Under my byline

The winner’s a loser

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 25 December 2010


The last passenger into the plane had a large carry-on bag — large enough that there was no space left for it. An airhostess trotted up to ask him to let the staff put it in the hold instead. The passenger looked like an office-goer in his late thirties. He took the standard recourse of the thwarted Indian: milking his status. He looked down at her and spoke loudly, demanding to know why the check-in staff had not told him about this, and how inconvenient it was to be held up at arrival by having to wait for his luggage at the carousel.

The airhostess was unable to deflect the tantrum. So along came backup, in the form of a tall, uniformed member of the ground staff. Looking down at the passenger he said, sir, we don’t have any choice, yes sir, the fault is entirely ours, we should have told you, yes, it’s totally our mistake, you’re right, I’ll put your bag in the hold myself, sir, I’ll personally make sure you get it back in Delhi, sir — never mind that he wasn’t going to be there. He didn’t stop speaking or apologising. The passenger buckled, and after a last splutter (“You better make sure”) he let the bag go. Off to the hold it went, borne aloft by the victor.

Textbook angry-customer management, you might say — except for the look of amused superiority on the staffer’s face, and the unmistakeable closing equation of winner-loser. Conveying the impression of servile implacability was probably part of the steward’s winning combination, but to me the whole incident felt ugly.

I forgot about it, though, until this week a pile of 10 review copies of self-help books landed on my desk, all from Rupa Publications. Sorting them, I put the “how to make a fortune” titles in one pile, the spirituality and “how to pay less for more” titles in another pile (amounts to the same thing: the beatitude of the adept consumer), and then set aside the last three to enjoy.

First was Corporate Grooming and Etiquette by Sarvesh Gulati, one of only two titles by an Indian (the other was How to Make a Fortune on the Internet). Gulati, says the cover, has held senior-sounding posts in IT companies (that I’ve never heard of). The book is slim but compulsive. It’s full of advice on how to dress, speak, behave at parties and meetings and in the office loo, how to shake hands, sit, stand, use forks and knives and other tricky table implements, how to introduce yourself and other people, deal with travel (“Be Patient”), and so on. It’s amusing and revelatory, but peculiarly mixed period-wise: yes to tips on cellphone etiquette, but no to cutlery tips on seven-course haute-cuisine dinners.

Second was How to Succeed at Interviews, by “Dr” Rob Yeung, a ruthlessly practical guide to pulling one over on your interviewers. Dr Yeung helps companies design interviews; here he plays “gamekeeper turned poacher” and explains all the tricks. The point, per Dr Yeung, is to get the job at almost any cost to your morals. “You may be tempted to lie about your grades in future job applications,” he writes. “But be extremely careful as such facts are very easily checked by employers.” Not “Don’t lie,” but “Don’t get caught.” I loved it. Dr Yeung has an impressively broad cranium.

Last was nicest: How to Manage Difficult People, by Alan Fairweather. Fairweather explains that anyone can be difficult, and often the cause is yourself. I loved that he kept the focus on the reader, in a wholesome way. Rather than pretending to be something to “win” something, he says what works is actually being better and happier. This happens when you pay attention to your reactions, and when you have a multifaceted life. Swim, he says, read, learn to dance.

In India, we’re still stuck between two etiquette systems — the one our parents grew up with, linked to language, caste and place, and the one that is involved in doing business with the West. The result is that we master neither. Both the first two books, and especially the first, say we must convey an impression of sophistication and restraint — but only so as to get what we want. The steward on the aeroplane followed, superficially, the rules of managing difficult people. He did not put the passenger’s back up, and got him to give up his carry-on luggage. But the truth is in the bitter aftertaste — I win, you lose, sir.


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