A prejudiced mind with crafty oratory skills leads nowhere

Financial literacy, a key trend among todayâ  s youth.
Building a sustainable environment of interdependence is essential to business and thus to business communication. Photo: IANS

Typically, business means a form of activity conducted to earn profits for the benefit of those on whose behalf the activity is conducted.

However, this exclusive definition of business seems problematic since it focuses only on gaining economic capital, ignoring wealth creations for one and all.

Wealth may be created by generating multiple capitals, such as financial, cultural, social, intellectual, human, and natural capital.

Generally, capital is an asset that produces and increases productivity, improves the tangible and intangible value of a product or service. In addition, it provides a strategic advantage to a particular group without harming others. Thus, many have redefined business as a responsible human activity directed towards producing or acquiring wealth by buying and selling goods or offering services.

At the heart of every such action lies effective communication, enabling us to convey our true intentions to each stakeholder and share generated wealth equitably with the stakeholders. However, a business organisation becomes a covered pit when financial capital gains become the primary and often the sole objective of business activities.

Subsequently, business communication that is central to establishing organisational equilibrium breaks down.

Contrary to popular belief, business communication is not just about exchanging ideas and information. Often, societal issues affect business communication in myriad ways, leading to uncontrolled consequences. Building a sustainable environment of interdependence is essential to business and thus to business communication.

Several conflicts stem from socio-cultural differences between individuals who are the structural glue of organisations. If such conflicts are not managed on time, they hamper organisations’ ability to create and distribute wealth. Many of these interpersonal differences form a critical aspect of any organizational environment. Every individual is exposed to a set of socio-cultural norms at different stages of life.

Consequently, some of these norms are either consciously or subconsciously acquired by the individual, which in turn influence their idiosyncratic nature. We are part of different systems at different stages of life.

These systems are cohesive groups of interrelated, interdependent parts that can be natural or human-made. Every system is bound by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.

As a child we are primarily exposed to our immediate environment — i.e., our home — and this home is considered our microsystem. The socio-cultural norms followed in each home initially influence our behaviour.

As we grow up, we are gradually exposed to larger environments that form different layers of systems on top of the microsystem. As teenagers we get to interact with our neighbours, our friends from schools and clubs, and this environment is known as the exosystem. As adults, we are required to explore the world further to become informed about political ideologies, economic systems, laws that bind us, and many other aspects. These factors together create our macrosystem. In a business context, organisations need to be mindful of these systems while acquiring their human capital. When people from diverse systems join an organisation, they are likely to bring diverse perspectives to the table, which may enable organisations to take a holistic view of any problems. However, managing such diverse perspectives to arrive at an acceptable conclusion can be tedious, and often tricky.

Virtue signalling

Unacceptability towards diverse cultures and religions, perceived socio-economic divide, and caste discrimination hampers the business atmosphere in complex ways, and reduces employee morale and thus their productivity. It instigates dissonance and disrupts communication channels while proliferating discord amongst employees in the broad communication channel. It also prompts people to miss out on non-verbal cues. All these facets can be parallelly observed in our personal and professional lives. Virtue signalling, which is carved out of duplicity of behaviour, leads to distrust amongst employees and other stakeholders, further demotivating them towards pursuing external communication channels. A contemporary short film Chhi Chhi (Dirty) explores this aspect of human behaviour and communication. The film explores notions of impurity, conditioning, discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, and duplicity of behaviour dominant in urban middle-class India. The roots of this lie in our highly hierarchical and casteist society, which does not treat all human beings as equals. In many Indian societies, impurity is not just related to specific contexts but extends to how people perceive communities and occupations.

The story begins with a working mother, Shreya, being somewhat bothered about her imperfections due to the lack of lipstick (which she cannot find). She picks up her toddler son, Reyansh before visiting her colleague Juhi at her home for working on an assignment. While Shreya employs a full-time domestic help Shabana, who looks after Shreya’s toddler son Reyansh, Juhi appears to struggle finding a suitable long-term domestic help. Shabana accompanies Shreya to Juhi’s place to look after the children while both Shreya and Juhi work.

