“Art of Communication” (“The Statesman”)

Art of Communication

The Importance of Imagination and Private Emotions

The Statesman

Kolkata, 15 April 2012 (Editorial)

By Martin Kämpchen

Asked which are the difficulties I face in India, my reply will be: One is communication. Why? I would probably be asked back. We are such a communicative people – do we not constantly interact with our family, with our colleagues? We are even not embarrassed to communicate with unknown people in public spaces. How can you claim that communication is a problem? We are almost addicted to communicating on our mobiles, keeping them open even during meetings and events. I agree; one of my friends even answered calls while the Brahmin priests married him off. Meetings are constantly interrupted by ringing phones and I am yet to see somebody who heroically resists replying. There is indeed a lot of communication.

The problem I speak of is elsewhere. My focus is on the reliability of communication. It often happens that I am invited to a seminar or a dinner. I accept and note the date and time in my diary. Invariably, a day or two earlier, I will get a phone call reminding me of the commitment. I will be left wondering why a reminder was necessary. Do people think that I am so forgetful or irresponsible? Or when I have promised to, say, write a letter, contact a person, or visit an office, the petitioner rings me up numerous times to inquire. Finally, I’ll say that I am a man of my word and that I will do as promised. But I realise that the “system” requires them to exert such kind of pressure. These reminders do not point to an active distrust in my sincerity. By the same token, when I make a request, I have to “chase” the person (as the expression goes) until it is honoured.

Surely, such routine reminders and reconfirmations often originate from a lack of education, or of the right kind of education. It acknowledges the fact that normally no importance is given to exactness, to the words precisely as they were uttered. Why is this so? – I have a few ideas to offer on the subject.

The Bengali language has the beautiful expression mukher katha, which are words uttered without really meaning them. They are said in order to console or get rid of somebody or to delay a decision. Both partners of the conversation well know that these words are said casually, perfunctory. In this society we have a genuine difficulty to say No to anybody, especially to family members and friends. Many prefer to say anything short of a No to make themselves and the other person feel comfortable. This is an endearing quality because it reveals a certain parental softness and solicitousness, even though it makes the final No all the harder to bear.

There is another variety. Let us say I have told a friend that I will visit him this evening. Later, he hears that somebody has seen me on a riksha heading towards the railway station. My friend assumes that I have changed my mind for whatever reason and left by train. Hence, he is absent when I go to meet him at the appointed time. When I phone him up he, highly embarrassed, exclaims: “But I thought…!” This “assuming things” is very common. We often interpret the words of others, we try to understand what the other person has “really meant”. Wanting to be helpful, we begin to imagine. The result may indeed be helpful, but as often – see my example –  it is not.

My personal explanation for this is that people in India are deeply influenced by their age-old mythology, or saying it differently, by story-telling. A mind dominated by rationalism would strive to communicate with mathematical exactitude. “A” is transmitted as “A”. While a “mythic mind” will tend to feel a personal story behind the information and tell that story as part of the information. “A” becomes “AB”. As the information spreads from mouth to mouth “A” may become totally obliterated. A “mythic mind” understands the facts of life as a web of stories, while the “rational mind” views it as a series of laws, facts and logical deductions. I have always been fascinated by the special gift of story-telling which, as mentioned, is derived from India’s uninterrupted mythology and is one reason why modern-day Indian literature in English is such a huge success throughout the world.

Communication in its original sense is direct, it is a person-to-person contact. So if you wish to say something crucial, give an important invitation (for example to a marriage) it is imperative to meet the other in person. No letter, no eMail, no phone-call will do. This is another wonderful trait I observe in this country: the emotional need to come face-to-face. In spite of virtual reality – television and computer and telephone – making incursions into daily life, directness retains its value and necessity. The next best thing is the mobile phone which, as I have observed, has become a craze in a short time. But an eMail letter is already emotionally not quite satisfying, and I see many not taking it seriously as a means of communication and they don’t react to it.

This face-to-face communication is essential not just to exchange information, but in order to make communication possible on an emotional level. When European friends find it difficult to, say, get things done in an office, I give them the following advice: First establish an emotional bond. Take your time to speak of your family, of your children, of your religion, of your sorrow about the departure of a beloved one. Don’t hesitate to sincerely return personal questions. Only then begin your official business. You’ll see how much easier it will become. Such emphasis on the private sphere is indeed heart-warming as modern life tends to steer away from a regard for the personal. But it is also risky as the objective merits of the communication at hand may become fudged.

Summing up, communication is always more than an exchange of information and conveyance of decisions. It is bound up with the imagination, with stories looming, with private emotions. Communication has a creative, imaginative side to it, at the expense of a definite structure. Having said all this, I am mystified by the pronounced Indian gift for the mathematical sciences where “A” forever must remain “A” and can never be taken as “AB”. India has had celebrated mathematicians, it enjoys world dominance in computer programming. There exists a veritable army of people with a real knack for working the computer where using just one wrong key can overthrow hours and days of meticulous work. How is it that this trait does not easily and naturally flow into inter-personal relationships? How do these two gifts exist side by side? What underlying quality binds them together? – I wonder.

The author is a German scholar based in Santiniketan. He recently received the Merck-Tagore Award for his special contribution to Indo-German cultural exchange.

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