We had a late-night conference call in our Pune office. By
the time the call was over it was almost midnight. The air outside was cool and
crisp. Nobody was in a mood to rush home. At least I wasn’t. It only made
sense to go for a nice cup of hot coffee. As we settled down at a round table
at the nearby restaurant, the conversation drifted from one topic to another.
Suddenly I heard someone say, “So why do people go to
Indeed. Why would people go to
I realized that his question may have been prompted by my
having narrated within the last half-hour a few strange experiences in
It is very easy to offend people with a discussion involving the comparison of another society with their own. I believe that every society and culture is like the legendary water-glass that is both half-empty and half-filled. What follows below is an honest attempt to capture the “half-filled” aspects of American culture. While comparing American and Indian culture purely on the basis of my own personal experiences and opinions, I have not discussed some of America’s greatest assets -- Public Radio and Television, Public Libraries, and National Parks, for example -- only because India has not yet achieved sufficient economic strength to support them.
As graduate students we were probably below the poverty line
I had already decided my plan of what to do in
Americans go to school multiple times in their lifetime. They don’t feel the need to finish it all off in one go. This makes sense because (a) many vital lessons are learnt only in real life so there is no point spending the most important youthful years in school, (b) a lifetime of learning is better spaced out evenly, and (c) topics of study can be selected based on changing interests as one moves from one phase of life to the next.
I must also add that the American campus life was a unique experience for me. The word “campus” took a special meaning with its wonderful architectures, spacious quads (huge green lawns), innumerable tree-lined walkways, spots to drink “free coffee”, a separate office and friendly place for international students to hang out any time, a street (or streets) full of restaurants and shops, the student activity center, the central library with its infinite spaces, and so on. One can easily discover romance on an American campus (even if it does not involve a person!). The American university system also offers a great deal of flexibility – in choosing courses, in deciding the order in which you learn, in picking majors and minors, in changing tracks, and even in learning for free (with something called “audit” courses). I feel sorry for Indian students who arrive with a fixed plan of doing such-and-such courses and quickly looking for work! They are so focused on courses, grades, job-skills, and the degree certificate (all of which can be obtained much cheaper elsewhere in my opinion) that they completely miss out on a wonderful learning and life experience. Some of them even try to wrap the whole program up in a couple of semesters. Their argument is that they have spent so much money getting here that they need to start earning asap. But, I feel, precisely because they have spent so much, they should try to get the most out of their investment by going for a fuller and richer learning and life experience.
There is a famous James Bond movie by the name “You Only Live Twice”. I think that title captures a very profound truth. We Indians traditionally lead a very linear life. Our first challenge is to get a job – a secure one. The second challenge is to get married to a suitable partner – again a stable one, and settle down in a safe and secure place. It’s all about stability and security. Once you select a career you are pretty much expected to see it through to its logical end. There isn’t much opportunity for a second chance or a loop-back in this system.
Most Americans go through multiple careers in their lifetime. A very good American friend of mine took a degree in philosophy, took up a sales career, followed it with a few years of monastic life, and then took up software testing! Another person I know taught English in high-school, and in parallel learned tabla and Indian classical dance. When she had learned enough, she quit the teacher’s job and started her own music and dance academy. I have heard an example of someone leaving a thriving business to become a police officer. If you stop and think, we rarely know as a youth what we really want to do in our life. Most of us discover what we want through trials and errors, or simply by observing others. Going further, some of us would enjoy more than one career. So why get stuck with one career?
Americans believe that since you only get one chance to
live, you’ve got to make the most of it. What you enjoy doing, learning and playing
is more important than what you are “supposed” to do. Americans like to do
“cool” things. It’s no wonder that the highest number of entrepreneurs are in
People all over the world do make such career changes – but
they are primarily driven by extreme events, such as near-death experiences
through disease or accident. A lottery prize or similar financial windfalls
also allow people to do what they really want to do. Sometimes they are driven
by spiritual gurus or other influential people. But in
I know of many Indians in
Recently I took a tour of the Golden Triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur with a tour group of about 20 people packed into a bus. There were other families like ours, and my 9-year old son quickly struck up a friendship with another boy of his age. I overheard them engage in a “Q&A” competition. The other boy started off with questions on capital cities of the world. He was amazing; he knew practically every country and its capital. Then they moved to other topics such as the names of obscure animals, their equally obscure habits, etc. In the age of Google and Encarta, I thought the boys were wasting their brain cells on such tidbits, which could easily be looked up with a few key-strokes. So I interjected and asked the boys to try questions of “how” and “why” instead of “what”. They tried that for a while out of respect for the old man, but soon went back to their general knowledge questions.
One of the most striking features of American education is
their focus on problem-solving and understanding. I have always been amazed by
the practical application skills of my American colleagues, who had much less
impressive educational qualifications than their Indian counterparts. It has to
do with American education’s emphasis on analytical skills and
application-oriented training. Right from pre-school days, the system asks
students to do projects that require research and original thinking. The home
assignments given to graduate computer science students at
I used to think that “paper-writing” was a punishment only
meant for scholars and doctorate types. In
The Nobel-prize winning American physicist Richard Feynman has narrated in his autobiography how his father used to prod him as a child to go beyond knowing just the names of things and places, and try instead to really “know” them. He later gained fame not only as a physicist but as a teacher of physics and was famous for his novel approach of going to the basics rather than describing complex equations.
