June 2, 2010

Five Indian Minutes

Throughout many years I have worked along side people from the Indian subcontinent. I have met few people more pleasant than these- they are polite, non-confrontational and rarely angry. It is a culture that emphasizes harmony and humility above all.

One cultural peculiarity that I would like to describe is the time-stretching phenomenon which Indian people include in their business practices. It is their " five minutes" phrase, which is probably as sincere and truthful as the Anglo-Saxon " How are you?".

To illustrate my point: let's say I visit a travel agent who says " I will be with you in five minutes". You relax and wait five minutes. However, the time drags on. It is now close to twenty minutes, but he still has not finished his other thing, and is still not paying any attention to you. The same with an Indian cab driver: " How long is it from here to there?" "Five minutes" ." That' s not far, I can deal with that". The ride turns out to be 30-35 minutes if you are lucky.

So, if an Indian man tells you it is going to take five minutes, please do not take it literally, but automatically multiply it by six. 5 x 6 = 30. That is how long it will take. However, telling you that it will take 30 minutes will make you angry. So, why not pacify you and tell you what you want to hear- “five minutes“? Punctuality is politeness of kings. Fake punctuality is politeness of Indians. Just as fake concern about your health is the politeness of the Brits.

Incidentally, by the same token , “10 minutes” also needs to be multiplied by 5 or 6.

With longer time periods - from say, 40 minutes to a day, multiply by three or four. If an Indian man tells you it takes 40 minutes, it is going to take three hours. If he tells you that it will be ready tomorrow, add another 2-4 days. Such seems to be the culture and other Indian people do not complain. They probably know about this rule and never take these numbers literally. They simply calculate the real time in their minds. The speaker never actually means "5 minutes" and is probably surprised that you think he does.

It is just like the American " We should get together one of these days" - do not bet on it. Or " I'll call you" - meaning- "I do not need you". Or the Japanese "It is a little bit difficult" meaning "Impossible". If you understand that people say one thing and mean another, you will be able to plan accordingly. After all, they do not act like this out of malice, but they expect you to read between the lines and schedule your time in accordance with the time frame they indirectly give you.


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