Thursday, January 17, 2008

If you're too polite or too soft you don't get taken seriously

Without 'sharp elbows', you'd never get anywhere in India
Her reply, after some thought, struck me. She said, "I'm not sure I'd want to stay in India forever, it makes you too aggressive."
I've been thinking about this in recent days and I think my friend has a serious point.
India is a tough place to live in. There are 1.1 billion fighting over limited resources - from food, to water, to electricity - and limited space, whether on the roads or in the great slums which where almost half the population of cities like Delhi and Mumbai reside.
Of course as a wealthy ex-pat you are insulated from the real fight for survival which is played out daily in India, however you cannot escape it completely.
Whether driving in New Delhi, shopping in the bazaar or even queuing for check-in at the airport you need to develop - as my mother would put it - "sharp elbows" to get on.
Being passive just doesn't work here. There are no points for politeness as I discovered this early on in my tenure as South Asia Correspondent. Having come from Europe - where charm and politeness will get you a lot further than being tough and forceful - I had to learn a new way of doing things.
I might get shot at a little bit here, but one of the reasons for this phenomenon is the highly stratified nature of Indian society. Bosses are bosses and those below you in the hierarchy expect to be told what to do, just those above you - in age or seniority - expect respect.
It is one of the most exhausting things about living here. You have, to use another English phrase, to "be on everyone's case" to make things happen. If you're too polite or too soft you don't get taken seriously.
And it's not just foreigners who feel this pressure. I have an Indian friend who runs a very successful travel business taking foreign clients on high-end tours round India.
He too gets fed up with the fight. It's not enough to arrange the bus driver to show up at 7am two weeks in advance. You have to check again the night before and then again in the morning of departure to make sure the guy is up and running and on time.
And then, if the bus company owner thinks he can get away with it - ie you're a soft touch - he'll send a different kind of bus than promised, particularly if he's being squeezed by another client he fears more.
Another example. My friend will book a tour group of eight couples into a hotel a full month in advance and the night before their arrival the manager calls asking if it's "okay" if the party gets a couple 'triple rooms' instead of all doubles.
Answer "NO!" - and then my friend spends several hours cracking heads and breaking balls on the phone to enforce the original arrangement. Sadly, if you don't yell, you don't get.
This is not just about being a 'stroppy sahib', if affects all strata of society here. You have to be tough to survive - at whatever level your karma has set your station.
All the above is intended as observation, not criticism. This is the way India is, and there is no point in moaning about it. And of course in a wealthy society - where people are less hungry, actually and metaphorically - it's easier to be civil all the time.
But all the same, I shan't miss the need to "bust balls", to quote my dear late assistant Sanjeev (a master of the art).
I don't consider myself a naturally aggressive person, but I think after four years in India I have become more so. And like my friend, I don't like it. Posted by Peter Foster on 16 Jan 2008 at 12:04 Telegraph Blogs Foreign Blog Home Peter Foster Blog Home

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