30 June 2009

Killing me softly: soft skills, anyone?

In the June09 issue of Harvard Business Review, Mr Robert I. Sutton writes about How to Be a Good Boss in a Bad Economy. His remedies for the Boss were predictability, understanding, control and compassion. He gives examples to further his argument about his remedies. While his explanation followed his remedy - it was predictable – his example on compassion had me bristled.

First, a little digression on compassion. These days we are bandying around compassion as a skill. As if it were something that one learns at the blacksmith’s or at the carpenter’s. It is our very innate nature, for God’s sake. It has nothing to do with managers or employees or with royalty; it is mine because of being a human being. It is our seventh sense. Don’t ever call it a soft skill. Compassion is not a good thing to have. It is the right thing to have.

Now, for that example on compassion. Let me quote Mr Sutton:


Jerald Greenberg, a management professor at The Ohio State University, provides compelling evidence that compassion affects the bottom line in tough times. Greenberg studied three nearly identical manufacturing plants in the Midwest that were all part of the same company; two of them (which management chose at random) instituted a temporary 10-week pay cut of 15% after the firm had lost a major contract. At one of the two, the executive who conveyed the news did so curtly, announcing, “I’ll answer one or two questions, but then I have to catch a plane for another meeting.” At the other one, the executive who broke the news gave a detailed and compassionate explanation, along with apologies and multiple expressions of remorse. He also spent a full hour answering questions about why the cost cutting was necessary, who would be affected, and what steps workers could take to help themselves and the plant. Greenberg found fascinating effects on employee theft rates. At the plant where the curt explanation was given, the rate rose to more than 9%. But at the plant where management’s explanation was detailed and compassionate, it rose only to 6%. (At the third plant, where no pay cuts were made, the rate held steady at about 4% during the 10-week period.)


It is unfortunate that he gives thieving of employees as an example to buttress his idea about compassion for employees. It would appear that researchers such as Mr Greenberg - as quoted by Mr Sutton - think that employees by nature are prone to thieving. Why else would one do such a gratuitous research?
I would imagine that Mr Greenberg's research hypothesis read:
This research establishes a correlation between increase of theft by employees and the abruptness of language used by CEOs conveying salary reduction news.
And from this research Mr Sutton got compelling evidence that compassion begets less thieving!
I think this is absolutely unfair to employees.

29 June 2009

Romancing the Letters

Some of you may remember a scene from the Bollywood movie ‘Border’. A satchel-full of letters arrives at a remote border outpost and all hell breaks loose. There is a mad scramble for the letters. What joy on the faces of those who receive a letter! It’s like getting a little bit of one’s home there in the frontline. You can also see the despair on the faces of those who did not receive a letter. Letters, not long ago, use to change our worlds.
But things have changed a bit since emails, Facebook and Orkut.
Letters may have been romantic but Facebook is faster and tighter. You know who is doing what and how in real time. It takes 7 seconds instead of 7 days for a ‘Kodak Moment’ to reach you.
Still, I long for letters. Not so long ago, we got real birthday cards through real post. What joy to know that your long lost friend remembers your birthday! She could send you a virtual card as well. But will never be the same. It appears all so plastic when you receive a virtual card.
In the yesteryears a whole network spawned with penpals, a hobby grew with stamp taken off from the letters received from penpals. We called it philately then. It is still called philately but the romance has gone. Mails were central to some of our lives’ idioms. We would cross our fingers when a red mail van went past and would uncross them whenever a black car followed. We felt the pain of someone who never got a letter. There was a corner in each literature where love abounded in letters; where hidden flowers lay withered in such letters. We have heard the ballads of the Runners who ran with our mail through rough country, day in and day out, never pausing to catch a breath.
These days, my eyes cloud whenever I hear the song, ‘Please, Mr Postman’. It was a song which pleaded with the postman to get a letter; sooner the better. I do know that those heady days of hundreds of letters on New Years have gone forever. We only get bills and bank statements in our letter boxes these days.
We had a limerick that told us what would happen if we sighted the bird Mynah in ones, twos, threes or fours. It went like this:
One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for letter, four for toy.
Probably due to eco degradation, it has been a while since I saw three Mynahs together. Is it a wonder that I haven’t received a real letter in a while!
Let us start the magic of real letters all over again. Write a real letter to your best friend. See the joy on her face.

