India Travel: back to work

Back to Work

I didn’t even realize until the middle of the day that it was September 11. Originally I was supposed to fly out on this day, my VP and manager all said it sounded good. So I passed on the date to the travel person, and she responds via, “Are you SURE you want to travel on this day?” I call her up asking what the issue was, and she said, “you know, September 11?! We all shared an idiot moment, and I realized I was thinking about work too much.

The day passed pretty smoothly, with a lot of work getting done, everyone more comfortable with work styles and starting to be able to joke around with each other. Some important observations came up though and a critical question: why is it that the only areas in the building that are not air conditioned are the elevators packed with people and the bathrooms. You’d think that these areas would need them the most! The office is manned with a staff of people that all they do is clean the areas regularly.

There’s often two guys in the bathroom performing various cleaning chores such as wiping the mirrors of splashed water. One stall had a sign that said, “Work in Progress.” I kept thinking that it was a euphemism. Another odd trait in the bathroom area are that there is a spray nozzle hanging on the side of the wall. The only thing I can think of is that it’s sort of a quickie bidet. So here’s the common behavior when a guy walks in: he steps in front of the mirror and checks his hair, smoothing out an imagined curl that is not visible to the Westerner, then he does a quick rinse of his hands and drinks water from the tap, does a quick shake off and proceeds to the urinal, does his business and then may or may not wash his hands afterwards. This doesn’t make any sense to me to skip washing afterward, but do it before. Maybe I’m just missing something.

One of the big companies in India is called TATA. There was a Mr. Tata about a hundred years ago, and he was big in steel. I spoke with my driver Sameer about Tata, because I also saw that name on trucks and cars. Turns out they’re also big in satellite TV, broadband internet, tea and salt. There are a few other industries, but it just seems strange. I could kind of see going from steel to trucks, but what guy walked into the boardroom and said, “I’ve got the heavy manufacturing down pat, let’s try tea and salt now.” The other big company in the area is Reliance. They do consumer electronics and life insurance. Makes as much sense as the other one.

Acknowledgment

The cultural differences are becoming more apparent as I work longer with the people here. I’ve worked with Indian nationals in the past, and I’ve had trouble where you explain a project and they would nod their head, giving me the impression that they got it. More often than not, they’d miss the point. So I emphasized with my team that they ask questions, lots of them. They’ve done this, often too much. One of the big reasons I’m here is so that we can work together closely enough that there’s common understanding of styles. The one little thing that was hard for me to get is that I would ask them if they understood something and they would either shake their head (meaning No in western cultures) or do this strange kind of movement that was half shaking the head and half nodding with an occasional diagonal to throw me completely off. A crude friend refers to it as the bobble-head acknowledgement. I’ve asked them to include verbal cues to help me along.

The projects are looking better, but I also emphasized that we have only one more week before I fly out. Since I arrived at 1am in Mumbai, it seems only appropriate that I depart at 3am. This is all part of some wicked endurance test. Add to that that there’s been some mild stomach discomfort, and its shaping up to be a memorable trip.