Recently, while I was talking to the HR Head of a reputed company, he mentioned one very important point of impact of culture in organizations and management. He was referring to an incident about a new junior executive joined in his company. The young man had previously worked with an MNC after completing his MBA. This was his second job. As could have been a culture in the MNC firm, as soon as he joined here, he started calling people by their first names. He did not realize this, but people started resenting him. They began to keep away from him. He did not get support from them. Many of the clients with whom he interacted also complained to his senior about his way of talking to them. He could not understand the reason. He approached this HR Head to find out what was wrong. After discussing with the young man, his senior and other colleagues, the HR Head found out the real cause of the problem. The young man’s habit calling people by their first names without the customary suffix or prefix that people were used to (e.g. Mr Ramesh, Rameshji, Ramesh Saab, Rameshbabu, etc.) was disturbing people. He explained to the young man about the problem and suggested the corrective practice of calling people by the names they are used to being called.
The young man was puzzled. He argued, “But in my old company, this was the practice. We used to call our CEO also by his first name. This gave rise to an atmosphere of openness, you know. It fostered improved teamwork and bonding. Why can’t we have the same culture here?”
The HR Manager could empathize with the young man’s enthusiasm towards adapting newer, western practices. But, he was aware of the lack of social awareness on the part of the young man. He explained “I agree to what you are saying. But, we live in India. In Indian culture, we give a lot of importance to RESPECT. And one of the ways of showing respect is by how we address a person. In western countries, the person may be called only by the first name, but in India, sometimes some prefix or suffix is added like Rameshji, Ramesh Saab, Rameshbhai, Rameshbabu, Ramesh sir etc. This practice is a part of Indian culture of showing respect to seniors or elders.”
The young man was adamant. “But today, we are living in globalized world. We cannot continue this old fashioned practices of previous centuries. To be at par with the world, we must change to First Name Culture in our company. I urge you to implement this cultural change and start First Name Culture. It will improve out company’s image and performance.”
The HR Manager explained, “You may implement such practices with your foreign business partners or associates, but in India, it is not that simple and not advisable, too. You need to understand the language differences before implementing First Name Culture here.” He gave him an example :
For example, in English : Ramesh, how are you?
can be translated in Hindi in 3 ways :
(a) Ramesh, Aap Kaise hain? OR
(b) Ramesh, Tum Kaise Ho? OR
(c) Ramesh, Tu Kaisa Hai?
Now if we start calling everybody by first name, many people may not have the wisdom to use appropriate Hindi translations, when they speak to the same person in Hindi or other Indian language. This adaptation requires a certain degree of wisdom and intellectual capacity on the part of the person involved in the communication. In the absence of that, they may hurt the sentiments of the other person. Also, we may have got exposed to the global practices, but there are outsiders like customers, suppliers, associates and millions of others in our country who are yet to be aware of many such practices. First Name Culture is just one example. There are many such practices, where mindless imitation is sometimes funny, appropriate or out of place. We may follow such practices while dealing with foreigners, to express our awareness and respect of their cultures, but by suddenly shifting to such superficial practices in our Indian work practices, we may inadvertently hurt sentiments of such people. By trying to call a big company’s senior manager by his first name who can be a big prospective customer for us, we may lose him forever.
The young man’s enthusiasm waned, but he was not convinced. HR Head was clear about the inappropriateness of changing some superficial practices, without understanding the underlying values in the culture.
Culture is the way we, as people, respond to various events. It gets manifested in various symbols, rituals, habits, languages, practices, images etc. The core of the culture is the values that we hold. Values are the broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others. These represent the ideas that people have about how things “ought to be”. They are among the first things we learn as children, implicitly, not consciously. These values may remain unconscious to those who hold them. they can’t be directly observed by outsiders, but can be inferred from our behavior under various circumstances.
Respect is a very important part of Indian values. By adapting some practices like “First Name Culture”, we may bask in the satisfaction of being modern, but the reality of cultural difference remains and it may lead to some misunderstandings. Thoughtless imitation of western practices without realizing its repercussions may give rise to some undesirable outcomes by offending people’s sentiments and sensitivities. We must ensure that our organization does not jump into such superficial practices. We are Indians and we must be proud of our Indianness.
In my opinion, the tendency to adapt to such practices is nothing but a management wannabe-ism. We must not want to be a wannabe. Still a lot of our own potential is intact, waiting to be explored. Instead of being blind followers, we must be wise and selective. We must not sell our cultural values for some shallow management fads. If we do not exercise discretion, we will be left somewhere in the middle, neither in the West nor in the East.
That belonging to nowhereness will be similar to Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Subhash Ghai’s Pardes, in which towards the end of the film SRK reaches a bus stop somewhere in rural India, rejected by both the Indian as well as American families. On asked by a villager “Kahaan ke ho sahab?” he aptly replies “Kahin ka nahin….!!!”
Following quote of Peter Senge (Management Guru, Author : “Fifth Discipline”) drive the point home, precisely.
My intuition is that India and China will move somewhat together, but in very distinctive ways. But I think the thing that will be really common to both of them will be the fact that they won’t be able to do this without reconnecting to their heritage. They will have to develop a confidence that they can do this as Indians and they can do this as Chinese. They have learnt a lot from the west but they don’t have to copy, they cannot create an Indian or a Chinese version of a Western model. The Western model itself is basically bankrupt. It does not give enough side to the human side of development.
I think I need not say more on this…!