22 June 2009

Lateral sinking (thinking?), starboard first


I downloaded this video clip from a forward that I got a few days ago. It is absolutely hilarious, a great ad to coax you to improve your English.
(Please switch on your speakers)

Yet,to me there is something odd about this video...

The ad is asking the helper to change. Wouldn’t it be easier for the person who is asking for help to change, specially, when his life depends on the change?
Wouldn’t it be easier for the English speaking Captain of the ship to shout into his microphone, ‘Mayday, we are sinking’ in German (Mayday, wir sinken) than to get the German Coast Guard learn the nuances of spoken English? It is safe to assume, in these GPS times, that the English speaking Captain knew that his ship was near the German coast.
That way the German Coast Guard would definitely know what the English Captain was thinking.

19 June 2009


Some words have been abused so much in the Corporate World that they have become a joke. They just don’t mean anything anymore. Again, there is corporatese (here I go again, trying to mimic a pattern to invent a word; if there can be legalese why can’t there be coporatese?) where words are masqueraded as metaphors and idioms of life by tweaking (tweaking is another ugh!) their usage. But with overuse these notional words have degenerated to jargon. Here is a list compiled by David Silverman of Harvard Business Review. He gives the primordial meanings of these words. My own favorite, which did not make to David’s list, is ‘proactive’. I have added proactive in the end

Solution v. = put something in salty water
Skill set n. = tools for carving wood
Workshop v. = the using of skill sets in a room where you keep power tools
Build n. = a presentation’s physique, i.e. “Look at the build on that PowerPoint slide”
Deck n. = The thing that keeps you from falling into the boat
Opportunity n. = blind luck
Thought leader n. = the thing that comes before a thought, i.e. a blank expression
Best of breed n. = A very fast horse
Action item n. = An item with a racing stripe
Out of the box adj. = Referring to a place on the counter where you put things after you take them out of the box
Off the grid n. = Incautious crayon use
Lessons learned n. = Lessons where the student was awake as opposed to unconscious
On the other hand conj. = Where there are warts
Going forward v. = To drive a car. “I will be going forward to home this afternoon.”
Bandwidth n. = A stage or other performance area.
Silo n. = A place for grain.
Functional Silo n. = A working place for grain.
Win-win n. = Sign on an extra-large slot machine
Branding n. = Letters on cows
Dialogue v. = Shakespeare rotating underground
Look v. = to look at something and wonder what is there, but there isn’t anything at all
Resources n. = bits of metal in rocks
Roundtable v. = Serve food on a disc
Offline n. = Another crayon error
Impacted v. = Hit very, very hard.
Let me be clear, conj = An attempt to confuse
Diversity n. = Two versities (or one large versity cut in half)
Low-hanging fruit n. = Fruit about to go rotten
Mashup n. = A way to serve potatoes
Meme n. = A catchphrase of Ms. Piggy. (technically, “memememememe”)
Current status n. = Availability of electricity
Stakeholder n. = A hand that shakes in relation to who’s holder the hammer.
Utilize v. = no one knows
Up shot n. = Whiskey, completed
Preapproval n. = A time machine that can go back before logic existed.
State of Preparedness n. = Kentucky
Lifecycle n. = A bicycle that saves your life, i.e. by running into a building on fire
Proactive adj. = of a tendency where activeness is professional

09 June 2009

Why I chose to be a teacher

Today, (9June2009) there was a news item that said that 'police and teachers are back in demand'. Pretty amusing, if a cynical caption. Are we coming a full circle then? To the days when both the good - like the Pandavas - and the not so good - like the Kauravas - revered their guru equally? I think not. I think, this is a case of supply and demand. Someone out there is cutting his losses.

But even in the heydays of software and finance, there were still those who would not change their teacher's way of life for anything in the world. Here is an essay from one such teacher. It was written about six years ago. This got an award in a essay competition organised by Scholastic India. It was titled 'Why I chose to be a teacher'.

It was an age of doctors, engineers, civil servants and architects. Software engineers had not been invented – and there was no space for teachers: neither in environment nor in the advertisement columns. School teachers were convenient appendages in the system. They just happened. Teachers, especially school teachers, were taken for granted. Schools needed them. Indeed, society needed them. But why one would become a teacher was nobody’s case. One aspired to be a doctor, civil servant even a movie star but never a teacher. A teacher was never a celebrity, never a pin up material – barring our quintessential teacher, Dr S Radhakrishnan. Most times teachers were not in the news, not even for the wrong reasons; like striking work before examinations, like taking tuition on the sly. Why then did I choose to be a teacher? Let me explain.

