Being frustrated when unable to understand a thick accent does not make someone a racist, but your reaction is key.
A great local fish store is owned by a husband and wife team. I love the place, am friendly with them, and love shopping there. However, they often leave the store in the care of people who speak little English. They may be relatives of the wife, who is Asian. Having to use body language, hand signals, etc. is a deterrent for me, but I love the couple and the store and want them to thrive. I am sure this is hurting their business; even I sometimes leave after futile attempts to convey what I need. Do I tell the owners? How?
Carefully. Very, very carefully.
I like the way you’ve framed the problem. Rather than launching into a racist diatribe about “foreigners who won’t even speak Canadian,” you’ve set the issue up in a way that is reasonable and respectful. You’ve tried, but remain frustrated by an inability to communicate with the folks behind the counter.
I suggest that you speak to the owners quietly, when there are no other customers in the store. Describe your concern exactly as you’ve told it to me. Make sure they understand how great you think their store is, and how much you want them to succeed. And leave it to them to act however they think is appropriate.
The version of your problem that is more difficult is the one where you phone a customer service centre — say for Bell, Rogers or whomever — and get an agent whose accent is so thick you can’t understand it. For many people, especially those whose hearing is less than 100 per cent, this is very frustrating. They’ve waited 30 minutes on hold (“your call is important to us”); now they’re trying to explain their problem to someone they simply cannot understand.
If you don’t think this is a major frustration for older people, you haven’t been eavesdropping on enough conversations at your local Tim Hortons.
Being frustrated in this situation does not make someone a racist. The required skill set of anyone working in customer service should include the ability to communicate, so don’t feel guilty about not being able to deal with someone lacking that skill. When you take your car to the garage, it’s reasonable to expect that the mechanic knows how to change your oil; when you phone a call-centre, it’s reasonable to expect that the person who answers the phone knows how to communicate in whatever language the centre operates.
Once again, the key thing here is the way you frame your concern. Lashing out at the agent on the other end of the phone, berating her for her “bloody accent,” is not the way to go. She has a crappy job earning lousy wages; she’s worked hard to get where she is, and speaks English a whole lot better than you speak her first language. So don’t dump on her.
It is, however, perfectly reasonable to say, “I’m sorry, we just don’t seem to be communicating. Would you mind transferring me to another agent?” If that doesn’t work, ask, again politely, to speak with a supervisor, and work your problem through from there. Assuming, of course, you still remember what your problem was in the first place.
In 2015, Modi must resolve inner contradictions
By Amulya Ganguli
The year ended by confirming the BJP’s upward mobility when the alliance led by it secured a majority in the Jharkhand assembly and the party put up its best ever show in Jammu and Kashmir. But there is a hint in both the elections that the party’s ascent may not continue to be as smooth and effortless in 2015 as it has been in 2014.
In Jharkhand, for instance, the BJP could cross the half-way mark in the 81-member legislature only with the help of its ally, the All Jharkhand Students Union, which added five seats to the BJP’s tally of 37, which was way down from the 58 assembly segments which the BJP won in the general election six months ago.
What is more, the BJP’s victory rath (chariot) came to a halt outside the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley, showing that it is only the party’s vote bank of the Hindus of Jammu who supported it while the Muslims gave it a wide berth since the BJP could secure only 2.2 percent of the votes in the valley.
The reason for the rebuff by the minorities is clear enough. They have been angered and disheartened by the aggressive anti-Muslim and anti-Christian campaigns of the Hindu supremacist RSS and its rabid affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal.
These fundamentalist outfits have seen the BJP’s rise to power at the centre as the most opportune time to push their fascistic idea of converting secular India into a theocratic Hindu rashtra (nation). There is little doubt that if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unable to rein in these members of the Hindutva Gestapo, then his memorable and unexpected victory in the general election will begin to unravel.
It is worth recalling that the BJP’s success in May was the culmination of a series of political victories which saw the party win assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and emerge as the first party in Delhi at the end of 2013.
While the BJP’s success story can be said to be continuing, its main adversary, the Congress, is going steadily downhill and has now reached a stage when its revival seems to be nearly impossible. The reason is its inept leadership, comprising the mother-and-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, both of whom palpably lack political charisma (which used to be the Nehru-Gandhi family’s forte), intellectual acuity and an economic vision in sync with the modern world which has lost patience with socialism, which the Gandhis seem to prefer.
As a result, the Congress has lost virtually all the major elections for more than a year while the BJP has forged ahead. Only in several by-elections, notably in Rajasthan and, surprisingly, in Gujarat has the Congress fared well but they have been too few and far between to rejuvenate the party.
In contrast, Modi has all the requisites of a winner – charisma, oratorical skill, a forward-looking economic agenda and administrative acumen with a hands-on approach. But his Achilles heel is the RSS, VHP and other Hindu militant groups like the Dharma Jagran Samiti, which has been organising the proselytizing ‘ghar wapas’ (homecoming) campaigns to woo the minorities back into the Hindu fold.
