Recently, I’ve been simmering with the heat of anger brought on by instances of terrible communication around me. I’m reminded of a old joke that underscores this:
Several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to leave Italy. There was, of course, a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal. He would have a religious debate with a leader of the Jewish community. If the Jewish leader won the debate, the Jews would be permitted to stay in Italy. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to leave.
The Jewish community met and picked an aged Rabbi, Moishe, to represent them in the debate. Rabbi Moishe, however, could not speak Latin and the Pope could not speak Yiddish. So it was decided that this would be a “silent” debate.
On the day of the great debate, the Pope and Rabbi Moishe sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.
Rabbi Moishe looked back and raised one finger.
Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head.
Rabbi Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat.
The Pope then brought out a communion wafer and chalice of wine.
Rabbi Moishe pulled out an apple.
With that, the Pope stood up and said, “I concede the debate. This man has bested me. The Jews can stay.”
Later, the Cardinals gathered around the Pope, asking him what had happened.
The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us of our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”
Meanwhile, the Jewish community crowded around Rabbi Moishe, asking what happened.
“Well,” said Moishe, “first he said to me, ‘You Jews have three days to get out of here.’ So I said to him, ‘Up yours’. Then he tells me the whole city would be cleared of Jews. So I said to him, ‘Listen here Mr. Pope, the Jews … we stay right here!”
“And then?” asked a woman.
“Who knows?” said Rabbi Moishe. “We broke for lunch.”
Sadly, as Indians, we suck at communicating well with almost everyone – our people, our governments, our institutions, our families, our peers and employees, in our daily lives.
Take something as commonplace as road traffic in India. Statistics have shown that 72% of Indian drivers either don’t use or have nonoperational turn signals. Another 16% switch them on while they’re turning or after they’ve turned. And another 10% who use hand signals use them grudgingly and with trepidation, as if their hands are going to be lopped off (which passing traffic might!). Pedestrians, cycles, pushcarts, motorbikes, autorickshaws, cars, buses and trucks use the roads and pavements like their personal fiefdoms without a care for anyone else. The chaotic traffic conditions resulting from this nonexistent or poor communication of driving intentions causes massive inefficiencies and mismanagement. And these 98% of Indian drivers don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this.
Indian citizen-facing administrations, governments and authorities show an age-old affinity for ineffective, sluggish and ultimately useless communication. An example is how a city’s infrastructure agencies dig up roads, close roads or create diversions without informing the public well in advance, or at all. Citizens are severely inconvenienced, and the resulting confusion, again, results in massive inefficiencies and mismanagement. Agencies that supply electricity are notorious not only for their lack of communication of power cuts, but also for their hubris in communicating anything with their consumers. Consumers of electricity nationwide are often left in the dark (pun intended) about the timing, duration and reason for the millions of power cuts that plague the nation every day.
Websites of Indian companies are another example of the pathetic communication skills of most Indians. To most Indian companies, large or small, the idea of owing, creating, maintaining and updating a full-fledged, working and useful website to communicate with their customers, vendors, partners, employees and stakeholders is considered a waste of time, resources and money. Where multinational and international corporations revel in providing information to the world, most Indian corporations prefer to withhold information, and indeed, consider the revelation of customer-centric information an anathema. Indian web-based products and services work only partially, or sometimes, not at all; their creators don’t think that this is anomalous, embarrassing or archaic.
The impact of atrocious communication is felt most in public projects across the country. Projects such as the construction of roads, underpasses and flyovers, infrastructure for water, electricity and sewage, and the allocation of resources for public works are almost always stuck in a quagmire of delays or cancellations due to nonexistent communication, both amongst public agencies and with the general public. Projects that were scheduled to be completed in 1 year are delayed to 3, 5 or 10 years, with no information provided to the public. Projects that were budgeted at certain amounts become 2, 3 or 5 times more expensive, without any reason or visibility provided to the public. Projects that are completed, are often destroyed almost immediately because another agency’s inputs and permissions were not taken or communicated at any time during the project.
Projects in private Indian companies, including IT companies, are not free from the clutches of nonexistent or erratic communications. Studies have shown that 65% of IT and IT-enabled projects fail because executors/workers and sponsors/executives fail to communicate their ideas, statuses, risks, issues, problems and delays to each other early enough to take corrective action. Often, there are no communication plans set in place before the projects are started. And even if there are, we, as Indians, tend to view the communication milestones as adjunct and nonessential items, rather than as elemental and crucial components of any project. A quick perusal of the top 10 results of a web search of IT projects in India reveals that foreign companies cite “poor communication” as the most critical risk to look out for while outsourcing to Indian companies.
The culture, the mentality of communicating frequently, concisely, well in advance and with lucidity is absent from our DNA. How many employees working in Indian companies can say with confidence that the their managers and executives are open and frank with them in their communications regarding their company, their performance, their colleagues, their growth and their interpersonal relations? How many parents can state with certainty that they’re always forthright and truthful with their children? How many school principals and teachers can honestly declare that they openly encourage their students to regularly and instantly communicate their ideas, misgivings, thoughts, questions and doubts without fear of reprisals or ridicule from their peers, seniors or instructors?
The answer doesn’t lie in “Effective Communication” courses given to adults simply because it’s impossible to change a lifetime of bad communicating habits, in a large population in a limited amount of time. Perhaps the answer lies in teaching our children about useful, clear communication right from the start. A subject dealing with effective communication beginning in the primary school could solve a part of the problem. Inviting parents to the communication class could be the second piece of the puzzle. Parent-teacher-child joint exercises in efficacious communication could bring about the change we so desperately need. This could engender a generation of children with all the qualities of good communication that we don’t have today.
Then, perhaps, one day, future generations might attain the nirvana of communication… a perfect world… a utopia.