Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The complicated Indian negotiation ritual: why decisions take much longer

In traditional Indian conversation, you are never supposed to express willingness or displeasure in a straightforward manner. So when you are having lunch with extended family, you are not supposed to clearly express that the daal was excellent and you would like some more. A similar dance is played out when arriving at agreement of any sort. The standard Indian conversation hovers on generalities with no preference clearly outlined. Most conversations are elaborate dances: both sides express a little more of their preference without clearly saying what they would like. Here is an example of a couple called Harry and Sally at a restaurant:

Harry: What would you like to eat?
Sally: Anything is good.
(At this point, you would think that they're in agreement. Well, you are wrong. Listen to the remaining conversation.)

Harry: Would fish curry be good?
Sally: Yeah, that's ok. Does this restaurant make good lamb curry, I wonder?

Harry: I guess, I haven't tried it. But I hear everything here is good. Would you like lamb?
Sally: Lamb is good too, I haven't had it for a while now.

Harry: Would you like to try their lamb curry?
Sally: That sounds good. What else is on their menu?

Harry: They have a lot of things. Their vegetable selection is also great. The pav bhaji looks enticing.
Sally: Yeah, pav bhaji sounds interesting. What other vegetables do they have?

Harry: Their cauliflower curry gets good reviews. I tried it once. It is much like the fish curry, but the fish curry is clearly better. Weren't you craving fish yesterday?
Sally: Yeah, but I wonder if their preparation of fish is good. You can get that if it is their best dish.

Harry: No, fish isn't their best dish, they make everything well. The cauliflower is also cooked perfectly.
Sally: I see. Both sound great. You know, just the other day I was telling my mom that it is difficult to make good okra, unless it is fresh. Did you know that?

Harry: No, I didn't know that. But that makes sense. Okra goes limp when it is old.
Sally: I wonder how this restaurant makes okra.

Harry: I wonder too, I haven't tried it. Would you like to try it?
Sally: Oh no, I didn't mean to imply that. Fish curry sounds great.

Harry: But now I'm interested in the okra, let's order some this time.
Sally: Ok.

All along, Sally didn't make her preference known, and neither did Harry. This elaborate ritual is even worse as the number of people increases. Going for lunch with one person is hard, lunch in a group of ten means that deciding the order can take a long time. I hope you had a snack before starting.

There's no guarantee that this ritual produces the correct outcome. Among young people and close friends, this ritual has given way to specifying direct preference. And I feel a sense of relief when I can clearly list my preferences without having the song and dance. In cases when the song and dance is involved, the outcome is usually unfortunate. And when you cannot express your preference, you certainly cannot express your displeasure at the outcome.

As the number of people increases, the outcome becomes more and more incorrect. Perhaps this is good, because it gives plentiful fodder for the gossip mill later on. "Jason was telling me that dining with Sally was such a chore, and how she was completely insensitive to Mark's needs."

This ritual is carried out not just for meals, but for many other decisions: what people want to do, where they want to go, whom they want to marry...

You notice some things only when you stop doing them. The complicated Indian negotiation ritual is one of these. Among friends and close family, I love the ability to say clearly what I want. Decisions happen quicker, and we can discuss things of consequence in the time saved.

 (Fun fact: If Neo and Morpheus were Indian, the red pill, blue pill decision would have lasted the entire movie.)