Monday, May 16, 2011

Political Correctness

I'm not sure if this is a cultural phenomenon, or something related to individual traits. Many don't realize there is a difference between being frank, and being brutally frank. One can be frank and honest, yet convey their thoughts in a refined, politically correct manner that targets the problem to be solved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties involved. However, I come across many Indians (I may be wrong) who literally speak their mind out and hurt people, or put their foot in their mouth with a politically rude/incorrect remark, when they attempt being "frank". Their remark takes the attention away from the core problem. In a professional setting, it is embarrassing when you see people do this time and again, albeit in a harmless fashion. It is even more bristling when some others inquire if this trait is cultural. Although my first reaction was to argue that this was just yet another personality trait, further thought has made me wonder if the roots are indeed cultural.

Before people start pouncing and tearing at me, let me clarify. I am not stereotyping. My thoughts are probably shaped from the experiences I have had while growing up in my city, neighborhood, and family. I welcome your thoughts to broaden my perspective. 

In my family and the place I grew in, people usually refrained from direct confrontation. Maamis and uncles are astute in the sly game of subtle slights, and indirect comments and allusions. The receiving party either broods in the hurt, buries and nurses the grudge, retaliates in an equally cheeky manner, or complains and gossips to the so-called sympathetic "friends".  A disagreement  is never resolved in a direct, honest fashion. Due to the game of indirect and behind-the-back gossips and repartee, even a small and inconsequential disagreement builds up and blows out of proportion after years of accumulated grudges. When people eventually confront - the scene is pretty nasty. People will be frank - but crassly so. This is the model of "frankness" we build in our head.

Culturally, we are taught to not be rude, or speak up to "elders". However politely we address concerns to "elders" or even neighbors, the fact that we open up a problem so directly and expect a solution, is taken as an affront. The norm is to let the problems fester till it cannot be tolerated anymore. Basically, we are brought up to be coy and "nice" (often by faking it), and have little training in being honest and direct.

Here comes the problem. When we are put in an environment where people are painstakingly politically correct AND direct, we poor people are lost. We realize the need to be direct, but we have no training, and no clue on how to present and word our direct remarks in a polite, constructive manner. Unfortunately, to us, direct means rude and blatant. And that's how we spit out our words, and claim on being "frank".

I admit that even I have been tongue-tied in the past. I have taken hours to compose a tough email. I would marvel and collect professionally worded emails that demanded improvements, out-rightly rejected, or addressed an important concern with the party's work, with such polite and honest flair. I tried to fit it all into a formula so that I could assimilate it, and emulate it (for instance, talk of the positive aspects, the potentially positive aspects, then mention the unpleasant in a direct but polite manner). But diplomacy cannot be squeezed into a formula. It is a gradual cultivation of your thought process, speech, and mannerism. 

Smooth-talkers are blessed indeed. And I realize there are Indians who are savvy and glib speakers, as there are Americans who are rude and blunt. But, I'm not sure if my experience with the role played by culture has any influence on most people I see straining their professional relationships. If so, I'm wondering if we need to hold a special orientation on diplomacy and political correctness.

Or, as many are bound to say, let's not bother about the fluff, and keep calling a spade, a spade, and not care a hoot about the relationships soured and severed.


Rafiki said...

This article reminds me of a saying by Abraham Lincoln "I believe each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruits of his labor, so far as it in no way interferes with any other man's rights."

A lot of people have asked me are Indians like this/that. My answer always is we have a billion people and they have billion different personalities so yeah an Indian does behave like what you said. If there is a personality trait you can think of, I am sure we can find an Indian who has it. It is important to realize that everyone is different and we will face the consequences either good/bad for what we do or say. Political correctness taken to the other extreme irritates me I'd rather deal with brutal honesty and hypocrisy.

Neeraja said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Rafiki. Of course, people are different, and I'm a huge proponent of the value of individuality. I am not stereotyping people, much less my own people. But I have seen this pattern emerge and I'm trying to make sense of it, to understand how talented and well-meaning people can survive in a professional/corporate setting. I think it is not constructive for them (or their careers), to keep resorting to tactless or hurtful approaches to resolve the several inevitable disagreements that arise between colleagues.

The other extreme of political correctness is hypocrisy too, and I don't advocate it either.

Karthik said...

I actually agree with much of what you say here. But I guess the new generation is more accustomed to being direct than the previous one was. And true, there is no formula :-) It is a delicate balance between sensitivity and assertiveness :-)

Neeraja said...

Karthik, I was ever so confident and optimistic that these ways would die with the earlier generation. But MUCH to my utter disappointment, it is not true :(. I struggled to reconcile with that thought, until recently. But hopefully this is a decreasing trend, if not a drastic nullification!

Rafiki said...

hmm I guess you are talking about being sensitive to others feelings here. Right? From what I understand (I maybe wrong), political correctness are norms set by people to talk in such a way no one gets offended. I think I wrote about wishing people Merry Christmas and how a person in my lab told me I should not wish everyone Merry Christmas because it may offend people if they are non-believers. Now, this I find ridiculous. But, if you have a difference of opinion about something and want to confront a person and do so by being abrasive that is being insensitive right? And I do agree being sensitive and sensible are very important traits while dealing with people in general. Did I understand your article correctly?

SecondSight said...

To me political correctness is most certainly cultural. Most of us tend to have the cultural traits that we have grown up with- be it Indian, American or any other culture. Other Hispanic/ Asian cultures also have their own characteristic ideas of PC. I think the trouble, as always, comes in with a lack of understanding of the other culture. Certain words are far more acceptable in one culture than in the other (whether it's f*** or Merry Xmas :)), and so are certain ways of communication.
Not that I condone rudeness, but just as Americans take classes in dealing with foreign cultures, it would certainly help for some immigrants to do something similar! Though of course, a class can only scratch the surface of such issues. I don't think there is an easy answer.

Neeraja said...

Rafiki, even norms on courtesy and politeness are formed out of rules formed by society to ensure that people are not offended or treated poorly, and that their feelings are respected. I think Political correctness comes under the same umbrella of social nicety or courtesy that guards against discrimination and slander. Your example of wishing people is indeed extreme :). If things are overly dipped in sugar and people are made to be wary of every word, that is ridiculous. No one is really that sugary sweet - so it becomes hypocritical to act like one. Yes, my point is that while dealing with people it is important to be polite, direct, and politically correct - for political correctness, diplomacy, courtesy, and regard for others' feelings go hand in hand according to me.

Secondsight - Yeah true. I didn't mention Asians and others here, because I am not knowledgeable enough to talk about them or their culture. But yes, the differences are clear. True, a class can only scratch the surface, but hopefully it will create some sort of awareness for the naive ones.