I never aspired to be one who would leave her footprints on the sands of time. But I did want to stand tall. I did want to go that extra mile. When I passed my X class, some choices had to be made. I chose the humanities stream. This choice closed three options. I could never become a doctor, engineer or an architect. I still had the option to become a civil servant and I set my sights on becoming an IAS officer.

When I finished graduation, however, I walked up to a school and asked the Principal if there was any opening in the school for a teacher. What was my motivation? I really don’t know. Perhaps, I had walked in just to test the waters. Or, perhaps, encouragement from my family had egged me on. My family held the teaching profession in high esteem. The family thought teaching to be the most respectable profession for a young girl.

I got the job. Even for a moment I did not doubt that this was only a stop gap arrangement. I was convinced that teaching was really not my forte. Even as I taught, I got myself enrolled for post graduate studies to keep the windows of my dreams open.

But something inexplicable was happening to me. As I taught, I got inexorably drawn towards the students. It was incredible how students reposed implicit faith in the teacher. It was impossible not to respond. But, instinctively, I fought back. This was not what I wanted to do? Teaching nursery rhymes to kindergarten children? No way!

In the meanwhile, I graduated from teaching kindergarten children to teaching primary school children. I also finished my post graduation

An idea was germinating in my mind. Would this acorn become an oak? One had to wait and see. This small idea persuaded me to enrol myself for a B Ed course.
I was doing a little bit of country trotting after my marriage owing to my husband’s transferable job. In a different town in a different environment we were watching the ‘Aarti’(See Note1 below) at the Durga Mandap (See Note2 below). Presently, a young boy came up to me and touched my feet. He asked me if I remembered him. He was my student from Kanpur. I was too stunned to reply and vaguely nodded. In this age of ‘hi and bye’ this was a novel yet sobering experience. At that instant something clicked inside me and I crossed my Rubicon. At that moment I said to myself, ‘This is it! I am going to be a teacher and a good one at that! It had taken me some years to cross the threshold, but as things became clearer, I reflected that it was amazing how I had been unconsciously resisting a thing which I enjoyed most. Where can one get such untainted love and affection? Where can one be on the learning curve throughout ones life?

As I took off my blinkers, I realised that this is what I always wanted to be. This is where I belonged. No pushing files and papers for me. Thirty young minds with three hundred ideas; every class was a revelation. No two lectures had similar response. Thirty different answers to one question! My mind and heart grew younger with each passing day. Where was this generation gap that we all talk about? If there was indeed one, I had bridged the gap. Or at least I had become the bridge itself. I felt humbled when parents came up to me to discuss their wards; sometimes with diffidence, sometimes with exasperation. Some parents even wanted me to initiate reconciliation with their wards. They wanted me to be the bridge between them and their children. When I say ‘me’ I humbly believe that I am speaking for the majority of teachers around the globe. Indeed, teachers are expected to bring around recalcitrant teenagers, catch up with a precocious ten year old and even mother a six year old boarder. It is an onerous responsibility and I relish it. The curiosity of the students sends me scampering to the library and the Net and yet I enjoy the learning process like never before. With tingling anticipation I often wait to be stumped by a brilliant question. It is a timeless, open ended challenge and I have been overtaken more than once by it. But it is pure joy to be overwhelmed by a youngster’s incisive question. God bless her for that open mind: my choice has led me to touch tomorrow. Yes, teachers are children of a better God.

There is no disquiet in me now. There is only a firm belief that teaching is the best thing that has happened to me. I would wish the same for me again in another life. No more, no less.

Yet, often I hear this refrain in polite conversations and in smoky-cabin talk, “Who wants to become a teacher, anyway?” To that I am reminded of a nice English song which had these lines tucked away somewhere:
‘… and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain.’ To that I say: nice guys don’t get washed away. They become teachers. But yes, nice guys are in short supply.

-Mita Roy

Note1: 'Aarti' is performed in front of Hindu gods and goddesses to pay obeisance. Incense sticks are normally used to perform 'Aarti'.

