Within the first few months of arriving in India, my wife and I had made some great friends. We would visit their homes, go to movies, attend family events, and enjoy festivals together. Everything was going wonderfully.
One day, my wife got a call from her friend, Lakshmi, saying, “You should come home.” My wife was in the middle of finishing an online MBA program and had a few other things set up for the day, so she told Lakshmi it wasn’t a good time.
Lakshmi said, “No, you need to come home now. There is some event going on and you need to be here.”
“Sorry, I can’t.”
This was followed by a period of coldness that lasted several days.
What happened? Something I like to call The Circles of Obligation.
Let’s pretend these circles represent all the people you know. The smallest circle (Level 1) is your inner, core group. These are people you would empty your bank account for. You would fly across the world to attend their wedding. You pick up their calls at 3AM. On the flip side, they are the first people you would ask to borrow money from. You would be really hurt if they missed your wedding. You don’t mind calling them at 3AM. These are your people. Obligations run high on both sides. You do anything for them, they do anything for you.
How many people are in this circle for you? Average Westerners could probably only fit a maximum of 5 people here, often less. Usually a spouse, children, and sometimes parents. If you are lucky, you have one or two non-family friends that get to this level. A recent study revealed that most Americans can only list two people they discuss important matters with, and 25% of people said they had no one.
The next circle (Level 2) represents those you still have some level of obligation to, but there are limits. You try to attend their birthday party, but they understand if you can’t. They come to your kids’ performance if they are in town. If you go a few weeks or months without seeing each other it’s not a huge deal. Obligations are there to maintain some contact, and you will help out if you can. But if they ask for $5,000, you can comfortably say no (unlike Level 1).
How many people are in this group for you? Most likely you are thinking about some good friends and extended family. Maybe your parents are in this category. It’s likely you could make a list of 20-50 people who would fit this description.
The third circle (Level 3) represents all your acquaintances. All your other Facebook friends. Office colleagues, family you rarely see. People you would recognize by name, but hardly ever think about. Obligations are weak here. If an old friend from college comes around and needs a favor, if it is convenient for you, you might help. But there is no expectation at all. Similarly, you would feel a little strange asking to stay at their place if you were driving through their town.
The last circle (Level 4) is the general public. The other people in the coffee shop. People walking on the road. The guy who takes your order at the restaurant. The woman in front of you at the checkout line.
For Westerners, obligations to these people are low, but are still there. You have some sense of “the good of the many”. You make what you consider small allowances for these people. You don’t throw your trash in your neighbor’s lawn. You don’t jump in front of someone waiting in line. You drive slow in school zones even when there are no police around. Some obligations are there (you call them “common decencies”), but they don’t go too far.
You might think what we just described would be true of the whole world. Step one in building cultural understanding – most of the rest of the world doesn’t think like you.
How does this work in India?
Their “core group” (Level 1) is much, much bigger than yours. Like it’s at least 100 people. Easily. People they must attend weddings for. People they must find jobs for. People they should lend to. People they can ask for jobs. People they can ask for money. People they invite and expect to come to their large functions.
[Quick Example: When you have a wedding, you invite your Level 1s and 2s, and some from 3 if you have the budget. 100-200 people come. Indians invite their entire Level 1 group (100-250 people), AND all their Level 1s. That’s why Indian weddings easily scale to thousands quickly.]
Obligations are big in Level 1 and run both ways. As one woman is quoted in Appropriately Indian,
“I think being Indian is particularly nice because you can count on your family’s support without sort of feeling bad about it.”
Those in Level 2 (everyone else in the world), are to be largely unconcerned with. Obligations are low. If you are having to be concerned with the 100+ people in your own circle, you don’t have a lot of time/energy to give to those outside.
This is one possible explanation for why some Indians seem to have much less care for the “common good” (skipping queues, rash driving, trash on streets). Your commitments are not to society, but to your core group.
Back to my wife and Lakshmi. What happened there? In my wife’s language, Lakshmi had moved from a Level 3 to a Level 2 friend. However, for Lakshmi, she moved from a Level 2 to a Level 1, which means she can say, “Come home” and my wife is expected to be there.
Understanding this concept has huge implications for figuring out:
- Why your team member wants a week off for his cousin-brother‘s wedding
- Why it’s virtually impossible to get anything done without a friend
- Why your Indian friend might be secretly upset that you haven’t reciprocated an invitation
- Why your small housewarming party suddenly has 100 people coming
- Why people don’t smile at strangers (and why you think that is rude)
- Why people will work for Tata for less pay than for someone else
- Why it’s not ok that you didn’t go to a colleague’s child’s first birthday party
- Why you need to ask people to do things for you to get to know people better
- Why everyone you meet wants a business card
- Why your Indian friend will be mad if they hear you were in their town and didn’t visit
- Why you cannot “stop by” for 10 minutes to see a friend
Photo Credit: sLENGfJES on Flickr