Monday, July 18, 2011

"Yes", "No" & "OK" - In India and US

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(This blog post is written by Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach settled now in India. Originally from US, she did her Masters in Social Work from Madras Christian College in Chennai. Here she shares one of the cross cultural differences she experienced while doing Masters in India.)
As the professor gives directions and instructions, the student will nod his or her head back and forth and say "OK" or "YES" ("Yes Sir/Ma'am"). As an American this behavior really confused me when I came to study in India. I kept thinking "These instructions are complicated, but my classmate says OK and YES. Does he or she really understand that?".Of course in many cases my classmate may not have understood it or understood it partially. So, why was the person saying "OK" and "YES"? 
Just being around this behavior for months on end, I picked it up instinctively. But, when I said "OK" and "YES" I also realized I was not saying those things because I agreed. So why say it if I don't agree or understand? 
In these situations "OK" and "YES" are generally said when the professor pauses in their speech, the abruptly continues. The "OK" and "YES" have no real meaning except to show that the student is listening and that he or she is trying to keep the conversation going. In fact, in talking with many Indians, they get confused when I am silent for a long time asking me if I am paying attention or listening. So then I will start saying "OK" or "YES" to let them know I am still there and listening. I may not agree to anything or understand what they are talking about, just encouraging the other person to continue talking. 
Because Americans think "OK" and "YES" mean agreement and understanding - not a way to keep conversation going, it's good advice for Indians who have this behavior to try to stop this in USA. So how do you overcome this?
  1. Stay silent while the other person is talking. If there is silence for too long say "Is there anything else important for me to know?" (Direct the question toward yourself; it'd be rude to say something like, "What else do you want to tell me?") 
  2. Observe the etiquette - verbals and non-verbals of your American classmates/coworkers in interacting with bosses/professors. How do they interact, respond and keep the conversation going? How is that different than in India? How is it the same? How do you see changing to help you be understood better in an American situation? 
  3. When the professor or boss is done talking about the directions or instructions he or she may ask if you have any questions. Use this opportunity to your best advantage. Don't say NO if you actually do. Two of many possible ways to broach questions:
  • "Yes, actually I do have a question. I need to do XYZ for the project. This was given in your directions. But I don't know how to do this. This is something new for me. How can I get help to learn how to do this?" When asking the question, the tip is to direct the question to something specific the teacher has mentioned. This shows you have been listening and you have picked out exactly what you don't understand. This way you aren't wasting the teacher's time and he can pin point your problem and give ideas to help you with it much quicker.
  • If you don't know what you want to ask, you can say "I have noted what I need to do, and I know I will have questions. Let me start the assignment and can I ask you the questions after I started the project? What is the best way to approach you by e-mail, telephone, during office hours or in class?" (Ask for contact information if the professor says  by phone or e-mail and you don't have it.) 
These are just a few tips on managing cross-cultural communication when you move to US for studies or work from India. As I learn more tips, I will be sharing them here.
Thanks for reading. This tip is inspired by the training - "Secrets of Success on An American College Campus”.
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