“I have contacts in xyz company, he can get you a job”, “My contact at abc school will see to it that you get a seat for your child”, “My husband is DGP of police, if you have issues with your passport, he can sort it out for you.” The number of times one hears, and occasionally, utilises these invitations during “helpless” times will resonate well with the average Indian. Establishing “connections” with the rich and the higher power holders in society is almost a rite of passage for the average Indian man or woman who ventures out of his/her family (over)protection and into the big bad world. And sometimes, the person in question need not even be rich or powerful – a waiter who can get you a table quicker by favouring you over all those others waiting – that is a connection too (though in that case, he wouldn’t be referred to as a connection, but as “someone”). The eagerness to boast about and exhibit these “contacts” and their power thereof is a chokingly representative aspect of a society where power is unequally distributed. The reward for using power to fulfil obligations comes in the form of loyalty, goodwill amongst the group and in the worst cases, through bribes. The power holders maintain and exercise their power through this vicious cycle.
The advantages of such a status quo cannot be denied – at least for those who have these connections – sailing through bureaucratic hurdles (which, let’s face it, can stand in the way of a good many things that one can accomplish), saving time, “unnecessary” effort, making up for some unfair disadvantage that one may have faced, etc. The repercussions, however, are in plenty – favouring “relationships” over merit and the mediocrity that that fosters, unnecessary and unearned importance and power given back to the power holders, a bribe culture, a lackadaisical approach to things when piggybacking on connections, and in some cases, the helplessness of the ones who do not have these connections and can see that no amount of effort can match up. It reflects back on the culture through these externalisations and are in turn, internalised during a socialisation process that encourages “establishing contacts”. And when one questions the intentions behind actions, one is met with a shrug of “well, what does it matter if it’s done?”
This is typical of a society that is high on Power Distance and Collectivistic (Hofstede, et al, 2010) – the privileges enjoyed by the higher power holders (power distance) and the obligations that one has in order to maintain relationships with the in-group (collectivism) play huge roles in fostering such a status quo. And this is not restricted to India. Another high power distance, collectivistic culture, China, endorses “guanxi” which translates as “relationships” or “connections”, and is a vital part of business culture in the country. In fact, international businessmen claim that it is almost impossible to do business in China without “guanxi”. And unlike what a typical “western” mindset would fathom, the Chinese do not associate it as fostering corruption – “guanxi” becomes negative only when it involves bribes.
While there are several societies where there is an emphasis on relationships, which precede the merits of a business deal, the degree to which the power difference is used varies. For example, one may use a close personal relationship to ask for a reference within a company; this may not necessarily mean an obligation to get one the job. However, when a politician or any high power holder calls in to a company and says that his nephew needs a job and expects that it be taken care of, we see the other side of the meaning of having “contacts”. Very often, these connections also come at various levels – meaning one hears of someone knowing a person who knows a person and so on. Most people in such societies seem to know that one person to call for any “emergency”.
For those unfamiliar with the idea of using connections or contacts to get things done, it can seem extremely unethical and something to be avoided at all cost. However, in a society that has thrived on its connections, and with “connections” who have thrived on this society, it can often mean that you need a lot of patience and a lot of time to get things done. For those all too familiar with using their connections, stepping out of over-using ones’ connections can often mean greater resourcefulness, self-reliance and let’s face it, the satisfaction that comes with achieving through merit. Until that is achieved, the rule of thumb in conducting business in such high power, collectivistic societies – find the right connections.
Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner, Itim International