Which is better- efficiency or tradition?
Anyone who has spent more than a few days in India will notice that efficiency is not a top priority. As outsiders have studied the subcontinent, this efficiency “problem” has been brushed off as a “developing country problem.” But I believe that the pushing aside of efficiency is more deliberate and has a deeper root in Indian culture.
In Indian culture, efficiency has never been the highest goal. And whenever that is the case, a culture doesn’t operate on methods of making life easy, quick or streamlined. But there are reasons for this.
I’ve outlined two Indian habits that point to the tension between efficiency and tradition: 1) the toil of simple daily survival activities 2) the obsession what other people are doing.
#1 Being Overly Occupied with the Simple Tasks of Life
Here is a small example that shows the complexities and frustrations of day to day life:
This family lives in a small hut on an empty plot. I watch the main woman of the house out my window every day. She is ping ponging around most of the morning, shifting wet laundry to the driest spot on the clothes hanging line. As you can see, every available place to put clothes is covered. She goes in and out of the outhouse washing dishes, washing more rags, all the while, chasing her half naked child so he doesn’t end up in the busy street outside the poorly latched gate.
I see her life and realize that most of her energy is spent on just the basic survival within the daily tasks of food, clothing and keeping the children safe. Where are the men? Why are they living on this plot of land? My observation is that she is fulfilling her duty as the dutiful daughter in law. She spends her time fulfilling tradition, not disturbing the men to help watch the child, spending her time cooking hand made food, piping hot just at the right time. Traditions of caste keep the men of the family in certain jobs. Societal traditions keep the whole family as caretakers where they will be the watchmen of the land owned by their “malik” or “boss.”
Even though there is a large economic disparity between this woman and the middle class, most women can relate to her plight. They feel the weight of dutiful household responsibilities, the chaos of shifting priorities and being at complete mercy of the environmental factors around them. Yet tradition and honor must be carried on.
So lets look at another behavior that hinders efficiency.
#2 Being Overly Occupied with Others’ Activities
(aka “nosy auntie syndrome”)
In comparison to Westerners, Indians spend an amazing amount of time thinking about what other people are doing. Social norms require it.
Where I live in Bihar, someone once told me that Indians will ask you 20 questions before they tell you one thing about themselves. The skilled conversationalists already know a lot about you just from what they have seen. Conversation is stemmed from observation.
After years of living in India, I find myself doing the same thing. For example – the other day when a friend pulled up to the gym late, I found myself thinking, “She must have come around the train tracks because of construction on the main road her near her house. I bet she doesn’t have a meeting today because she is arriving a bit late. I wonder how her meeting yesterday was. I bet she is skipping out on the office today because her meeting went poorly.” The thoughts went on.
As an American, I rarely would have these thoughts in a Western context. Spending energy mulling on who is coming, going, what they are doing are seen as totally irrelevant wastes of mind space . Before living in India, I used to be totally occupied with my own thoughts on work, my own projects and my family, the news, etc.
In India, if you aren’t a few steps ahead of people in conversation, they will think you are self-absorbed.
This is why Westerners sometimes label Indians to be a bit nosy or too into their business. Westerners spend very little time anticipating the actions of other people, unless it is an immediate threat or benefit to them. But in India, it is seen as a sport or hobby and even a requirement to having a connected conversation.
Americans have invented the copyright on productivity by being obsessed with efficiency. But in this obsession, there is much that is lost. We lose the nuances of relationships. We reinvent ourselves so much that we forget what is important in our most basic needs. We suffer with affluenza. We lose contact with each other. We forget what really matters.
So, which is better? Efficiency or tradition?
From my observations- The highest priorities in Indian life are maintaining traditions and honoring relationships.
These are the questions I have for today’s generation:
Are efficiency and tradition really as polarized as I think?
If so, what do you think India needs more of?
Does India need to sacrifice tradition for efficiency or can they take place at the same time?
Any habits that we need to dispose of to increase efficiency in society?
Any aspects of efficiency we need to dispose of to maintain tradition?
What do you think? Leave your comments for me and lets discuss.