Am I being rude?

Working in India has been a whirlwind of “firsts.” First time living abroad, first time working in a large organization, first time with a job in which English is not the only language. Back in Pennsylvania, workplace expectations for scheduling meetings, talking with supervisors, keeping people updated, and other relationships are so omnipresent that I did not have to think much about them. But what is clear at home is ambiguous in a deluge of firsts.

For example, if you want to meet with your boss back in America, generally you schedule a meeting. At Aravind, it is acceptable to walk in without warning. As an intern, I felt, and still feel, uncomfortable walking in with no warning on people with huge responsibilities in the organization and very busy schedules, especially when I only have small updates. We can even walk in on doctors, who are extremely respected here, during their work hours. I have been continuously humbled and impressed by how people high up in the organization are so willing to listen to and help with our projects. However, in the beginning I was unsure how to balance communicating small updates without disrespecting other people’s time.

My project, which I will describe in a later blog post, involves coordinating between many different parts of Aravind. Keeping everyone updated, communicating clearly across varying degrees of a language barrier, and navigating which practices are considered respectful was more difficult than I had anticipated. This confusion peaked last Saturday. To make a long story short, each of the stakeholders and I had different understandings of what content I was presenting to a trial group, how far along my project was, and how the trial would be run. In the end, they resolved the confusion in Tamil while I stood, embarrassed, on the sidelines. In this environment, even small miscommunications are amplified since interpretations of the same events can be so different. Thankfully, by putting small mistakes in the limelight, I can recognize them and continuously improve.

Even as I have become more comfortable walking in on people, other nuances also exist. I have always tended to write, and speak very directly. Especially considering last Saturday and an added layer of language differences, my first instinct is to speak my thoughts in the most succinct and clear way possible. I have immense respect for everyone I work with here, and want to show that, so I am sometimes concerned that my speech comes across as arrogant or disrespectful, since standards are somewhat different than in the United States. Nearly all the interns I talked to from previous years advised us that learning the nuances of communication here was a steep learning curve, but none could explain the exact differences. I still cannot. My co-interns and I have picked up on some more overt measures of respect, including standing up when a doctor enters the room and referring to higher up members as “Mam” or “Sir”. However, the expected standards for speech are so ingrained and natural to the people who work at Aravind that they are hard to observe directly and understand. This balance between clarity and diplomacy exists in the states as well but has been much more consistently present in my mind here. Although I have become better at finding this balance, I want to improve even more in the last few weeks.

Though at some points I have felt embarrassed, uncomfortable, or confused, navigating these differences has been really valuable. I’ve been very fulfilled by running my own project rather independently through different departments. Defending my opinions, and transmitting those of others, requires me to stand up for myself. Working in an organization where we are very supported, but need to search out that support has taught me to be more decisive and clear. On this trip, I’ve thought much more about communicating as a stand-alone entity, rather than as only a means to an end. When I go back to the States, I’m excited to look out for underlying social cues I always took for granted and perhaps notice some nuances I had not recognized before.



Aravind Eye Hospital Outpatient Ward


Enjoying the incredible mountains of Kodaikanal


Station 1 at the eye camp — testing a patient’s vision


Trying not to get blown off a bridge at Rameshwaram


No words for the majesty of Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur

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About Madeleine Grunde-McLaughlin

Class of 2020, majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Computer Science and French. Summer 2018 intern at Aravind Eye Care Systems in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.