It is not that Modi is unaware of what’s hobbling him. But, in a way, he is helpless because having spent all his life in the fundamentalist environment of the RSS shakhas and among its karyakartas (workers) – Modi himself was once a pracharak (preacher) – it must be now very difficult for him to turn against them even if he knows that they are harming his development plans.
Although he has partially succeeded in taming the hardliners by persuading them to put off the issue of constructing the Ram temple by a year in keeping with his Independence Day call for a moratorium on sectarian animosity, he doesn’t seem to have reckoned with the penchant of the extremists to conceive of one divisive idea after another – love jehad, ghar wapsi, bahu lao-beti bachao and so on.
The last-named campaign is the obverse of the love jehad programme. While the latter warns Hindu girls against being trapped by Muslim boys into marriage, the bahu lao-beti bachao slogan advises Hindu boys to marry Muslim girls while saving their own sisters.
As a result of the xenophobia propagated by the votaries of Hindutva with claims that India exploded an atomic bomb in prehistoric times, as was stated by Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, MP, and invented plastic surgery – an assertion made by Modi himself – India is passing through a surreal atmosphere where a pro-market economy reflected by the glittering malls and multiplexes is coexisting with articulations redolent of an unscientific and unsophisticated worldview.
This contrast is also evident in the government-forming negotiations between the BJP and Muslim-majority parties of the Kashmir valley like the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, which the saffron hawks regard as pro-separatist and, therefore, anti-national.
Unless Modi can resolve these contradictions between a 21st century government and the Hindutva radicals by coming down heavily on the latter and resolutely pursuing economic reforms, the earlier optimism associated with him will disappear.
The gainer from any such inability will be the Congress and the other opposition parties whose stalling of parliament over the antics of the saffron activists has compelled Modi to take the ordinance route to pass crucial pro-reforms laws. But such bulldozing tactics are a sign of the prime minister’s, and the democratic system’s, failure.
If Modi nevertheless opted for them, it is to divert attention from the antics of the Hindutva fanatics. He will have to pursue the economic reforms – the road to middle class hearts – even more energetically if the BJP fails to stave off the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP) challenge in the Delhi elections which are likely to be held in February.
In 2013, the BJP came first in Delhi. But coming first will not do this time, for it will show that the Modi wave is petering out. Even securing a majority may not satisfy the BJP top brass if the AAP comes anywhere near the 28 seats it won last time. In that case, Modi will have to confront the saffron brigade head-on in a face-off reminiscent of Hitler’s night of the knives.
Courageous of Modi to talk of toilets from Red Fort
By Saeed Naqvi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s courageous elaboration in his maiden Independence Day speech, on the nation’s need to build toilets had in it a touch of Acharya Vinoba Bhave. It also brought back a Devi Lal story.
During a visit to China, Devi Lal, then India’s agricultural minister, made a great impression on the Chinese leadership by his knowledge of things agricultural. Even though he had been invited to study Chinese agriculture, his hosts found his observations and queries so insightful that they took him to more and more places so that they too could learn from his asides.
On one field trip, Devi Lal, the tallest Jat from Haryana, towering above his Chinese counterpart in every sense of the term, stood on a piece of high ground, put his hands on his hips, and began to survey a mega farm. The Chinese waited for his pearls of wisdom. Devi Lal leaned over and whispered something in the Indian ambassador’s ear that made the emissary, an expert Mandarin speaker, turn pale, then white as a sheet.
Devi Lal had whispered a simple question. “Kisaan tatti kahan kartay hain?” (Where do the peasants shit?) The Chinese, prolific spitters off the main highways, do, nevertheless, have a sense of delicacy about the theme Devi Lal had touched upon.
In the dictionary of his mind, the ambassador translated “shit” into “nitrogenous waste matter” for which expression he found a suitably ornate word in Mandarin. When he communicated the query to the Chinese agriculture minister, he froze and blinked and blinked and shook his head like a sage who had seen light. Devi Lal had spotted the biggest gap in Chinese agriculture: want of adequate toilet arrangements for peasants.
I have embellished this Devi Lal yarn with a purpose. Middle class squeamishness sometimes obviates scrutiny of basic issues. It was courageous of Narendra Modi to have dwelt on the absence of toilets in the countryside and on the shame of our unclean cities. He touched on numerous other themes. When even our Gods and Goddesses are manufactured in China, it is time someone spoke of reviving Indian manufacture. That is an idea whose revival will take time.
Toilets for rural households and cleanliness in cities is a revolution the Modi government can start tomorrow.
Let us not talk about Gujarat which is probably much better off in this regard than Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Let him begin with the National Capital Region where, by Modi’s own definition, he is still an outsider. Before staleness sets in, let him appoint an official in his own office with a strict mandate: in six months to a year, the official must have in his hand a comprehensive blueprint for toilets for Delhi’s villages and the hundreds of thousands of pavement dwellers. Nobody knows where they go for their ablutions. Also, there must be a plan for the removal of garbage dumps.
Let this official be a regular member of the Indian Administrative Service. Try giving him a suitable job description, say, Secretary Toilets. My guess is that he will bolt the service, go back to his village and arrange a hundred havans to get this Rahu out of Ketu in the quickest possible time. If he happens to be a Muslim, Deoband will launch an agitation.
