It is amazing how much communication takes place, even before a person starts speaking. From the gait and the smile, from the clothes and the shoes. For some people, the dress becomes the trademark – a part of the personality!
Jawaharlal Nehru and the Nehru jacket with a red rose, Maulana Azad and his cap, Stalin and his uniform, Winston Churchill with the bow tie and cigar in the mouth. Now, maybe even Boris Johnson with his dishevelled blonde hair. Seeing any of these in anybody else would confuse the general public!
My first boss, an Englishman, was the one who made me conscious and sensitive to managing dress and appearance. Mr Reece himself was always well turned out in the office. A snow-white shirt, well-ironed with nice but not too stylish cuff links, a club tie of the pharma society of GB (this never changed), dark or light grey trousers and well-polished patent leather shoes.
He once told me that he had just six shirts, four pairs of trousers, a formal suit and a jacket for semi-formal occasions – with two pairs of leather shoes. Yet, he was always impressive.
He said he was surprised when he came to India to find that people had a lot of clothes with full wardrobes and yet appeared in the office as if the full bundle needed to be sent to the laundry!
The trick is in having clothes and shoes of high quality and taking care of them – not just having an extensive range and then wearing them as mismatch or poorly prepared (not ironed, not polished).
Of course, I realised that if there were more like John Reece, many stores would have closed, and so would companies – which cater to and tempt people to have more and more, with diversification. Also, I do not know whether the Reece principle would apply to women – because in this segment, diversification and difference is the key.
Yet, dress and appearance IS communication. And beyond that, there will be cultural norms in different parts of the globe, like pointing a toe at an Arab, even inadvertently, in a conversation setting. (One needs to keep both feet firmly on the ground). Or standing even one step up when talking to a Japanese (again considered an insult). Both are expected to be at the same level.
In one culture, looking directly (eye contact) while speaking to another is considered good manners and a sign of integrity. In another culture, not looking directly is considered good manners and not offensive or insolent.
Again, it depends on whether you are talking to a man or a woman! If dress and appearance is shoddy, customers assume that the product or service being offered will be similarly presented- although this may be an unreasonable assumption.
There are also some unwritten rules in communication that go beyond words or dress. Most Asians will have to be asked two or three times to have some refreshments - whether coffee, wine or dinner. It is considered impolite to say YES, right away. After the second or third offer, maybe it is alright (with a show of reluctance – ‘ You are taking too much trouble’, or ‘I have just had a meal’ or ‘really no fuss’, and so on).
I still remember a guest who said ‘no’ to my offer of some whisky and finally agreed to my third request. ‘But a very small one,’ she insisted. I followed her instruction. The glass was soon empty. I offered a refill. Yes, she said –‘But let it not be just soda, this time also’!
Yes, I had made a mistake and had misunderstood the communication.
There was also my friend Tony from Germany, on his first visit to India –who had not prepared himself for the trip (not read Vieira’s World Passport!!). At a dinner hosted by his friend in Mumbai, an Indian, vegetarian thali meal, they kept refilling his katoris (small containers) with different vegetables and curries.
As a bowl got empty they filled it again, despite his protestations. After about six such bouts, he was ready to burst! Tony did not know that he had to put his hand over the container to cover it when the server came round. Just shouting NO, would not be heeded as correct communication!
One keeps learning all the time. Communication is life – from birth to death – in one form or another. One can keep getting better and better, but education is never complete.
At the bus stop in Goa, I saw a large poster which said:
WE NEED CHANGE
BUT YOU BRING CHANGE
WE CANNOT ALWAYS GIVE CHANGE TO YOU
(Martins, bus conductor Mapuca to Panjim). This was in small letters at the bottom of the poster.
While I was mentally complimenting the bus company for being so visionary about the nation, I realised that this appeal came from the bus conductor who was on the regular service between two towns, in Goa, talking about money (exact change) for the bus ticket!
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest books are “5 Gs of family Business” with Dr Mita Dixit and “Marketing in a Digital/ Data World” with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)