When we are unhappy in an Indian taxi

The first and the most intensive intercultural contact is negotiation with a taxi-driver in a foreign country. Entering a new territory we discover that taxi-drivers, first people with whom we need to find common language, do face some unfamiliar cultural orientation. Unexpectedly, in the middle of the first conversation we may realize that we do not understand what this person wants and by what rules plays.

Every time when I land on India, exit the airport and stop a taxi I start feeling myself among aliens from unknown planet. I realize, that I do not understand them and cannot read their faces, gestures, and tone of voices correctly. And always I pay more that I have planned to pay for a taxi. Why? It seems to me, that I found some answers only after three months spent in the village near Varkala.

It was my last day in Kerala and I felt nostalgic already, imagining how I will be missing our house with red roof and coconut palm tree in the yard. We had ordered “tuk-tuk” (auto-rickshaw) by phone. The owner of the tee-house had given us his relative’s phone number and we ordered his tuk-tuk twice a day during the last week. During the short phone conversation we reached an agreement with the driver about exact time and price. Interestingly, it was a very unusual practice for India — ordering a taxi in advance. Usually Indians do not plan such things. And to be honest this fact always makes me feel uneasy.

This cultural difference is registered and operationalized by Hofstede and colleagues as Uncertainty avoidance. The Russian culture is high on this dimension — 90, the Indian culture is low –40 (Hofstede, 2001). Generally speaking, it means, that we, Russians, do not tolerate uncertainty of the future, while Indians accept to the great extent the fact that the reality might hardly meet our expectations.

I acknowledge, I was aware in this critical difference in the perception of reality and I consciously made attempts to ‘relax’. Nevertheless, even after three months spent in the Keraliean village, I felt much easier with preordered taxi. I preferred to order taxi every time I could, because I knew that if I did not preorder it I would be anxious thinking about uncertainty of the future. Hofstede suggested that this feeling of anxiety is one of psychological outcomes of the tendency to avoid uncertainty (Hofstede, 2001).

Finally, 30 minutes after the agreed time the tuk-tuk arrived. The taxi was late but in India delay was perceived differently. The taxi was late, which made as drink two more cups of sweet tee, but my husband and I were relaxed because, according to the Indian standards, 30 minutes were not delay. This cultural difference may be explained by the Indian tolerance to uncertainty as well.

The ride was quite pleasant. We spent half an hour in the decorated with artificial velvet and surprisingly clean tuk-tuk. The traditional Indian vehicle looked adapted to the European hygienic standards. Since we were near Varkala, popular tourist place, the Indians behaved in the way they believed the Europeans expected them to behave. While many Europeans lived here during the season, the contact between the cultures made us closer, and we understand each other much better than somewhere in the heart of Bihar state.

At the end of the journey we realized that some part of the Mother India is left for us obscure. The driver of the smart tuk-tuk smiled at us widely and asked to pay three times more than we had agreed. I felt absolutely lost and could not believe my ears. My husband and I tried to convince the driver, reminding him about the agreement. But he did not pay any attention and looked like he did not understand what agreement meant. The driver admitted that he did not see any contradiction between the fact that we had asked him to confirm the fixed price before we went to the tuk-tuk and the fact that he finally changed his mind.

This misunderstanding may be explained by the cultural differences on masculinity dimension (high in India — 56) and low indulgence (26 — in India) (Hofstede, 2001). The Indian culture is found to be high on masculinity, it extremely values success and its symbolic representation — money. The driver did everything to achieve his goal — to earn certain amount of money in the last week of the season. For him it was socially desirable goal. But we, representatives of the feminine culture, did not respect his desire to earn money, because money is traditionally perceived in Russia as something “dirty”. Low in indulgence the Indian culture does not require the members of the society to control their desires. Furthermore, the Indian culture is found to be high on survival values dimension (Inglehart, 2014), and this fact may explain the cultural acceptance of fraud in situation where the goal is to earn money. Inglehart links survival values with «a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance». (Inglehart, 2014)