When I first watched American TV news shows I noticed that they got ordinary street folks to comment on some news. I was struck by the confidence and fluid style of their communication. In classroom situations, American students appeared very polished and relaxed when they replied to questions from professors or gave oral presentations to the class.
Americans are generally good communicators. Their communications have an almost musical quality. They show a lot of emotion when they talk, using both pitch and body language. Their bodies are very relaxed and alive when they talk. They are not very shy when it comes to addressing a camera or an audience. They also talk a lot – no matter what situation. I have seen very important business meetings begin with meaningless chatter about the previous night’s football game.
We Indians have somehow adopted a very stiff style of communication. I don’t know if it came from the British. We use our body very little, neither do we use any pitch variation to convey our emotions. We take our classroom and business situations very seriously. Of course our teachers and bosses are to be blamed for that. In the IT industry, a lot of visiting customers complain about the lack of “signs of life” in their meetings with Indian teams.
Communication is one of the most important aspects of the human community life. It enriches our relationships, adds to our knowledge, and improves the quality of our lives. Americans surely have a lesson or two here for us.
There are legendary American figures that are known for their fierce competitiveness. Michael Jordan was so competitive that he would virtually carry the team on his back to victory even while his own body was suffering from fever symptoms.
Competitiveness is an essential quality for progress, but I think everyone first needs to achieve a certain personal level before seeking to compete with others. We Indians start competing too early – in school days, and that too for the wrong things. We compete for a higher rank in our own small school in our own small town, and feel complacent after getting the top rank. The American education system encourages individual progress rather than competition. There are no ranks; you get graded for your performance. Rather than competing with specific individuals, you focus on improving your ability to achieve a higher grade. It also prepares you for a lifetime of learning and achievement, since there are no limits to what you can achieve.
I feel this kind of attitude brings each individual to a certain personal level of capabilities, after which one can make an easy and healthy transition to competition with specific individuals or companies.
I saw, as a university student, professors being called by first name. That was a shock, of course, since I was used to calling my teachers either Sir or Madam. The American professors didn't seem to mind it. I also did not detect any hint of disrespect in the students towards the professors. “Interesting”, I said to myself.
Later, I came in contact with families - with the usual mix
of grandpas and grandmas, aunts and uncles, and the children. To my surprise,
the children called their uncles and aunts by first name. Like "Uncle
Tom", or "Auntie Sylvia". If I had spoken with my uncles in
And still later, I saw people interacting in offices. There were the usual bosses and employees, managers and workers, executives and engineers, etc. Even here, the first name business continued! The CEO of the company was just "Peter" or "Fiorina". There were white-haired executives as well as brash young managers - but all of them had only first names. There were some exceptions - some used "Mr. Last Name" instead of first name. Like Mr. Holland or Ms Carter. But no "Sir" or "Madam".
I think there is a certain beauty in using actual names when interacting with people. It not only creates a personal touch, but it gets people's attention better. It is like instantiating an abstract class. When someone calls me by my first name, all my senses become alert to the signal, and I feel committed to respond appropriately.
When you use "Sir" or "Madam" there is also the very real danger of putting people up somewhere where they don't belong!! The game of respect then turns into a game of "personality destruction". If you call someone a dog 100 times, he will start believing that he is indeed a dog. It takes much less than that to convince someone that he/she is an Einstein or Marilyn Monroe (as the case may be). In our society, a lot of arrogance and aggression is created artificially by this "Sir" or "Madam" culture.
Unfortunately our society is so stratified by a variety of
class systems that we are forced to show respect in obvious ways. Anyone in a
government uniform for example is to be respected all the time. Teachers or
professors are to be called Sir and Madam. Boss is always to be referred to as
Sir. Politicians are above the law and must therefore be worshipped and
Although so much of
Consider the home front as another example. Practically every nut and bolt, every window and door, every tap and pipe, every plug and bulb will fall into some already defined category of size, shape, and other critical dimensions. You can walk into any of the Home Depot type of shops, buy building blocks for your house and put them together yourself. I know of American friends who built and sold one house every year and made enough profit to cover the cost of their own home! The FM and AM radio stations in every city follow a standard numbering convention so that you can find your favorite music or programming at the same frequency.
The proliferation of mega-corporations like McDonald’s is a direct consequence of standardization. The creativity of McDonald’s team is productized in a single R&D center and then replicated across the globe. Standardization does not make life monotonous – it allows us to re-focus our creative energies on new inventions and discoveries; it makes things predictable that should be predictable. You don’t want to enter a toilet wondering how the flush might work. In our country we waste so much time fixing things because every peg and every hole are of unique sizes. The so-called “variety” in our system has sapped our creative energies solving mundane problems. We need engineers to run our country!
The personal lesson for me in this was the lesson that variety and excitement is to be sought not in solving mundane problems of daily living, but at the leading edge of life’s pursuits.