Shabana experiences various forms of stereotyping and discrimination at Juhi’s home. The very first instance is when her name is assumed to be a Muslim name. There is an attitudinal difference between the way Juhi takes in a person’s religion — Islam and Christianity. The second instance is when Juhi orders lunch only for Shreya and herself, leaving out Shabana. It gets worse when Shabana asks for a glass of water and Juhi is uncomfortable sharing a glass. Shabana is compelled to bring out her own bottle, And Juhi spills over some water while filling the bottle. The children of Shreya and Juhi consider the spilled water to be dirty and define impurity in its real essence. Conditioning trains them to think in a certain way. Ivanna, Juhi’s daughter, has been told that her excrements are dirty, but she perceives the same for drinking water, especially because of the space the water was in. We often judge the circumstance without taking into consideration the context, and this is applicable to adults as well. Shreya is visibly uncomfortable with the way Juhi treats Shabana, and leaves her place to signal her disapproval of Juhi’s discriminatory behaviour.

A moment later, Shreya, the supposedly benevolent employer who does not mind sharing food with Shabana, falls into the age-old stereotype. She assumes that her missing lipstick could have been stolen by Shabana and does not hesitate to check Shabana’s belongings. This is stereotypical behaviour because it assumes people from a lower socio-economic background to be morally and ethically corrupt. Despite Shabana’s affection for the family, as demonstrated by the pictures in her cabinet, she is treated like a thief. There is no remorse on Shreya's side post being proven wrong. In the end, the film exposes both Juhi’s and Shreya’s duplicity of behaviour and fragile values that our society conditions us to hold. Shreya herself doubts her maid on the lost lipstick due to her low social status while presenting herself as a kind and unbiased person to the larger society, which is her macrosystem. The element of virtue signalling is visible when Shreya demonstrates support for a noble social cause and expresses disgust against her friend Juhi's actions but chooses to deviate from the projected values personally. This also teaches us that poverty is present in our minds and should not be measured primarily through socio-economic status. The presence of long-lived prejudices in our minds against the people belonging to low strata explains this problem. The root cause is evident in the short film itself, where parents knowingly or unknowingly indoctrinate their children with the terrible facets of discriminatory behaviour that are strictly enforced through generations and ages.

Adopting social supremacy by some individuals in their minds has also led to such issues in our society. It also stems from the reluctance to challenge the status quo and over-importance given to self-interest. The hierarchical nature of our society leading to notions of purity and impurity leads to the events in this short film. Human beings, especially employees, are not seen beyond their social and economic labels for the true beauty that lies within them. As much as Shreya and Juhi need to change their attitudes, the larger society also needs to learn that all humans are equal.

Sustainable ecosystem

The issues in the short film influence business communication to a considerable degree. This is because the primary aspect of business communication is the process of effectively exchanging information and thought processes for equitable distribution of wealth for one and all. Unless we do so, we are not creating a sustainable ecosystem that currently threatens our existence. It is necessary to ponder the fundamentals of formal interactions to better understand how social issues hinder the process of effective communication. The fundamentals of business communication involve understanding the socio-cultural context in employer-employee relationships. This is especially important concerning this short film, because employee-employer interactions in their microsystem are just a cross-section of the larger social paradigm or their macrosystem. Unless notions of impurity, conditioning, discrimination, prejudice, intolerance, stereotyping, and duplicity of behaviour are eliminated, societies in general and organizations in specific cannot thrive. The simple actions of the protagonists showed the kind of unrealized barriers that come into effective communication.

Barriers to communication include religious and socio-economic stereotyping. Effective communication becomes hard unless basic dignity is given to every individual in social interactions and business communication. Individuals are part of a larger socio-cultural context and thus any discriminatory behaviour, when normalized, poses threat to organizational progress. Such discriminatory behaviour and communication prevent human beings from achieving their maximum potential. This is because when there is a hierarchy of opinions, the merits of hierarchically lower opinions are discounted. Not only are broader aspects of communication violated when social issues come into play, but its fundamentals are affected as well. For example, clarity of thought, courtesy, and consideration are affected when prejudice and discrimination come into play. To achieve complete isolation from discrimination, social issues must be eradicated from the workplace to enhance effectiveness of business communication. The mere removal of discriminatory practices is not enough. Promoting equality of opportunity and treatment in the workplace is also necessary. This can be achieved by providing relevant diversity training to employees during their tenure.

(Anupam Das is an Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode)

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