Sunday, October 13, 2013

India Programmers in America

Working in the IT and Call Center worlds for the last 18 years I've worked with many people from India. It's been hard to sort out the subtle differences I've encountered. Partly because, being American I've been taught it's impolite to see differences. Americans tend to confuse equality with sameness.

In the corporate world it is almost taboo to even acknowledge cultural and ethnic differences, but obviously they exist and it's not immoral to try and understand differences. A friend put it to me this way paving the freedom for me to discuss the topic, "It's not racist to try to understand a culture." I've had many higher level college classes in Cultural Anthropology and World History so this should be self-evident. But somehow in the business world there is an unspoken rule of silence concerning even the most basic observations.

A good movie I saw awhile back addresses some of these differences in a light-hearted and funny manner. I'd recommend watching it to anyone involved in the multi-culture business world of today

Saying all that as an introduction, I'd like to note one key difference I find between Americans and Indians and hopefully more later.

Hierarchy Versus Flatness

Indians Assume Social Hierarchy.

There is an age-enduring almost biological basis for respect for hierarchies. It's very prevalent in the animal world and probably deeply embedded in human constructs too. Indian culture, from what little I know, has historically been a deep caste system with several distinct classes. This is understood by all Indians but Americans generally can't even conceive of it. With India's clash into the modern world, particularly through the modern influx of the Information Sciences to this sub-continent, this fundamental cultural bias clashes subtly but deeply with American egalitarianism. In itself, it has both a positive and a negative side.

Americans Assume Social Flatness.

The basis and cultural history that America prides itself in is equality of all men. It is written into our fundamental documents and has proven itself out historically to the point of a civil war between its own states to eliminate the long bane of slavery dominant in all civilizations from the beginning of time. "All Men Are Created Equal" is a rallying cry that goes deep to the heart of the American mythos. So deep, that Americas tend to be self-negating to the point of overcompensation with guilt and shame if even a hint of non-equality is shown. This is the emotional root power behind the PC movement and in fact creates a self-effacing downplaying of anything resembling the upper class. This self-degradation is a mystery to Indians. It is not a mystery to Europeans, who tend to jump on the anti-America bandwagon that Americans paradoxically support and encourage. Like the deep social hierarchical mindset, this cultural bias on its own also has both a negative and a positive side.

It is when these two cultural assumptions are not explicit or understood is when communications sometimes fail. This is only the most obvious of variations between these cultures. The more interesting ones are much more subtle and worth studying for discussion.

(note* this view was written in collaboration with an Indian friend of mine with good insights from living also in America. Thanks Padmaja.)

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