You say potato, I say potahto…

This post is going to be  stream of consciousness, mind-dump of stuff swirling around in my head – if I don’t let some of it out, my head will explode into a thousand pieces like Vikramaditya’s if he didn’t answer Vetal’s question.

As I prepare for a presentation at work on effective communication, I came across this statistic: did you know that a whopping 55 % of communication (verbal) is thru body language? Another 38% is communicated via tone, inflection (it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it) and the actual message takes up a pitiful 7%.

I know every immigrant family will have tons of stories of communication gaffes.  We’re no different.  Add Indian body language to the mix, and results can be unpredictable and hilarious.

I remember me as an FOB (for those unfamiliar with immigrant lingo, FOB = fresh off the boat), and a newly-licensed-to-kill driver, in Boston.  I was a rather tentative and naïve driver, likely irritating the hordes of impatient drivers.   And would interpret all the ‘friendly’ hand-gestures as …awww, look, these Americans are so friendly, they’re waving to a total stranger on a highway!!  And wave back to them, probably infuriating them even more.  It took me a while to learn they were probably irritated with my driving, and giving me the finger, flipping me off, flipping the bird, whatever you want to call it! On a slightly related note, I think no language can stand up the exquisitely expressive Madras bashai  in expressing road rage –  “bejar, kasmalam, vootla sollinu vandhiya” now that’s music to my ears!

Ironically, a few years ago, when we went to Hawaii, I interpreted the friendly (I mean really friendly, not being sarcastic) hand gesture/wave of the locals  with the pinky and the thumb sticking out, and the middle three fingers bent, as being rude!! Until my husband told me that’s a signal for mahalo!  Talk about extremes!

Speaking of body language, another time, I was rubbing my forehead in the middle of a tense problem at work, as I had a headache.  My co-worker looked sharply at me and said: “don’t do that!!!”. 

Me, confused: “Do what?”

She: “you’re flipping me off”

Me: “What?!!!” (I wanted to, then!)

And how can any post of mine be complete without Raj being dragged into it?  My kids could tell stories.  One that we still laugh about, is when we pulled into a gas station, and it was closed.  We were pulling out, and another car was pulling in.  Raj, being the friendly guy, signaled to the driver with a move of his right hand,  kind of like the Bollywood dance move “screwing the light bulb” (ref: scene from Bride and Prejudice, in which Aishwarya(?) teaches the American guy to dance – ‘act like you’re screwing in a light bulb while petting the dog’).  My kids and I were like, “what are you trying to tell him?” The driver in the other car looked at him funny, and continued to pull into the gas station.  So much for being helpful!!

And of course, the famous Indian head-shake.  Thanks to the flood of outsourcing and off-shoring, so many Americans are now familiar with the side-to-side head roll.  One of our neighbors from long ago told us that he used to live in India when he was younger, and his whole family would sit around practising the head roll.

Another aspect of communication that all immigrants eventually get used to is developing some social filters and smarts to stay away from taboo topics/questions.    I think Indians as a culture go from 0 to 60 in 2 seconds flat as far as inquisitiveness goes.  It doesn’t take a maama from Madras to go very quickly from  “hello, what’s your good name please?” to “how much are you making?” or “My 2nd cousins daughter’s sister-in-law is looking for a match for her daughter.  Can you give me a copy of your horoscope?”   (of course this is my opinion, exaggerated and generalized – I’m sure there are plenty of Indians who are exceptions).  I’m sure I still slip up occasionally,  unintentionally…(related side note: every friend who visited our home back in my school days would get the 3rd degree from my grandfather: “enna jadhi?” what caste..and nobody thought anything of it! makes me cringe now!)

I am fascinated by communication – the styles, accents, all the hidden meanings, interpretations…makes life so much interesting.  And I truly believe it makes the world go round!

Here’s to happy communicating, with a rendering of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s “Let’s call the whole thing off” (you say potato, I say potahto)…


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. V.T.K. Bhoopathy
    May 11, 2010 @ 20:05:52

    screwing the lightbulb? that’s rather suggestive. i think you mean “screw IN the lightbulb”…



  2. sand
    May 11, 2010 @ 20:25:16

    best one yet!



  3. Priti
    May 11, 2010 @ 21:29:05

    HILARIOUS !!!! I am getting so very tempted to take a copy of this blog to my dear coworkers…. hahhahaha I am soooooo glad I am not the only one who faces communication problems..
    And ofcourse I have to comment on Raj… ( just can’t resist it :)) He needs to show me that ” screwing or screw in the bulb action and what he meant by that :)))))



    • sri
      May 12, 2010 @ 21:45:54

      Hey Priti,
      you made my day 🙂
      Btw, i’m always trying to get my foot out of my mouth so you’re in good company…
      Feel free to share the link with your coworkers…



  4. viji
    May 12, 2010 @ 00:37:08

    all my sympathies with athimber …(Raj !) he is the one who finally gets S****** up !



  5. Krish Ashok
    May 12, 2010 @ 23:58:34

    The best gaffe I’ve heard so far is the one about the indignant Indian chap who explained to the cop that it was the white lady in the Camry who banged his dicky 🙂

    You should read this as well –



    • sri
      May 14, 2010 @ 07:28:17

      that’s hilarious…we (my kids and I) also loved the Indian English movie titles, especially Myself, Sam
      on the other side, have you heard of American/English movie titles translated to suit Tamil audiences? For example, 3 musketeers is “Moondru MGR Veerargal” (courtesy: Raj’s cousin’s husband)
      Thanks for visiting my blog



  6. vidhya
    Jun 16, 2010 @ 22:11:04

    WHAT??? rubbing on forehead means flipping people off!!!!!!!!!SINCE WHEN!!!!!so what does nodding head mean!!!!!good god! whoever came up with all these!



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