‘Your Voice is Breaking!’
A humorous look at the vagaries of the newly English speaking community of the IT world.
It was a Friday meeting at 11 AM – ‘a status meeting’ as these are known as in Indian IT companies, quite infamously. This was way back in the late ‘90s and the meeting organizer was an industry veteran already by then. Let us call him Mr. X. One of his team-members, a young female fresher was called out by another colleague of her and she was standing at the door of the conference room peeking outside and trying to complete the discussion as quickly as possible to join back the status meeting. And just then Mr. X thundered – “Madam, if you want to finish him off, then go out and finish him. Else take him in and finish him.”
The other participants – a handful of them of different age groups and gender distribution were shell shocked just as this young, convent-educated fresher. But everyone took the boss in good banter going by his previous similar missiles. In another occasion, an American client enquired about one colleague of Mr. X with whom the American had worked before. Mr.X who had seen the same colleague pass by their meeting room a while ago nonchalantly remarked – “He just passed away” much to the bereavement of the foreign client.
The Indian software industry is one domain which right from its start way back in the late ‘60s had ventured for foreign clients and investments. Naturally the need for communicating with clients in English had been a priority since the early years. In the ‘90s with the boom of the Indian IT industry, the Y2K and in spite of the recession at the US economy at the turn of the century – the number of IT professionals have soared exponentially and so have the Indian Engineering institutes across the country.
With this inorganic growth, not only did the quality of technical education suffered a hit but the general communication skill of the students (who would join the bandwagon of the Indian fastest growing industry just after passing out of the institutes) – both written and oral were never looked at with care. With the emergence of BPOs and Call centres for the last 10 years or so, there is a general progress in the communication skills of recent graduates but there is still room for improvement before the likes of Mr. X are to be found only in written texts.
Communicating in a foreign language even though it is not very alien, has its obvious pitfalls. I remember working in a project once in a client location with colleagues from fifteen different non-English speaking countries. And then we had interpreters for a few of them – who were, obviously non-technical consultants. All this resulted in meetings on end, differences in understandings and failure as a result – collectively. The only positive probably is in exchanging cultural differences which did enrich me as an individual, if not my company’s revenue sheets.
Because, communication is more about culture and less about the language.
In today’s age of social media the written word is all that you have in many cases to understand the true meaning of communication. Unless you have known the person, in most instances you will not make out the inner feeling of the written words – the analogies used, the similes and references, the context of a pause or even an excess. But for that probably one has to spend time interacting with the other person on the opposite side of the screen – and believe me in an official environment as well you need to gauge personalities to make a meaningful communication and a fruitful conversation.
A female colleague with lot of self-pride from a quaint Himalayan city was furious when a grotesque German client in the US bluntly told her – “I don’t care if you do this”. The guy was not particularly polite but that was how he was! And he meant, he didn’t “mind” if the girl would have done something the way she wanted to do. For her, it was definitely not very “caring”.
In another instance a very diminutive Tamil Brahmin asked me shyly what the client actually meant when he told this colleague of mine – “Let me buy you a lunch”. “Does he think, I don’t have money to buy one for myself?” asked my colleague, visually perturbed and ruffled.
However, the one that tops these is when two of my young colleagues landed in the US in 1999. They were young and newly married but both travelling alone on a short term. Team-mates as they were, they decided to stay together in a rented apartment. In their project there was this elderly motherly client who instantly took a liking for these young Turks.
“You must be feeling homesick,” she started off to which they nodded remorsefully. “Where do you stay? Are you guys married?”
Suddenly their faces brightened up and one of them hastily replied, “Yes we are married. We stay together in a downtown apartment.” Little did they notice the shock on the face of this over-indulgent and meddling client who finally could muster some courage and muttered – “I never knew India was so advanced”. The more prudent amongst the two then realized the cardinal mistake and clarified – “No, we are married separately but now staying together, like bachelors”- much to the relief of their interviewer.
In telephonic conversations, which hold majority of client interactions, the technical glitches viz. line disturbances, call drops and network problems add to the ever-lasting, perennial woe of not able to decipher what the client says with his/her typical accent. At times there is a long pause from this end simply because the team hasn’t quite followed what has been told. To cover it up smart people often react “Sorry I just missed what you said, can you please repeat once more?” The smarter ones can be nonchalant – “Oh. I was actually talking on Mute” and then they would rephrase what they have understood hoping that the client will mend any gap if at all. But if this play-acting goes beyond a limit the most definite solution is to summarise “Can you hear me properly? I guess there are some problems in the line today, your voice is breaking”.
Behind and beneath these ‘broken’ conversations the Indian IT industry thrives and prospers, brings foreign currency to the country and fulfils the middle-class dream of going ‘phoren’. Mr.X and his disciples do exist these days as well, albeit in a smarter way – for otherwise, the workplace would be duller than the winters of most of our client locations.
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