Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cultural Styles for Meetings

There is an ancient symbol used in India that means “order out of chaos”.  I saw it on some car hoods in Jaipur and had a great chuckle, because there no order to be found anywhere in the traffic of Jaipur.  The truth is, that’s not the only place that chaos could use some order in this country.  Attending a “function” in India is an entrée to the world of chaos personified.  Functions are done whenever two or more people are gathered for any minor event, as far as I can tell.  We have to have an opening and closing ceremony to any workshop we do, and it is a study in the exercise of rituals and venerations for the purpose of giving a politician a podium to talk from.  I attended one such function 2 days ago in Kochi, and I’d love to share some of the highlights.
There is usually an larger-than-life banner proclaiming the importance of the function (what happens to all those banners after they’ve had their hour of glory?) and then there is function itself.
There is always a government “official” that is the keynote speaker, and that person is always late, pro forma, and the event is always postponed until said important person makes an appearance, along with his entourage of police and their cars. It matters not if we are losing so much time we will have to shift all the sessions of a conference, scrap entire sessions, a function cannot begin without a proper inauguration, which means a government official.
The final arrival is quite a sight.  If there is anything at all to protest, and there is always something to protest in India, there will most likely be a contingency waiting for the press to arrive with the government official, so they can get some coverage.  See the picture below of the latest protest movement, in react to a group of Muslims in Kerala petitioning the India Supreme Court to set aside the national provision that girls cannot marry before the age of 18.  That’s a whole different blog, though.
When the grand poobah makes his way through the protesters and enters the building, everyone stands and is immediately silent.  It’s the only time I ever see a quiet crowd in India.  This veneration of government officials goes a long way in explaining the entitled attitude held by many of the corrupt politicians, but that is also is another blog.
First the people who are to sit on the dais are called up from the audience, game show style, one by one, by an emcee of sorts. Then there is the gifting of flowers to everyone on the dais, and sometimes the gifting of a scarf as well.  Many times there are folders that are exchanged with letters of agreement, and all other manner of photo opps.
Next comes the lengthy program where everyone one the dais speaks, and begins by acknowledging everyone on the dais. There is a lot of scraping and bowing at these events. To me, the most amazing fact is that while one person talks into the microphone, there is never more than half the audience is listening, they are talking to each other or on their phones, and not at a whisper level.  Even the people on the dais openly talk with one another while their colleague talks, and some take phone calls on their cells as well, in front of the entire crowd. Sometimes these events go on so long that one by one, the people on the dais crouch down and pretend we can’t see them walk out.  Sometimes even the government official leaves after he speaks, and then everything stops, everyone stands and hushes, and the important man gets back in his police-escorted car.  The first time I saw one of these impromptu exits, I was the person who was talking, and I had no clue what to do, but I stopped talking because even the 6-7 people who were listening had stopped to watch the important guy walk out.
Now these functions are old hat, and yet it’s still fascinating how many rituals are observed that have no link whatsoever to the reason they are having the function.  India excels at having this type of “inauguration” or whatever else it may be called.  They should actually just call it the politician veneration time, because that about sums it up.

On a smaller scale, the Indian meeting is another phenomena that defies description, but one worthy of an effort.  The magnitude of chaos in said meeting seems less because there are fewer players, but don’t let that fool you.  I don’t believe I’ve ever attended a meeting yet that has come with an agenda, except ones that I facilitate.  Many times people treat the printed copies with a little surprise, and amusement.  I attended a meeting today for about 4.5 hours, not kidding about the time.   It was an epic battle between the administrators/bureacrats/bad guys, and the instructor/good guys on the other.  We asked to speak with the bad guys because they had a very curious idea:  Instead of giving the non-teachers the training on how to be a teacher BEFORE they began their teaching, they said they had decided (without the teachers in the room) that it would be fine to have their start their teaching, and then after a month or so, see how they do, and then call them back for the training.  I was actually dumbfounded, and my face showed it.  They avoided eye contact with me.  When someone foolishly asked me what I thought, I told them that was crazy talk.  I couldn’t think of any other way to describe it.  They laughed.
Then the endless rounds of discussing began.  First the teachers tried to get the administrators to understand their point of view.  They admitted nothing, and sat silently when asked a question, and sometimes replied, but not often.  Next came the administrators telling us why this plan was a fine one, why this plan was a necessary one (a need to give the director some “hard numbers” of teachers who were actually teaching, no matter if they were clueless how to teach).  We then reiterated the “crazy talk” reply and went on our stumps again.  One guy admitted he had to "talk crazy" in order to keep his job.  Gotta love that level of honesty. 
We went round and round, repeating ourselves, until I was exhausted, at which time I called the game because of hunger. I didn’t care what we did any longer, I just wanted out. Just before we left, one of the bureaucrats acquiesced, and told us ok, they would wait to send the teachers out until after they were trained.  Why he didn’t do that at the beginning of the conversation is beyond me, but he just proclaimed it, and everyone walked away happy.  When I asked my native culture informant/colleague later in the car what made him change is mind, she said basically they saw we wouldn’t back down, and they were tired of hearing from us.  In other words, we wore them down.  Classic. The problem is, it wore ME down as well.  There were at least 2 conversations going on at one time, many times 3, and there were only 5 of us in the room.  I didn’t know who to look at, let alone who to listen to. Turn taking is not a necessary element in these exchanges, to put it mildly.  It’s so far away from my meeting comfort level, it baffles me, but Indians have no problems at all with multiple conversations going on at the same time, and with the chaos of not really staying on topic, or actually even having a topic.  It worked for us this time, but took a whole lot longer than I thought it should. Guess I’m not as acclimated as I should be to enjoy this type of encounter.  I’m sure I’ll get more opportunities to hone my meeting skills. Lord give me strength.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Boy! Frustrating marathon meetings--gotta love them. I think people get absolutely nonsensical in such meetings because they get so tired. Fortunately, you got a reverse in the administrative decision. Yea!