed our children to lose them too. Go to any Indian village and you will probably see this scene almost everywhere there is a child with a desire for a swing.

When we first went to England and my husband worked in a hospital in Wolverhampton, he was called by an HR person because one of the patients was speaking in Malayalam and could not understand or communicate in English at all. My husband tried talking to her in Hindi but she did not understand that either. When my husband shrugged his shoulders and said, sorry, but he did not understand the language the patient was speaking in, he was told, somewhat brusquely, “But the person is Indian and we thought you would be able to help”, my husband equally curtly asked the HR person if she, an Englishwoman, understood Russian. Her answer obviously was a no, at which point my husband said, “well this lady comes from a place further away from my native place than England is from Russia, so how do you expect us to know each other’s language?”

Working in different cultures is to appreciate these differences and move ahead with communication regardless of them and not let work get hindered because of them, if you get my drift. Culture is specific to a section of people, it is what binds them together. People, that is the key word. Communication between people of different nationalities enriches human society and makes it more colorful. Look up once you understand that, and you will see the rainbow.

There is no good or bad culture, – and being judgmental here is being stupid – there are only many different cultures. It is important in our jobs to understand, at least to a certain level, cultural values and their nuances. This difference could be evident both at a personal level as well as at the company level. When people shake hands, or bow their head, sometimes from their hips, bring two hands together in a ‘namaste’, people everywhere are just trying to greet people. Shaking hands might be the most common way, but who is to say it is the best? Here in India we have the habit of touching the feet of elders when we greet them. I can name at least 20 males in my family who run away to hide because they don’t like doing it. So, when they cannot avoid doing it and grudgingly do, surely that is a lot less desirable than a shake of the hand? I have no opinion on this at all – I do it not with overwhelming respect for anyone, but I don’t see the point of disappointing others dear to me to whom my action is important.

I read somewhere that when one starts living amidst a culture not native to the person, the first thing one loses is the language, and the last thing they lose is the food.  That is very true. It is a constant struggle to get 2nd-generation kids in a different country to continue speaking their native tongue at least at home, but those same children would prefer to have their native food after a stint at a foreign place. Like we would yearn to have our rice and curry and dal after a gorgeous vacation in Italy full of the best wines and truffles and cheese etc. The behaviors of people from different cultures will seem less threatening if we just kept in mind the fact that in this vast world, it is not possible, or even desirable, to have people all following just the one culture. God, just the thought is awful.

Take the USA for instance – quite apart from the fact that in the melting pot of a country, Afro Americans make up about 10-12%, the Asian Americans around 5, the native Americans, sadly, about 1% and Caucasians about 70%. The Thanksgiving week is a fine time to appreciate the diversity that is the US. As employees in a truly global company, it is important to at least be acquainted with as many cultures as possible. I am sure American colleagues have huge difficulties pronouncing our long and convoluted names, the same way I can never understand how someone named Siobhan (Irish) could be addressed as She-vawn. Or how a place called Featherstonehaugh can be called Fenshaw. Even with a name as innocuous and reasonably international as Lolita, I have people in the western world calling it loleeta, and people down south in my own country calling it la-li-tha, when my name clearly has an o as the second letter. Still others, north Indians mostly, call it Lawlita. Go figure. But should I take offence at it? Nope, I am just grateful people take the trouble to pronounce my name anyway. They might just as well have addressed me as “oi, you woman there”.

