Culture is all around us, and even mundane daily events can contain clues to massive cultural divides.

Street in Pondicherry, India

Do not have more than one drink in Pondicherry, India. The first drink at the hotel bar is essential, in order to calm your system down from the state of cultural confusion this Franco-Indian town induces as soon as you arrive. Any subsequent drink however, will only add to the cultural confusion. Pondicherry India is a schizoid reality-twister where there are just enough indicators — like grid-style streets with French names and fleur-de-lis patterned gates and fences — to get you thinking that maybe you are really in the Marais of Paris, or a backstreet of New Orleans; until the cows walk by, or the incense-infused humidity from the Bay of Bengal sweeps in to remind you that, no, this is not a tropical Montreal, this is still India. Last week, I found myself strolling the seaside promenade of Pondicherry, a weird Hindu-Catholic result of 18th century French colonialism in India, trying to square in my mind that I just saw a statue of Mother Mary wrapped in a sari in the local church, and just ate a croissant with my curry for breakfast. Mais, c’est vrai, namaste. You can’t make this stuff up…but culture can.

Actually, to be precise (and this is important to the story, so hang on, please), I ate my curry first at breakfast, and my croissant second. As it turned out, while I ordered both at the same time (how could I not succumb to a fresh croissant for breakfast, after having had dahl and roti breakfasts every day for the past three weeks?), the curry came almost immediately, and the croissant, well, let’s just say a little later, in Indian time. A subtle indicator that Pondicherry is, after all, still 90% India, though also still, and a bit insistently, French. But more importantly a reminder that, if you look carefully, culture provides you with clues about itself all the time, even in the smallest of things. The interesting thing is that once you tune in to culture’s signals, you soon learn that even the smallest of those signals usually indicates the existence of a massive cultural difference, often with historic consequences. Now I’m not saying that a mouse is the same as an elephant (although the mouse, curiously, is the vehicle for Ganesha, the beloved multi-armed elephant-headed Hindu god — is that why, in the west, we say elephants are frightened by mice?), but the mouse does indicate the presence of Ganesha, and, as all Hindus know, Ganesha is one hell of a powerhouse god. So, was there some seismic cultural meaning of momentous import being indicated by my delayed croissant? I was about to find out when I asked for the orange marmalade.

Pondicherry house, India

I don’t know about you, but for me about the best accompaniment to a flaky, warm and buttery croissant is a big dollop of orange marmalade. I suspect I am not alone here, as it’s been my experience that most hotels that serve up flaky, warm and buttery croissants for breakfast also serve up orange marmalade to go with it. The two go together like papadam and raita. Except in my Pondicherry hotel. The croissant came, a bit late, but no less warm and flaky…with a tray of accompaniments that included butter and ketchup, but no marmalade, orange or otherwise. The ketchup struck me as one of those odd cross-cultural mysteries not worth pursuing, but the missing marmalade was a loss that I needed to fix. So when my waiter Rajiv came around, I asked him for some. “Of course, sir”, he replied, and scurried off.

Waiting is something you learn to do in India. I suppose if you live long enough just about anywhere, you get skilled at this habit, but Indians have to learn this very early in life. Sometimes you need to wait a lifetime for something: devout Hindus learn that some things simply won’t happen in this lifetime, and you’re better off working on some good karma for the next round than trying to change anything today. After all, what you get in life has been pre-determined by your past life’s karma, so if your croissant doesn’t come with orange marmalade, hey, that’s what you’ve earned and that’s what you get. And if some other guy gets the marmalade, well, that’s his reward, not yours.

So I waited. But I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long, because Rajiv took his waiter’s role very seriously, as evidenced by his near constant checking on me and my wife to see if we needed anything every five minutes, almost like clockwork. So if some are meant to get the marmalade in this lifetime and others not, this also means that some are meant to serve, and others to be served, and if you’re a waiter, you serve, and if you are a customer, you learn to expect your waiter to check on you every five minutes. And to do whatever they can to provide you with what you need.

And what I needed was the orange marmalade.

“There is no marmalade”, my wife leaned over her coffee and announced to me.

“You think that’s it?”, I said, knowing that she was 100% right. The problem, of course, was in fact that there was no orange marmalade to be had. But Raj’s role was to serve me my marmalade, since that is what I asked for. Raj had a major existential dilemma on his hands, especially since informing me that there was no orange marmalade would mean that he couldn’t do the one thing his role required him to do: to serve me what I requested. What was Raj to do?

