What, where, and when not to speak!

At times, I am quite surprised at the way, a commoner or a leader in India speaks in public. In Tamil, I have heard it said: இடம் பொருள் ஏவல் அறிந்து பேச வேண்டும் i.e. One should learn to speak what is appropriate based on where one is speaking, who the audience is, what might be understood by what one says.  Often in a conversation between two, what one wants to say, what one actually says and what the other person understands, could all be different.

Not much damage could be done by a private conversation, but speaking in public is different ballgame altogether. For example, I did not find Steve Waugh to be insensitive when he made a joke while commenting on a head injury of a player from England.  Luckily for the injured player, a scan did not find anything serious. Waugh said something like ‘I am not surprised they did not find anything when his head was scanned’. He was joking with his neighbor on the stage. Unfortunately, a mike was on and his comments were heard by many and he was criticized by the media.

In general, those who speak and communicate well, can succeed in what they do. However, in India, it is not always so.  Parochialism, nepotism, and favouritism are common and family connections can become more important than skills.  Rahul Gandhi could not have survived beyond one election in other democracies.  Once I listened to Kanchi Jeyendra Sarawathi swamigal and was distinctly unimpressed! He lacked even elementary public-speaking skills. How on earth was he chosen for a job that needs an ability to communicate well!  Clearly, good orators like our ex PM Vajpayee and ex CM of Tamil Nadu, Karunanithi could do as well in public life in India as the not-so-good Rahul Gandhi or Kanchi swamigal! Historians would have a tough time figuring this out.

For those who can read Tamil, here is an interesting blog on the importance of speech: http://thannambikkai.org/2009/04/01/2332/ .

I have been surprised by what some of our leaders have spoken in public. Our Prime Minister has been criticized for taking potshots at the opposition while on a tour to Canada. I too did not like him making such insensitive comments in an alien country.  As a head of the  nation, on a visit to another country he ought to have shown greater refinement.  It is quite obvious that many of us, including even those who hold high public offices, do not know what to speak in public.

It’s not just in politics. One might see such loose talk by leaders in academic institutions as well.  Present set of leaders may accuse the previous leadership in public, with utter disregard for propriety.  The worst part is that, the allegations could in reality be based on perception rather than fact.  What would be visible is the eagerness to appear like a messiah in public. I was shocked. How do they rise to such positions, when they don’t even know how to talk! Is it insecurity, eagerness to show off in front of anyone and everyone or simple ignorance about how to conduct oneself in public?

I have heard about one of our top scientist talking in front of high school children ridiculing ISRO’s achievements. He had demonstrated a plastic bottle fly off using a controlled explosion and had mentioned: That’s all rocket is, what is great about ISRO? He must have been piqued at or jealous of the ISRO team getting all the attention and recognition for ‘scientific’ achievements, while hardworking scientists, i.e. ones like him, did not. Many ‘real scientists’ get upset when Dr. Abdul Kalam is called a scientist by the mass media. He is a great motivator and science and technology administrator and has richly deserved all the accolades he has received.

I have heard faculty members speaking about their colleagues in a derogatory manner in front of their students in premier institutions in India. This is not something you tell your students. I have not seen such loose talk by faculty members in other parts of the world.

On another occasion, a senior scientist used the scientific session of a national symposium to criticize leaders in front of a large audience from India and abroad. The main objective appeared to be embarrassing the organizers. This could have been done when the national body organizing the symposium was meeting to discuss their activities. Several scientific bodies (s)elect as President some one who has stopped doing research for decades. While the wisdom from the elderly could help any organization, these Presidents insist on giving the first scientific talk. We do not seem to have any problems in embarrassing ourselves in front of an international audience. May be only the audience is embarrassed and the speaker feels proud about wielding power.

When I think about all these talks by the educated elite in premier institutions, what the PM has done in his first year pales in comparison. May be the Indian scientists need to take a clue from what he has done to the elders in his party.

We have not learned to respect positions. We have not learned to question authorities in a proper way, when they do something wrong. I have been wondering! Why do we have such leaders? These misfits feel they have been deprived of their just desserts, even after getting to the top.

I have a lot of hope and confidence in the youth of India. I am certain that they will not emulate their flawed leaders. Wherever you are and whatever you do, in Government or politics or an educational institution or business, be bold and speak your mind because that’s what is expected of you. But when you are talking in public, learn to be respectful; to the opposition, to your colleagues, and to your institution! And when you travel abroad, be mindful of how you project yourself as well as the image of your country, without sounding like a chauvinist. Pride is a virtue, hubris is not.

Acknowledgments: I thank my friends Ravi and Haragopal who went through the rough draft and helped in expressing my thoughts better. However, all the contents reflect the views of the author and any or all shortcomings in the blog are entirely his own.

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