The one thing much of the western world has a problem understanding and if I am honest, they actually do not like it, is the lack of personal space we Indians seem to believe in. Indians do not intend to be intrusive or insulting. Goodness no. Actually, even among native Indians, if one has lived for a while in the west, – and also among many youngsters who have not -the curiosity of people around us in India, the way a relative will walk right up to you and look at your jewelry at your wedding and quite unabashedly ask who gave it and/or if it is gold/diamond, can be seen as very intrusive and most young and middle-aged people will get irritated. What I consider unnecessary inquisitiveness in some people my parents consider quite normal. But then again, my mother would cringe if a man she was introduced to, even one she knows, came and lightly hugged her and air-kissed. The average westerner though, considers invading anyone’s privacy a sacrilege almost – but there is a confusion here somewhere, don’t you agree?. And yet, their conversations, especially of Americans, are always very informal. In the eastern cultures, privacy resulting from individualism is difficult to understand. If a person stays alone, it must be because his children don’t look after him/her in their old age etc. etc. and all kinds of negative connotations are put into it. But people in the west live separately because they want to, most of the time, and not because they have to. And this is how cultures and thought processes are merging – my mother, and more than her, my grandmother, would never understand the concept of ‘me time’. Their ‘me’ always consisted of everyone else around them too. These are western constructs and has no place in Eastern societies, I am told gruffly. But – and here’s where we have changed – I like at least a couple of hours in the day when I can do something on my own – read, paint, write, or not do anything. If my grandmother were alive, she would give me tongue-lashings and a lot of grief for not being a good wife or mother etc. But all three of us want that sort of time for ourselves, – my husband, son and myself – and we are OK pursuing our own thing, quite happy without the presence of the others. Here, slowly, insidiously, cultures and thoughts are welding together without conscious effort. It is not about toilet papers or cutlery – but thoughts, views, ideas, which are amalgamating. It is how chicken tikka masala was till recently the most popular dish in the UK. It is how kids here in India go crazy about One Direction, and how I got sent pictures by my best friend, a Welsh lady, of her and a hundreds of others in Norwich, dancing to the tune of Bollywood music.

Imagine the Russian intellectuals, the kind, merry, perceptive old women in villages the world over, our elderly workers, our young children in academia and then a working in countries far and wide, our little girls being free to enter the melting pot of ordinary human intercourse with the people of all the continents. What a rich variety of customs, fashion, cuisine and labour is revealed! What a wonderful human community is coming into being, emerging out of so many peculiarities of national characters and ways of life.

Ultimately, all of us, wherever we are, are always trying out ways to realize a better future. It is not important to conform, as long as it does not harm anyone. Societies are not the same, but if we understand that and live and work as a cohesive whole, most of the battle is won. In fact, there is no battle. We should not cocoon ourselves in a foreign country. The trick is to reach out for help – 99 times out of 100, you will find that such help is easily given – uninhibited conversation in a friendly set up is always well appreciated. And that holds true for every culture.

Vive la difference!


2 thoughts on “Rainbow Road – to a multicultural workplace

  1. Words and thoughts just flow beautifully and seamlessly, Lali. A few things to share:

    1. Why just the differences in understanding a different tongue? Like a Bengali not knowing Malayalam or an Englishman not knowing Russian? Even within the same language spoken by people of different culture/tongues, English emerges out with pronounced lexical differences ( sorry for the pun) . The Serbo- Croatians picked up the English world nylon but took it to mean a kind of shabby and disreputable thing: a nylon hotel is actually a brothel and a nylon beach where nudists frolic. The Japanese just turn the language around and have fused “touch” and “game” to make it tachi geimu , a euphemism for sexual petting.

    2. The way bison is pronounced by an Englishman and an Australian can confuse one whether we are going talking about an animal or about washing our hands.

    3. For your students of the corporate world, the message is that that before naming a product or a company, conduct a global survey as to what a word or phrase can mean in different tongues. Infact, the whole corporate strategy may come tumbling down. Standard Oil changed its name to Enco and found a dip in sales in Japan because enco means a “stalled car” in Japan – not very encouraging a name for a lube or oil product. A British firm Cockburn first changed the name of its vintage port from Dry Tang to Dry Cock because Tang meant seaweed in Swedish, even at the risk of sounding very silly to the British. They soon dropped it because investigation into slipping sales in Denmark revealed that it Cock in Danish signifies, funnily enough, female genitalia – though frankly if you ask me, if it had meant the same in an Indian language, it would have sold by gallons in serpentine queues.

  2. Wonderful Lali. Had missed this earlier the day it was posted. have left my comment. Thank you.You should have sent this on MH. Regards, Vivek

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