Note2: 'Durga Mandap' is a community prayer area or hall, often constructed temporarily during a specific time in the year, for offering prayers to goddess Durga, the goddess of Shakti, or power.

01 June 2009

A case for dropping silent letters from the English Language

We know about silent letters in the English language. Silent letters have been there in certain words for centuries and if we do not act quickly will continue to remain likewise. Why are they there? I do think that the silent letters are there because no one bothered to take them off!

What use are they to us? I dare say nothing! On the contrary, they are such impediments to learning for kids! For example,it does take a humongous effort on the part of a teacher to make a first grader understand why ‘honest’ is not spelled as ‘onest’. Not the kids alone, even adults get foxed by letters lurking in shadows of the spellings. Take the example of ‘pteridophyte’. As it is, this one is such a terrifying word to spell. On top of it we are told that the ‘p’ is silent here! You don’t like this, do you? So let’s get at the bottom of this!
From where have these silent words cropped up in the first place? Wiki says silent letters arise in several ways and I quote:

-Pronunciation changes occurring without a spelling change. The spelling was in Old English pronounced /x/ in such words as light.
-Sound distinctions from foreign languages may be lost, as with the distinction between smooth rho (ρ) and roughly aspirated rho (ῥ) in Ancient Greek, represented by (r) and (rh) in Latin, but merged to the same [r] in English. Similarly with (f) / (ph), the latter from Greek phi.
-Clusters of consonants may be simplified, producing silent letters e.g. silent in asthma, silent (t) in Christmas. Similarly with alien clusters such as Greek initial in psychology and (mn)in mnemonic.
-Occasionally, spurious letters are consciously inserted in spelling. The 'b' in debt and doubt was inserted to reflect Latin cognates like debit and dubitable.

Barring the fourth point, all the above reasons appear to be a burden of legacy.
But, is ‘because they are there’ – a la George Mallory’s famous quote – a good enough reason for the silent letters to stay? How does the language benefit if we spell pneumonia as pneumonia and not as neumonia? (or as a still friendlier, numonia?) Some would argue about purity and etymology. But what good is purity if learning is so traumatic to the children? For argument sake if we were to side with the etymologist theory, an example from in American English should settle matters. We know that in American English most words with a combination of ‘ou’ have been simplified to ‘o’; for example ‘colour’ has been replaced by ‘color’, ‘harbour’ has been replaced by ‘harbor’ etc. The new spellings agree with the pronunciation and keeps everyone happy, especially the kids; this, inspite of color’s ‘etymology’. Let us read color’s etymology from Merriam-Webster:

Etymology: Middle English colour , from Anglo-French, from Latin color; akin to Latin celare to conceal

If colour can be happily spelt as color, inspite of its etymology, why can’t mnemonics be spelt as nemonics with as much alacrity? Adam Robinson, in his book, Word Smart says that ‘Graders are taught to remember the spelling of arithmetic by using the following mnemonics: A Rat In The House Might Eat Tom’s Ice Cream’ (author’s italics) What an irony! The spelling of mnemonic would need a special type of mnemonic to get the spelling across to the kids!

Another issue is of Proper nouns with silent letters. Take the case of Ptolemy. We know he was a great Roman mathematician living in ancient Egypt. But does his greatness diminish if we spell his name in the same manner as we pronounce it? Tolemy, for example? I believe, Proper nouns should be spelt the way they are pronounced. In India, Rishikesh is a religious place of the Hindus. And Hrishikesh was an iconic director in Bollywood. Hrishikesh, is pronounced as Rishikesh but is spelt as Hrishikesh. This, is in keeping with the word’s Sanskrit origins. But the spelling of Rishikesh does just fine for the holy place and in no way detracts the religiosity of the place. So why not spell director Hrishikesh’s name as Rishikesh?
I think, as a first step we need to drop silent letters from Proper Nouns. That will be a first good step. Later, as the acceptability grows, we can move to other words where there are hidden no-sounds. We would really do our kids a big favour (or favor, if you will?)

I would let the homophones alone, however. It is easier to learn ‘be’ and ‘bee’ as separate words with different spellings than to learn them as separate words with same spellings. (Homophones are two or more words pronounced alike but are different in meaning or spelling, for example, ‘to’, ‘too’ and ‘two’). It may be good play of words,for example, as in can can , but will be confusing to the kids.

Let’s not be silent anymore on silent letters.

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