Managers and Leaders of the Future Need Global Good Manners – Now More Than Ever!

As a culture, we don’t really learn global etiquette. The way our society is still largely structured, we don’t see the need for universal politeness. We are, as Indians, still quite not far removed from the strictly regimented feudal (Zamindari) system or the immediately post independent “Government” set up. And it worked fine for about 70 years. However, it makes us dysfunctional and misfits in the new globalised and e-centric corporate world order. It is bad enough right here at home, where social-economic changes have blurred age old boundaries of categorization, replacing them with new, and still unfamiliar, categories of class and professionalism. But it becomes a downright handicap when going abroad, working abroad, or dealing with foreign colleagues/friends/superiors in India, which young managers of today and leaders of the future must increasingly do.

Traditionally, the modes of behaviour for each section of society, with regard to upward and downward social intercourse, were strictly defined. Lateral social behaviour was left, in the main, up to the person. But, since lateral social intercourse was confined almost entirely within the family-extended family-business circles, it wasn’t such a big deal. You did not need to pay particular attention to politeness and manners, and all necessary guidelines were easily provided by the rules for “how to behave with those older/younger than you”. When circles expanded, to not only include non community, non family members, but non nationals or ex-nationals as well, things changed and suddenly etiquette began to matter. Today, one of the major factors holding Indian employees back from cracking the international glass ceiling is global manners.

Yet, there wasn’t, and isn’t any formal training in etiquette at the school level. Nor are these new laws of global social behaviour taught at home. As a result, most of us blunder extensively. Some of us have rubbed shoulders with international milieus for long enough to realize how important etiquette is. So, they try to learn on their own, from various sources, including soft skill classes. However, most still don’t seem to care or bother. This can not only ruin the impression they make, and deprive them of global opportunities, but it also brings a bad name to the entire “Indian” community around the world, negatively affecting prospects of future generations.

So what do we do wrong? It can be as basic as not knowing when to use Hello versus Hi. For example most “yo type” Indians have given up the Hello altogether, even in formal situations. While this usually passes muster in the local context, in the case of a foreign posting, an interview, etc, it can be an impression ruin-er. Hi is for friends, intimate circles, family, informal situations. In an interview, or when being introduced to someone “important”, hi just won’t do! Hello is the only greeting for formal or important occasions.

We also have no concept of basic etiquette when someone asks “how do you do” or “how are you”. First of all how many people realize that “how do you do” is not a question? If someone says “how do you do” it’s a greeting… like hello… they are not asking the state of your health or life, so don’t tell them. The correct response is “how do you do”. If someone says it, you say it back. On the other hand, should someone say “how are you” or “how are you doing” you reply with a “I’m fine/great/good thank you”. It’s not an invitation to dump your troubles on the enquirer either. It’s just formality.

With our feudal heritage, another thing we never learnt was to say Please and Thank You. Lower orders are CREATED to serve the higher orders, so where’s the question of thanking them? So we generally come across as very rude, uncouth people. We never say please when placing an order for food for example, or thank the waiter for bringing us our water, or the food, or anything. After all, we rationalise, it’s his/her job! Well, etiquette does not care if it’s their job, if someone does something for you, however trivial, you thank them; if you WANT someone to do something for you, however trivial, you say please.

Let us not forget the famous Indian Standard Time syndrome. We just don’t seem to get the concept of punctuality. And, while being late for a party or to hang out with friends may not be such a big deal (although it is unbearably rude especially if it is a recurring phenomenon) the same cavalier attitude to time, in the case of a Meeting or for an interview, can have serious effects on one’s career and one’s general reputation. The immense amount of irritation it will create in the one who has to wait will do nothing good for your life or career. Whether it is traffic, or the inability to get dressed fast, or whatever, plan ahead. It is a good idea to get there at least 15 minutes early rather than even five minutes late.

There are other things to practice. Simple things, like holding the door for someone. Or the ability to calmly queue for anything! Given any situation where an orderly queue is required, whether at a ticket counter, the bank, the bus stop, or wherever, Indians will invariably all try to get to the counter at once, or at least look over each others’ shoulders and press forward for a better view of the proceedings, thus subjecting others not only to sundry shoves, and body odour, but also considerably slowing down the basic process itself. And by international standards of polite social behaviour, invading another’s space in such a manner is an absolute NO-NO!

Wait a few seconds to let older or differently abled people pass. Offer your seat to an elderly person, a pregnant woman, or someone differently abled, in a bus or a train. Practice basic table and social manners. Do not shove, sneeze, cough, burp and belch in public, and if you do, either cover our mouths and apologise. Do not chew your food with your mouths wide open, or pick remnants of chicken from between the teeth with a toothpick, without feeling the slightest need to cover up the gaping orifice. In a supermarket, park your carts out of the way, and not in the middle of the aisle while browsing the shelves on both sides. Do not block the entire stretch for others. Do not let kids loose to run around, cannoning into people, carts, and shelves, and driving the attendants up a wall. Blocking an entire shelf while six people engage in a “family conference” about which brand of coffee to buy, is bad manners. If there do not reach over people’s shoulders, or under their arms, to grab stuff. At restaurants, speak softly, don’t let kids run around behaving atrociously, and control the decibel-blast while having a phone conversation. Turn you phones off or set to silent in a movie hall or a theatre show.

Do not be nosy and over-familiar. A French friend of mine, a woman of a certain age, always found it extremely offensive that Indians, after about half an hour of acquaintance, asked her why she wasn’t married yet, and whether she was seeing someone. This is a common issue. Culturally, we place so much importance on marriage, and have so few boundaries, that we don’t realise how personal a question of this sort is to the rest of the world! A close friend might ask something like that, but not a passing acquaintance or someone in a more formal social situation! Along the same lines, a couple, married for about four years, always complained of how everyone not only asked about why they were not having kids, but also assumed there was a problem, and offered a plethora of unwanted advice! The idea of a couple “choosing” to wait some time before procreating, or “choosing” not to have kids seems to be something we cannot grasp, and we need to learn to back off.

The list is virtually endless, so many little things we do unconsciously, because of our total unfamiliarity with the politeness principle, and basic civic sense, but they all affect the way people around the world look at us, deal with us, and feel around us. Seemingly small, tiny, things can leave a bad taste in the mouth for the visitor or foreign colleague. It ranges from the way we speak, what we say, to body language and “nosiness”. Considering that India is going all out in a bid to be a global power, and Indians becoming more and more “unconfined”, this simply will not do! As young managers and leaders of tomorrow in a global work culture in a shrinking world, it is time to pay a little attention to how we present ourselves to the world, and how we interact with its members. So research, pay attention, and learn. Consciously perform good etiquette until it becomes second nature. That is the only way to be successful in a globally connected world!