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  • Writer's pictureGaurav Patil

Translating your English to my English

"Can we prepone this meeting?" I said, not realizing that the word prepone is not part of my American colleague's corpus. Vocabulary, attitude, perceived respect, sense of hierarchy, diversity, and face - in a sociological sense are some of the differences encountered by Indians when working alongside non-Indian colleagues.

YMMV (your mileage may vary) is a term commonly thrown around on the comments section of travel or shopping websites to inform the shopper that the quality of the experience or product might depend on several factors and might not align with someone else's experience. YMMV also applies to the experience one might have working in the US & Canada.

Having a north of 19,000 cities in 50 different states in the US, the diversity of colleagues, cultural awareness, sensitivity, career goals differ a lot and are sometimes a stark contrast when comparing one city to another. Having worked for companies in scantly diverse cities and an abundantly diverse city, I experienced similarities in some aspects that apply to working anywhere in the west and some idiosyncrasies in a culture that apply to specific companies.

At companies where foreign-born employees (new immigrants or people who're just here for work) form a single-digit percentage of the company's workforce, there is rarely a cultural diversity training program in place. It's derived from my personal experience and conversations I've had with my friends from India & other countries. Not having a cultural awareness and sensitivity program for all employees sometimes led to feeling non-inclusiveness (uncomfortable, insulted, or excluded) even though the other employee didn't intend any malice. An otherwise very friendly non-Indian co-worker might say something out of sheer ignorance that may get perceived very differently by Indians depending on the temperament and attitude of the individual.

The above can range from a simple comment on ethnic food to mimicking an accent and everything in between. Some other examples include curiosity about immigration intention or status, language fluency, family values, religion. These often come in the form of questions like, "Are you planning to stay here, or are you going back?", "Do you eat particular meat?" (not in the context of asking for a food preference) and the very infamous "How do you speak English so well?". More often than not, these questions don't get asked out of malice, but they do rub every Indian employee differently. The reactions to the questions might range from simply answering the questions assuming no mal intention to lecturing the other employee why some questions are inappropriate.

Another common miscommunication comes from our sense of face in a sociological sense, meaning our inability to convey that some things cannot be completed in the given amount of time or cannot be completed at all regardless of the time. It can be due to a lack of having the required skill set, the amount of workload, current headspace, ramp-up time, or simply no desire to invest work time. It often leads to us taking up projects we don't desire or stressing over accomplishing something in an unreasonable amount of time. Since we're only ever prepared for tackling the duties of the role and not the other aspects, I believe this is something we can absorb from non-Indian colleagues.

Switching gears, to talk about Indians working in a diverse company located in a diverse city. We notice that the shoe is on the other foot. In a company where the average team consists of people from more than two different countries and the countries are non-English speaking or culturally very different from India. We often encounter situations where we find it hard to develop a healthy workplace relationship even though being part of the same team. It is usually a direct result of Indian's not being exposed to non-anglo-influenced cultures back in India, similar to how a North American's first exposure to people from outside sometimes might be when they first join the workforce. We usually find people from countries that we've only heard stereotypes about growing up or never heard the names at all.

Larger diverse companies usually have a cultural diversity & sensitivity program in place. It is usually the first thing an employee learns when he/she/they/ze join the company. A barrier Indian's face when developing workplace relationships with non-Indian/non-American co-workers is language. We soon realize that knowing how to speak/understand English, and understanding complex aspects of the language such as jokes based on wordplay, English pop-culture references, and sarcasm which we often rely on for forming a bond, are completely different aspects of knowing a language. Alternatives I find that aid in the process of bonding with non-Indians are:

  • educating myself with the cultural highlights

  • learning about the geography of their region

  • leaning about significant holidays from their culture

  • watching a show that they recommend with English subtitles

While there will always be a cultural difference, I believe it is important not to lose perspective. Having perspective helps us determine the fine line between ignorance and mal intent. It helps us avoid a ton of misunderstandings in day-to-day communications. Intercultural intelligence helps us gain perspective, and it is achievable by assimilating oneself into the culture. It helps us answer the question, "Where is this person coming from?" - meaning it helps us decipher the intent.


Gaurav Patil is a cat dad, amateur photographer, and a Software Engineer. He lives in the beautiful French city of Montréal located on the east coast of Canada.

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