“Raj, I am wondering if I could have some orange marmalade with my croissant?”, I reminded him at his five-minute re-appearance.

“Of course, sir”, and he turned and disappeared.

“See, I told you so”, my wife reminded me.

This game went on, with various subtle permutations, until at one particular five-minute interval, neither Raj nor the marmalade showed up. I waited some more. Then I signaled another waiter who happened to be passing by, who inquired if I needed anything.

Mother Mary, Cathedral, Pondicherry, India. Oh where, dear Mother, is my orange marmalade?

“Yes, I’ve been waiting for some orange marmalade to go with my croissant, but my waiter never brings it”.

“Yes, yes, of course, Ill take care of this for you”, he said, and quickly left.

Another five minutes.

“You know, the marmalade doesn’t exist”, my wife reminded me. “We could be here all day. I just don’t understand why he doesn’t just tell us they don’t have any.”

“He can’t”, I said. “It would be admitting he couldn’t do his job for me. He can’t do that. If he can’t bring me what I want, he doesn’t tell me his problem…he just doesn’t show up”, I explained. Then suddenly Rajiv comes by and inquires if everything is OK.

“I am still waiting for my marmalade”, I respond, in a voice as cool as my croissant has become. I realize this scenario is going to repeat itself endlessly unless I say or do something different. I could simply do nothing, eat my dry and cold croissant sans marmalade and allow Raj to save face; or I could say or do something that would allow Raj to save face and give me the answer to what was really going on that I needed.

“Raj, it’s OK if there is no marmalade, please just let me know one way or the other”.

“I am sorry, sir. Please, I will check on this”, and off he went.

“You know, that won’t work”, my wife said. “He can’t tell you there is no marmalade. He’ll just keep trying to avoid you”.

Another five minutes, and Raj returns, with a second tray of ketchup and butter.

“Sir, we had marmalade yesterday, but I checked and there isn’t any in the kitchen today. However, we will have some more marmalade tomorrow.”

Beloved Ganesha

In retrospect, I should have simply accepted the no-marmalade situation, and not kept insisting that Raj bring me the non-existent marmalade. I certainly should not have expected an explanation as to why he couldn’t bring me any, and, best solution of all, I never should have asked for orange marmalade in the first place (but then, oh why, do they have such luscious croissants in Pondicherry?). By giving Raj an “out” (“it’s OK if you don’t have any marmalade”), Raj was able to explain the situation to me in terms that, for India, allowed him to save face (he could bring it to me tomorrow). As I explained all this to my wife walking back to our room, she asked me, in that voice used by our mothers and teachers so many times before, “And what did we learn from this?” Hmmm. Does my missing marmalade adventure indicate a greater cultural lesson, with perhaps more profound consequences than a disappointing breakfast?

One of the great challenges that direct-speaking, non-fatalistic, individualist, take-the-bull-the-horns, make-it-happen-no-matter-what westerners have when working with status-respecting, humility-focused, role-conscious, time-flexible Indians is the missed expectations these two different ways of approaching life inevitably produce, despite the best of intentions of both sides. The classic scenario of the western manager asking questions of their Indian teams which they cannot answer directly (and the Indian teams losing respect for the western manager precisely because they are being asked questions that they should not have the authority to respond to) has been repeated too many times in Indian-US workplaces, resulting in endless frustration and costly misunderstandings. How many times have these different perceptions of role and responsibility resulted in soured interpersonal relationships, costly business misunderstandings, and, in the case of Bhopal, India, a deadly catastrophe. Back in the late 1970’s a chemical plant owned and managed by a western company in Bhopal India exploded, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. One of the major contributing factors to this catastrophe, it was later revealed, were the mis-understandings of communications between Indian staff who expected their western managers to be aware of the problems in the plant and provide guidance to them as to how to fix them, and western managers who were expecting Indian workers to proactively inform them about any problems in the plant.

Some things can be so small as to become invisible, but sometimes things are invisible because they are so big. When culture is all around us, it’s sometimes hard to see it all, since it is, effectively, everywhere and in everything. But when we look at the small things, sometimes we can hear culture speaking. The cultural dynamic of India, as is the case for the west, is always at play, whether between acquaintances, work colleagues, managers and teams…or between a restaurant customer and their waiter. The curious case of my missing orange marmalade in a lovely Pondicherry café might be seen as nothing more than that. Or a window on so much more.