Why India and the ‘West’ Don’t Understand Each Other

Last year I had the privilege of working on a fascinating project in a factory in India. The reason for the project was that the factory’s end product was not always the same as the original design, and productivity needed to increase. The initial question was if we could think together, from a cultural perspective, about the best design for the manual (which language, drawings, photographs, posters, pamphlets etc.).

The question behind the question, however, was about how the information from the Dutch engineering department made its way to the indian technicians who needed to make the products. First I did an anthropological scan of several factories with the question: “how does information travel through the organization?” Later, I went back for three weeks to one of the factories to help facilitate the management team’s process of improving the leadership and the information flow.

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I learned a lot during this project about the differences between thinking and doing in the “West” and in “India.” For example, it turned out that, from an Indian perspective, it was possible to do “pre-work” when recording the temperature and humidity measurements in the log book. It was possible to have multiple stories (truths), even when these contradicted each other. Another thing was how great the impact of the different meanings of the word “yes” was on the cooperation between the Netherlands and India.

In this factory with clients and designers from the West, it became very clear the different parties were living in totally different subjective worlds, with very different perspectives that had a major influence on one another’s behavior. In the Western world, you only live once, and you try to make the best of the time you have. There are commandments and there is a God who will ultimately determine whether what you did in life was “good” or “bad.” In the Indian world, you live the same life over and over again. Hinduism doesn’t have commandments, and there are multiple “hereafters.” The effect is that, in the Western world, “absolute factual truth” and “linear thinking” are basic principles, while in India, “circular thinking” and “contextual logic” drive behavior.

To learn more about this, I recommend the TED talk by Devdutt Pattanaik. He outlines how the fundamental myths in India and the West about “life, death, and heaven” very often cause us to not understand each other. Illuminating.

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