A Year in India

Word of Mouth
May 21, 2009, 11:30 am
Filed under: Culture | Tags: ,

I constantly find that communication methods are different in India than they are in the US. In India, information is exchanged by word of mouth much more so than in the US. This may have to do with illiteracy, a lack of technology and infrastructure, and a large percentage of the population living in isolated, rural settings.

A few examples to back up my claim:

1. My dad’s uncle lived and worked in rural Bihar on a farm with no running water or electricity. Every time he heard a piece of information – whether news, gossip, fact, or story – he confirmed its validity by checking in with four or five others. He shaped his version of the truth around strength in numbers.

2. Indians rarely find their way around a city using maps or written directions. The common practice is to leave home with a vague idea of destination (street numbers mean little in India; landmarks, instead, guide us). Along the way, Indians will ask strangers – oftentimes auto rickshaw drivers who know the city well – how to get where they’re going.

3. India is a country of languages. It has 18 official languages divided across regions. Hundreds of other local languages and dialects are also spoken. Communication, then, is often based on knowing several languages. Latha, the woman who cleans my apartment and is teaching me how to cook, does not know how to read or write, yet she speaks seven different languages. For her, speaking so many languages is more practical than literacy.

Coming from a culture largely dependent on the written word, it has been at times refreshing and at times frustrating to learn how to live in a country where word of mouth dominates communication.