Despite the well-spread stereotype, India is not collectivistic country; it is 48 in individualism, 12 — points higher than Russia (Hofstede Values Survey). The fact that the Indian culture is half individualistic, half collectivistic explains why the driver did not confirm. However, the Indian culture is high on embeddedness (Schwartz, 2006). And one may assume that it would make the behavior of the tuk-tuk driver socially undesirable as he destroyed the harmony of the group and fooled the passengers. Although only in-group members are considered to be important in the cultures, which are high on embeddedness. My husband and I were members of out-group, and the taxi-driver knew that we would leave the village in a day. Thus, we were less important to him than the members of his family for whom he was earning the money.

As I said, my husband and I were very upset. We tried to remind the tuk-tuk driver about our agreement and insisted that his behavior was unfair. We believed, it was a very strong argument, because we were looking at the conflict from the feminine culture point of view. Also the dimension of harmony values, which are traditionally important for the East European cultures (Schwatz, 2006), might explain this strong painful feeling of unfairness.

Moreover, the Indian culture is found to be quiet high on Societal Cynicism dimension of Social Axioms — 60 (Social Axioms, Bond and Leung, 2004). This cultural orientation is associated with low level of trust and high level of exploitation. The taxi-driver was exploiting us, since he was sure that if we could we did the same to him.

Meanwhile, we were sitting in the tuk-tuk and repeating again and again ‘It is unfair”, but the taxi-driver kept smiling and asking ridiculously high prize. We realized that our argument was not working. Then my husband did something that the taxi-driver did not expect. He stood up to leave the tuk-tuk and said loudly,” OK, if you insist, I am paying you the sum, but I WILL BE UNHAPPY! Then he left. The tuk-tuk driver stopped smiling and turned white. He became very serious and said: “I do not want make you unhappy, please, take the change”. He was solemn, but he was not angry. He gave us the change and calmly left.

Why? I am still not sure. May be it was embededdness of the Indian culture. When my husband admitted that he was not happy, he started speaking in the taxi driver language, language of the traditional Hindu society, which regards the need of every sentient being to be happy. Despite the rapid industrial development the Indian society remains very traditional and religious.

The Indian culture is low in Long-term orientation — 51 (Hofstede). Which means that India is normative society, which maintains its traditions. Moreover, the Indian culture is high on Dinamic Externity — 72.5 (Bond and Leung, 2004), and this block of social axioms contains axioms rendering the strong link between religiosity and society. It includes such items/axioms as: Belief in a religion helps one understand the meaning of life. Good deeds will be rewarded, and bad deeds will be punished. There is a supreme being controlling the universe. Belief in a religion makes people good citizens. (Bond et al., 2004). At the same time, the Indian culture is high not only on Embededness, but also on hierarchy (Shcwartz, 2006), and Traditional values (Inglehart, 2014), which links with restraining traditions.

Confessing in his unhappiness, my husband became perceived by the tuk-tuk driver as someone who has the same feeling. And this feeling of happiness is supposed in the Indian culture to be very important. Indians always ask their guest the same question, which sounds strange to our ears, “Are you happy?” And it is not formal gesture; the Indians really want to know, whether they made you happy.

Somehow happiness changes everything in India. Probably, it is connected to the concepts of karma and interdependence of phenomena. Thus, when you confess that you are not happy, you reveal some damage, which was made. Also it may be explained by construct of interdependent self-construal (Markus and Kitayama, 1991). The self in India is fundamentally connected with others, while in the West we perceive each other as independent individuals. And when my husband said that the interaction with the taxi-driver made him unhappy, it changed everything for the driver who perceived his self deeply connected with others.

This Indian cultural difference seems to me so touching and so strange. The Indians do not care about many things that I care so much: microbes, personal distance, time and weather, but they care about the only thing, which is important in the end — happiness of the other. I do not understand it completely, but now, when I feel unhappy in an Indian taxi, I admit it, and, surprisingly, it always works.


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