Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 25 Feb 2008

It is said that when Vyas narrated the epic Mahabharata, the elephant-headed Ganesha served as his scribe and using his tusk as his pen wrote the epic on palm leaf manuscripts. But who read this book? Mahabharata typically comes to us, not in the form of a book, but as a narration made by Sauti, the bard, to Shaunak, the sage, in the Naimisha forest. Sauti, heard the tale from his father who in turn heard it from Vaisampayan, who narrated it at the great snake sacrifice of Janamajai, king of Hastinapur. Vaisamapayan had learnt the tale from Vyas, his teacher. This preference for the ‘spoken word’ over the ‘written word’ in the mythological realm is a reflection of Indian psyche. Indians prefer to say things, and hear things, rather than read things or write them down.

Even the Veda, the collection of mantras that contain the most primal of Hindu thoughts, are said to be ‘Shruti’ – that which was heard. Revelation came to the Rishis in the form of a divine whisper: an auditory communication. Contrast this with the Biblical tradition where God communicated his commandments in the form of ten laws written on two stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. There is clearly an articulation of the cultural difference in matters of communication.

A French student witnessed this when he decided to do his internship in an Indian software company. He observed that his colleagues resisted writing down minutes of the meeting or preparing a project plan with clear milestones and roles and responsibilities. Yet everyone seem to know their duties and their deadlines. He noticed that the requirements of the clients went through many changes. A lot was discussed over the telephone but hardly anything was written. Everything was in the ‘head’ of the engineers and the ‘head’ of the clients. To his surprise, the software  was developed on schedule. No attempt was made by the client to reconcile the requirement documents with what was finally delivered. What mattered to the client was that the new system worked!  The French intern also noticed that the user manual had many discrepancies – the screen shots were older versions, there were many grammatical errors. This did not bother the client; he suspected the client had not seen the manual. All the users on the client side insisted on demonstrations. But the training was not very detailed. A colleague explained, “They will keep calling us when they face problems for the next couple of months.” The intern realized such casual calls were an unwritten part of the contract that ensured a good relationship with the client and brought repeat business.

Historians have noticed that compared to their counterparts in China, Greece, and Arabia, Indians have been rather poor chroniclers. Referring to law books constantly to check if social behavior is appropriate is a relatively new phenomena, a legacy that came with British rule. Unlike the Bible or the Koran, no particular book has anchored the religious beliefs and practices of the Hindus.  Even today, for spiritual training, one is advised to approach a guru, a living breathing person, rather than a book.

Some say that the Indian obsession with the spoken word may have something to do with the fact that most people in India are illiterate. Reading and writing was restricted only to men belonging to certain castes for centuries. But this was the case in most cultures around the world. Despite rising literacy in modern India, the preference for the spoken word remains. Hence wedding cards are always delivered in person or at least followed up by a telephone call. More than the card, it is the visit and the telephone that makes people feel truly invited and included. The same applies to business communication.

Good leaders in India never rely on written communication to get work done from their team. Just an email message will not work. If things have to move, he has to pick up the phone and talk to each and every member. And if it is really serious then he must go to them personally and talk it out in detail. Verbal communication is the key to success in the Indian business environment.

It has been argued that the Indian preference for the ‘spoken word’ has something to do with the fact that Indians are a highly emotional people and the written word, with its commas, semi-colons and bullet points, is dry and crisp, unable to communicate feelings. As one speaks, one is able to communicate through intonations, body language and facial expressions many things beyond what is being actually said. By speaking, one can connect emotionally.

Others say that Indians are more comfortable with the spoken word because unlike the written word, the spoken word cannot be carved in stone. Truth is India is not permanent; it is contextual, depending on space and time and mood. What was ok yesterday may not be ok today. There is a sense of finality in the written word which is not there with the spoken word. The spoken word seems more flexible, making room for unforeseen situations that may emerge.

Indians write only when something is serious or final – a memo, an application for leave, a business contract, a memorandum of agreement, an application or termination letter, an urgent telegram. Until then, the mode of communication remains speech. The booming telecom industry is proof that Indians love talking.

A good leader must ask himself – how many times and how much time in a day does he spend talking to his team and to his customers. Then he must ask how many times does he approach them and how many times do they approach him. This is the measure of successful communication. It is also important to see how much of the conversation is functional and task-motivated and how much is personal and emotion-motivated. It is also important for the leader to let his team speak more – so that he can be sure that he has been heard and understood, and also to discover what lies in the heart and soul of his team, what really matters to them. It is the latter chit-chat about friends, families, aspirations, fears, office gossip and relationship politics that ultimately serves as the glue to a powerful team.