During my first days in
Most American cities (including what we call “suburbs”) have a city center which buzzes with a lot of activity during weekends or holidays. Most of these city centers have family entertainment, thus attracting people of all ages. Invariably, there is a public dance hall where local enthusiasts volunteer to teach basic steps to anyone and sundry. It is a wonderful sight to watch Americans young and old, slim and heavy, ignorant and learned, men and women, green-haired and bald, all dancing merrily to Hispanic, African, or Israeli tunes.
The average American may not look “sporty”, but he or she is
more sport-loving than an average Indian. I personally learned more sports
during my 2 years in
There is a famous series of satirical movies called “Naked Gun” in which Rob Nielson stars as a fumbling Special Agent whose job is to uncover mysteries. When I saw “Naked Gun 33-1/3” I was appalled by the treatment inflicted on the family of George Bush Senior in that movie. Incidentally George Bush was the ruling President when the movie was released. Later I got hooked on David Letterman’s late night comedy show which routinely heaped sarcasm on politicians, celebrities and holy men. These days, George Bush Junior’s peculiar use of English, called Bushisms, are popular fodder for American comedy shows.
I soon realized that Americans valued humor as an offshoot of their freedom of expression. There are no bars to what or who the humorist might choose as focus for his next creative outburst. This is in sharp contrast with the rest of the world, where politicians don’t like to be the butt of jokes. Humorists and newspaper-men get attacked physically if a cartoon touches any sensitive chords.
The IT industry, where I work, is solely people-driven. One comment that is usually heard about Indians is the “lack of life” syndrome. For example, in meetings and conference calls, we sit as if we were attending a funeral. We are tight-lipped, dead-serious, and averse to any humor.
Americans love humor. People crack jokes in business
meetings, classrooms, and TV shows. It makes them loose and relaxed about what
and who they are. It helps build bridges – my graduate advisor won me over very
quickly with his happy and relaxed demeanor. I am not a serious person myself,
If there is one thing Americans will fight for unto death,
it is their individual freedom and right to privacy. The American Constitution
has a Bill of Rights that talks about various freedoms. These rights are viewed
as a prized asset and a differentiator from the rest of the world. There is one
aspect of this freedom that really appealed to me. It can best be characterized
as “personal space”. Coming from
Senior citizens in
Ironically, Americans or westerners are thought to be “loners” by us Orientals. We feel sorry for their lack of social activity. But I think we have inadequate understanding of their culture. I view their individualism as a great virtue. It’s no wonder that there have been more inventors and scientists in the west – they didn’t waste their time in useless socializing. I truly believe that many of our own social ills can be attributed to the lack of personal space allowed by our society.
There is a lot of talk about civilized nations, third world
nations, backward countries etc. There is definitely the economic aspect to it.
But I think one of the true parameters of a civilized society is how well
people treat each other. Courtesy and civility towards each person with whom
one interacts is a hallmark of the American culture that I experienced. The
left-wing socialists may attribute this to
Courtesy is not just about how you talk. It’s also about your body language. It’s about recognizing and respecting other people’s needs. The custom on American roads to always allow pedestrians the first right of way, i.e. letting them cross the road before the vehicles, is an example of courtesy that is completely lacking in our country. On the Indian roads, pedestrians run around like chickens let loose in a pack of wolves.
Americans usually greet people in public places, for example while taking a walk in a park. One might argue that those greetings are superficial. But I think they are far better than the unfriendly glares or just plain curious stares that we give in our culture. When someone greets me, he or she is simply saying “I recognize your existence as a fellow human being”. That is enough for me to feel some degree of justification to exist, and some camaraderie towards other humans. Cordiality is not friendship, but it inserts positive vibes into the normally drab day-to-day public life.
Courtesy also has to do with concern for others. Americans follow many rules of cleanliness in public places, not just because they like to stay clean, but also out of courtesy to the next person who might use the same facility.
One of the most amazing experiences for me in
Generally, in our culture we are very friendly to the person we know – we almost go overboard in trying to please that person, and we are probably the best culture in the world in that regard. But our behavior toward strangers is very strange indeed. We either watch them with idle curiosity (just observe how people idling on sidewalks or standing in their balconies stare at passersby), or glare at them (for example when you make an unusual request to a shopkeeper), or abuse them (for example when a bicyclist stumbles in front of your car).
It takes time to get used to the quiet in typical American
environments. Away from the cacophony of Indian life, I was first disturbed by
the “deathly silence” in
NASA did an interesting exercise some time ago. They created
a new type of map of the world – one that showed the amount of man-made light
received in space. For example, the map showed bright spots where our great
cities are; and dim spots where there are clusters of smaller towns. If they
did a similar experiment to map the sound emanating from the planet, I am sure
After the American Experience, for better or worse, I have developed a preference for “deathly silence” over “lively exuberance”.
American society has its share of problems and challenges like any other society. Due to its superpower status (albeit diminishing), it is held up to a different standard by the world, and so it is easy to overlook its many positive aspects. I have tried to list above a few of these aspects that have influenced and appealed to me.
Author: Abhay B. Joshi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: May 30, 2006
Published in parts in the Indian Express of July and August 2006