Alright, for national tranquility, let us call him Officer on Special Duty. Let this OSD begin his inquiries by visiting important hotels, hospitals, major multistoreyed blocks and seek out the managements to show him the toilets on the premises. He will discover that those manning these facilities are six inches shorter and a few shades darker than other management cadre on the premises. They are not even on the rolls of these outfits. They cannot be. How can a toilet cleaner be promoted as a lobby manager, for example. How can he even dream to ever become a Food and Beverages manager?
Garbage dumps, thousands of them around the city, cannot be removed for similar reasons. Rag pickers employed to load the garbage trucks have found a market, heaven knows where, for the scrap they pick from the garbage bins parked in these dumps. A chain of interests has developed around each one of these. They have become sources of livelihood.
Outside of India I have seen men and women find privacy behind the sand dunes in, for example, the Sahara desert. The picture cannot be very different in the sandier part of the Thar Desert. Within an hour of daybreak, every particle evaporates in the sharp “shams” or sun.
In Europe, atleast upto the 18th century, ablutions were a taboo. Wolfgang Mozart and his brothers died young of ailments from lack of washing. In Andalusia, on the other hand, a culture of Hamams and libraries prevailed since the arrival of the “Moors” in the 8th century. In fact one of the charges during the Spanish Inquisition after 1492 was quite extraordinary: “He Bathes”. This history has something to do with the culture of toilet paper introduced by the British in the colonies even where, otherwise, plenty of water was available.
A tropical country needs ablutions for minimal hygiene. It required considerable self belief for Modi to dwell on the theme at such length on such an occasion.
PM Narendra Modi’s high-risk plan: My actions will talk
Message from the Prime Minister: I won’t talk, even if you guys keep talking about my not talking.
Naturally, therefore, pundits are puzzling over why the great communicator of Campaign 2013-2014 has turned into a grim Sphinx. This critique is half-wrong. To expect Prime Minister Narendra Modi to communicate even at half the intensity and frequency of Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi was unrealistic, even foolish.
Just because the media isn’t getting a regular supply of PM quotes doesn’t mean the PM is failing at communication. The job calls for relatively infrequent but weighty and tactically-timed interventions.
But the media is also half-right. There’s no good explanation, with 100 days of the new government coming up, why the PM should communicate only through formal speeches and bland tweets. This is a rambunctious democracy that delivered a remarkable verdict for a politician – therefore in terms of unwritten but well-understood rules of democratic engagement, that politician should have talked in the real sense of the term at least once by now.
When you combine this with the PM’s gag order on his ministers, the whole thing looks even odder.
So, what’s up? Are the PM and the BJP brass thinking that their private communications in a whatsapp group should suffice? Obviously not. And let’s never forget Narendra Modi is a very clever man and he wants more than one term and he wants to leave a mark.
Therefore, the reason he is not talking is not because he’s acquired some delusions or because RSS is keeping him jumping or because he’s new to the job – he’s not talking because he has a plan.
And that plan, it seems, is that he wants his actions to speak for him – as in, he wants voters and the media, strictly in that order, to see what Modi does and let that achievement substitute for Modi talk.
Let your actions speak for you is of course a noble intention. But it’s a homily that, if followed as rigorously as the PM seems intent on following, can be high-risk strategy in the world of modern governance.
There are two reasons why this high-risk, one has to do with substance, the other, with image.
In terms of substance, the lag between wanting to do something and getting it done, or even getting it started, can be long or frighteningly long in any major country, and most so in India. Also, good intentions can produce perverse consequences.
So, the let-my-action-speak-for-me strategy of a non-communicative PM risks getting wrong messages out because the action-to-result equation is always a troublesome, especially when you start a new term. This is because expectations are the peak when a term begins while results, inevitably, are far away. What will fill the vacuum? People’s patience? It never works that way.
Indeed, talking less, say, two years into the term makes more sense than talking less when you begin the term.
This leads us to the second reason why Modi’s non-communication strategy is high risk – it can start curdling his image. What’s Modi’s image? That he’s a doer. How does he keep burnishing that image? By doing stuff, obviously, but because, as we noted, it takes time to do things, he keeps the image intact by talking about doing things.
A modern democracy is a beast that needs periodic feeding of juicy morsels. The juiciest morsels come from the most powerful. If the most powerful chooses to starve the beast, the beast will react. Indeed, if the PM listens carefully, rumblings have started.
These rumblings will not subside even if makes a staggeringly dramatic and substantive Independence Day Speech. That will suffice for a few days, sure. But the beast will still need periodic feeding. After all, the PM gave a fine parliament speech after the President’s address. But that worked for only so long.
Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, elected with an impressive mandate by a voluble, impatient democracy that bought his image as a man who gets things done, risks blurring that image if he decides that Modi action is a permanent substitute for Modi words.
Message to the Prime Minister: Sir, start talking now and then, because all this talk about your not talking can be worse for you than you may think.
~ Saubhik Chakrabarti
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