6 Jun 2007

Respectful Distortions

Many Indian languages have multiple forms of the pronoun you -- a respectful version and a non-respectful one. In Telugu, for instance, you'd address your dad's friend meeru, and a taxi driver, nuvvu. Ditto in Hindi with aap and tum.

Not only is this more cumbersome than simply using one pronoun uniformly, giving more respect to a person tends to give more weight to what he says. We may like to think of ourselves as logical people, but we can't help colour a suggestion by our opinion of the source. A friend of mine did an interesting experiment at college. He wrote a poem, showed to a half-dozen people and asked them what they thought of it. He then showed to another set of people, but this time told them it's by Abraham Lincoln. Guess what? The second group found the poem better. So when someone tells you something, your opinion of the speaker definitely affects what you think of the comment itself. When society dictates that you give more respect to one person (a meeru) than another (a nuvvu), it's subtly forcing you to consider the meeru's views more correct than the nuvvu's.

Which is totally wrong. Ideas should be judged by their intrinsic value, and your opinion of the source, not others'. Or we have a society where the best ideas don't necessarily win.

As an example, I was reading a comment by an American software product manager or something about the respect Indian programmers give to the boss, and not speak up in his presence, losing out on good ideas that would benefit the project. And they (we) don't convey bad news to the boss, instead telling him what he wants to hear, wasting time and resources going on the wrong path.

Too much respect is a net negative.


  1. Shalu6:05 am

    good one..and yes..it's true the culture at an indian work place is different and so is the class room environment when compared to that in the west. even in schools, we grow up learning to answer questions, but never raising questions. the good side of it..is that most of us become autodidactic and the downside is that it's almost like we get trained not to ask questions. i think thats something we need to change..in our whole 'respectful' state of things at school and at work.

  2. Gabbar Singh7:20 pm

    Interesting issue has been raised here, Kartik. I disagree & agree :-)!

    First, the simpler bit, the agree one. I agree that being too respectful of seniors creates an environment where ideas from juniors do not get free play. In my experience of the world, the US is at one extreme of almost treating seniors as peers when it comes to ideas brainstorming. Even Europe, in my experience, with its feudal history, does not come up to the US level.

    The ancient Asian countries of India, China, Japan etc. are at the other extreme where a junior has to be very careful in arguing with a senior. It is far more open now, in my experience of India, at least, than it was, say, a couple of decades ago.

    And perhaps that is why, some analysts say, that the US and West in general is far ahead of Asian countries in ideas-and-entrepreneur driven work like software. They even conducted a study in Japan as to why they are not able to get anywhere close to the US in software, though they overtook the US in almost every other business like Electronics, Cars etc. I think the study concluded that the disciplined and follow-the-norm culture of Japanese schools hampered creative thinking - or something like that.

    Now, for the disagree bit. Pursuit of happiness - Love, joy & peace - for these timeless human values experience is very important. The intellect generated ideas are, many times, no substitute for experience. So social traditions in ancient countries/civilizations reflect that timeless wisdom. The brash, smart and energetic youngster may flash brilliantly in a very short time but may also burn out quickly. Further society as a whole may not benefit by a few brash but wildly successful youngsters running roughshod on the rest of the populace - it could even lead to social turmoil - fact of life.

    Smart youngsters whose ideas are blended with the experience of mature experts may be a far more sustainable and happier team-winner in the long term. I have seen some mature business heads giving plenty of room for young and smart persons to try out their ideas but step in when required to keep things under control.

    About the poem and its appreciation when a big name (was Lincoln a poet?) got associated with it - well, that's the value of big name associations. Marketing guys call it brand value - Like Dhoni or Tendulkar raking in the moolah for advertising so many things under the sun from digestive tonics to eggs to even alcoholic drinks (thinly veiled). Or like using a big Professor's name as a co-author to get a paper published in a reputed journal.