India and the art of hospitality

India gift for the teacherI’ve just returned from a fantastic period in India teaching International Marketing to MBA students in Bangalore at Christ University, and tough as the hours were, it was great to be teaching again.   But I think what stays most with me about India is the hospitality, and the enormous sense of respect among the people of India.  I think there’s a lot to be said for a community which has thrived on the notion of respect.  In the west, a competitive atmosphere has fostered a sense of distrust and cold evaluation that has gradually eroded the notion of interpersonal respect.  While it’s a good thing that there are fewer social taboos and that authoritarianism is discouraged, it does mean that those of us who do engage in social communication online are treated with suspicion.  I’ve been amazed at the reactions from business professionals who ask me why I make myself and my ideas so available online.  When I tell them it’s because I believe that being useful is more important to me than being private, I have received everything from an arched eyebrow to an angry riposte, chastising my naivete or devaluing of my skills.  That hasn’t bothered me as such, because I have no intention of altering my social communing practices, but I’ve often wondered what it would be like if that sense of community available online were transferred offline.

Well now I know what it’s like.  You can get a version of it in India.

As a westerner, India can be utterly traumatic.  Finding your way around, and avoiding all the beggars, scam artists and ‘eve-teasers‘ in the streets isn’t easy (and don’t get me started about crossing the road), but once you are safely working with Indian people, there is a difference in the manner in which people are prepared to engage with you.  While it’s not a good idea to flaunt much skin or to be overtly vulgar, if you are generally respectful to the local community, the compliment will be substantively repaid.  Indian communities want visitors to enjoy their experiences and to feel comfortable, so they will go out of their way to manufacture that result.  Like online communities, Indian people will self-allocate themselves to tasks on the basis of skills, convenience, and access.  And if a task brings about the comfort or the benefit of visitors in particular, there’s a willingness to participate that you don’t often see in western societies – at least not on a small scale.  While westerners are known for rallying behind an issue or a community at risk, these small scale instances of individuals with minor needs are often lost or ignored.  And like online communities, Indian people have both pride in the communities they have forged, and a fair amount of openness to difference (at least beyond the immediate family).

The net benefit of this kind of behaviour isn’t just one way, either.  When people are respectful and accommodating of one another in Indian communities, their personal currency of respect is raised, and they create opportunities for future (trustworthy) interactions.

And I put all of this community spirit down to a culture of respect – respect for life, comfort, individual differences, and individual skills.  In my time teaching, I experienced the whole extent of this community spirit and hospitality with both students and staff welcoming me, providing me with advice and resources, and ensuring that my experience in India was the most comfortable and enlightening it could be – very much like my experiences of various online communities.

Of course it’s naive to think that the entire Indian culture operates with the level of respect I experienced in the safe environment of a private university campus.  And the same goes online – it’s foolish to believe that positive experiences online will be representative of all online interaction.  But I am convinced that a sense of public spiritedness and respect is key to ensure a positive experience.

The west could learn a lot from India’s art of hospitality.  Perhaps then communing online will be less associated with time wasting and danger, and more with mutual benefit.

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