Exercise Caution While Selecting Western Values For Emulation

Values2When I began Talk of Many Things many years ago, “globalization amidst cultural differences” was one of the topics I was planning to cover on the blog. Somewhere along the line, it fell off my radar.

Now, thanks to my friend and fellow IITB alum Sanjiv Sood, Owner of Norquest Brands Pvt. Ltd., I’m back to this subject.

Sanjiv circulated this speech by Mr. N R Narayana Murthy,  Chairman of the Board, Infosys Technologies Limited to the so-called Yahoo! MADhouse Group today. Speaking at Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management, the doyen of Infosys expounded on the role of Western values in contemporary Indian society. Among other things, the speech covered apathy, civic sense, corruption, family values, private sacrifice and public good.

IMO, deep insights about local values can be gathered only by living in a certain country for a year or more. While travel broadens the perspective, it’s no match for time spent in the trenches in a foreign land. Ditto for reading books and magazines about international culture.  Having lived for years in more than one Western country, I find it difficult to accept that all values uniformly attributed by Mr. Murthy to the “West” are true of all countries in that group. Some differences:

  1. You go past any street in downtown Frankfurt, Berlin or Munich and you’ll realize how much graffiti there is. Just that they get cleaned up quickly. While working on a customer engagement, I recently learned about the amount of investment made by local counties / boroughs in people, technology and infrastructure to just clean graffiti.
  2. The amount of litter in the London Tube network is unbelievable. It’s far worse than anything I’ve seen on any form of local transit or long distance transport in India. Of course, I’ll hand it over to the Brits for their mastery in spinning such things. Couple of reasons given by locals for this situation include (a) After the July 20xx bombings in London where the bombs were concealed in trash cans, all trash cans have been removed from public transport stations, trains and buses, so there’s no choice but to litter (b) “I don’t mean this to be a racist slur but most of the littering is done by Asians and East Europeans”.
  3. In USA, lobbying records would show the huge amount of money that’s spent by businesses to fund election campaigns of politicians in return for favorable public policies – just that it’s not called corruption.
  4. In UK, £50 Led Zep concert tickets will be sold on eBay for as high as £8K. I don’t know how much “private sacrifice” happened “for public good” in that.
  5. NHS National Program for IT, Biometric Passport – these are examples of public projects in the UK that are aborted – not just delayed – after literally blowing billions of GBP of taxpayer money. For all his / her troubles, some MP would suddenly find himself richer with deeply-discounted Accenture stock options or a £400K mansion in some quaint countryside “gifted” by some vendor and Accenture / some other vendor will escape a billion pound penalty. For all the apathy about Milan Subway for 40 years, I don’t think BMC spent one paisa on it.
  6. In Germany and many other parts of Europe, you give your car for servicing. You’ll be told to collect it back after 8 hours. You go back after 8 hours, your car will be ready for pickup. Yes, that’s punctuality. On the other hand, in India, you’ll be promised delivery in 4 hours, you go back in 4 hours, you’ll have to wait at least one more hour before you can collect your car. Agreed, that’s lack of punctuality. But, with a 5 hour total lead time for the job, that’s also faster service. I’m not bringing cost into the picture.
  7. I agree that USA is the bedrock of innovation. However, as NRN himself pointed out during a recent TiECon event held in Pune, such level of innovation is lacking even in UK and Europe, not just India and China. Maybe NRN was implicitly referring only to information technology but since he didn’t explicitly make that qualification, neither will I.
  8. Lastly, most of us know the glaring difference in paid vacation between USA and Europe. For the uninitiated, it’s as few as 8 days a year in the US and as many as 20 in Europe.

I could go on but the “West” is not as homogenous as it’s made out to be.

Therefore, we need to be very careful about which value to select from which Western country to emulate in India.

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