06 Jan 2019 17:17 IST

When you give your word and not mean a syllable of it

That’s the work ethic in India, by and large. It’s time that changed. Just do it.

I have only just started reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming, after the whole world and all the planets have already finished discussing it threadbare. In the very second page of the memoir — the preface, to be exact — she talks about her father teaching her to work hard, laugh often and keep her word, and right there is a lesson for us. Keep your word. It’s the hardest thing to do, or a matter of lowest priority, depending upon perspective. In my experience, it has often been the latter, certainly in India and things Indian.

This is ironic because we set so much store by the lines in Tulsidas’s Ramayan which go: Raghukul riti sada chali aayee, praan jaaye par vachan na jaayee. There’s even a movie been made with the title Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye. That is, it’s been the tradition in this country that we keep our word even at the cost of our lives. We will die but we will always abide by a promise. Strong sentiments. Worthy value even if a little OTT. In reality, though, these sentiments are simply straws in the wind polluting our psyches and collapsing the inner core of our characters. We have neither will nor wish to live by what we commit to, nor is anybody going to lose any sleep except those to whom promises have been made and who are naïve enough to believe them.

What’s professional?

Okay, so let’s not value judge this aspect of our national characteristic. Let’s not take the high moral ground. Let’s be clear-headed and objective. Let’s talk professionalism and leave the work ethic out of it. I have only recently been working freelance, after almost 40 years as a ‘salaried’ employee. It’s freeing on the one hand; it is also a rollercoaster of a learning curve.

The big lesson on the work front has been that we take this business of contracts very lightly. In many instances, the practice of drawing up a contract setting down terms and conditions doesn’t seem to exist. Word of mouth appears to be first and last recourse. And we know what that means. Where there is talk of contract, it is often drawn up and signed well after the job’s been undertaken — on the basis of a word being given. And we know what that means. In fact, this can happen with appointments to jobs as well. All on someone’s say-so.

Alright then, let’s assume some major movin’ and shakin’ and a contract’s been drawn up and signed in triplicate, all padded up with a file folder to store each copy of the contract. So far so good. The job’s done and delivered. What comes next? Payment. That’s when the waiting game begins. It’s Endless Days and Endless Nights. Endless Wait. Makes a good title for a movie because it’s only in the world of make-believe that the business of making good on terms and conditions exists.

Oh, in case you feel this is just a big gripe from a small player and therefore inconsequential, please note that this is a big gripe from large companies and organisations as well. Another way of referring to this condition is ‘total lack of professionalism’. Governments past, present and future hold forth on the need for us to create employment opportunities by starting businesses thus creating wealth and boosting the economy. But when nothing moves at any level right from the start and even when there’s no question of ‘giving your word’ but merely expecting a ‘professional attitude’, what can anybody do but give up? Those who have managed to get past this wall of solid unprofessionalism deserve great honours. It’s no wonder that we value corruption so highly in India because that, my friends, is your meal ticket. Take it or leave it because there’s no way we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do: that’s just for the saying of it, not for the doing of it.

Never on time

Professionalism is the ‘key to quality and efficiency’. Chris Joseph writing about the characteristics of professionalism lists them as appearance, demeanor, reliability, competence, ethics, maintaining your poise, phone etiquette, written correspondence, organisational skills and accountability. Which means you have to be neat and appropriately dressed, confident not cocky, prompt in following up, know what you’re doing and keep yourself updated, act upon positive values, turn the other cheek yet hold your own, speak clearly and politely, write clearly and politely, keep things in order and plan well, and be invested in what you’re doing as you take responsibility for it. How do you rate yourself by these characteristics?

In my book, the biggest deal-breaker is lack of punctuality. We’re the world’s largest society of late-comers. We’re majorly NOT: Never On Time. And we always have perfectly valid reasons, the most common being ‘traffic’ and ‘late aayidchi’ (it got late). Who can argue with either? Someone I know who worked at Bengaluru airport once held a passenger back from boarding his flight because he had arrived way past the cut-off time. ‘It was the traffic,’ the passenger complained. ‘You didn’t know there would be traffic?’ asked the airline official. The passenger happened to be a very famous cricketer but as far as this airline official was concerned, that made no difference. ‘Traffic’ was the least convincing argument.

Works every time

NOT applies equally to work situations as well as to recreational and casual situations. Meeting at a particular time to practice for the inter-class music competition? I’ll bet more than half the individuals will be late by at least half-an-hour. Friends going to a movie together? Better carry your own ticket. Or meeting at a restaurant? Best pick a table and order something because it will take a while. Getting picked up to go meet a friend? Be prepared to wait. And wait. Maybe even an hour. Also, be prepared to find the friend at the other end totally unprepared for your visit even if you called (such professionalism!) and fixed the programme and even reconfirmed it.

I have this problem with punctuality: I am always early. And then I grumble about having to wait, about people not valuing other people’s time, and so on and so forth. There is a simple solution, though. Follow the NOT principle. It works. Every time.

But really, is that the final answer?