For a long time now I have had this niggling observation about Indian culture, but wasn’t sure if it was just me, isolated incidents or something I was imagining. I now think it is a cultural thing, Indians don’t seem to be able to apologise for anything, but seem to be very quick to blame everything. Is apologising just not part of the Indian culture? Is deflecting an issue away from them a way of dealing with (or more like not dealing with) it?
I have talked before about apologising being an issue in the context of Indian men here, but more recently I have observed this behaviour in women as well. Small things, where one is clearly in the wrong and a simple “I’m sorry” would just make it all feel better was not forthcoming. I let that one slip under the carpet, after all it wasn’t a big deal.
But then recently it happened again, this time over something a bit bigger and much more personal. Rather than just apologise when I pointed out my friend’s inappropriate behaviour, I received a defensive response. Something that could have been made better by simply saying “I’m sorry that came out wrong”, turned into me somehow being wrong for being sensitive to her insensitivity. Rather than waste my precious energy pointing out the wrong here, I have just let it go. Its not worth my energy, but the inability to say a simple “I’m sorry” now mars this friendship.
Is it me? Is the inability to say “I am sorry” cultural, and therefore my expectation that someone will utter those three important words culturally insensitive?
If you believe this article, the word “sorry” was never part of the Indian culture, or this one where it is just not something people do. In my research I found this article that may explain it, apparently studies show that refusing to say sorry to someone can actually boost your self-esteem. Pity it doesn’t say what it does to the self-esteem of the person whom you have refused to say sorry to.
So maybe the refusal to say sorry is just another way for people to make themselves feel better. In a warped way it kind of makes sense, the longer I stay in India the more I realise what an individualistic society it is, so this would be consistent.
The concept of deflection and blame is one I am all too familiar with, I get it a lot on the comments on my blog. For example, on a post I wrote about the plight of women in India some comments I received included ” There are issues of racism in Oz too” and then another this one “Wow.. Thanks for ur grt insight. Now can u go back to ur country and clean racism. Pls..”….. ummm thanks but what has that got to do with female foeticide in India?
I have also watched over the past few months as the issue of rape in India is discussed more in the media, it is common to see well educated people respond with comments about how there is a “rape culture” in other countries not just India. So what? There is a rape culture in India and that is the country we are talking about, deflecting the issue only condones the rapist’s behaviour and doesn’t do anything to help the millions of survivors and victims.
There are many interesting articles on it such as this one which talks about the need for cultural change for India to progress and this one that also “blames” the culture of blaming (amongst other things) for hindering development.
Yes deflection happens a lot on the big issues, but also on the little ones every single day. We took a wrong turn somewhere because I didn’t speak loud enough, not because you didn’t hear me. You’re late because traffic was bad, not because you didn’t leave home in time. It is ever so subtle, but so pervasive in the culture, the way things are justified. An individual never seems to be responsible for their own actions, it is always someone else’s fault.
So do you think Indians can say sorry? If not why not? Do you think the blame game is just a part of Indian culture? If so why?
PS. I am sorry if this post offends anyone, I take full responsibility for it.
31 thoughts on “Indian Culture, Apologies and Blame”
I have the exact same experience. I am hispanic and I married an Indian sihk man. He has never apologized for any of the millions of horrible things he has said and done to me. He always blames other people for his mistakes, never takes responsibility for his own action, I do believe it’s an ego thing and so culturally embedded he doesnt see his own behavior and doesnt want to see because even when I’ve pointed it out, sometimes crying, he doesnt care, or reflect (no ability for self reflection), insensitive and could care less about anyone’s feeling but his own. He is incredibly sensitive towards himself. Everything offends him but he doesnt have any trouble offending others and on top of it being racist.
Hi Rakhee, i thought i was being racist or something but I am glad to see that there are other people who thinks about this Indian custom. It is so frustrating, and really it ruins my day every time my husband or colleague are being such a jerk. They wont even admit if they know nothing about the topic!
I work with a team in California that is more than 90% Indian and this is a behavior that has caused me acute emotional pain during the four years I’ve worked with them. My love for the company and its mission is what has helped me persist, but I always wrestle with the impulse to resign in order to escape it.
A female colleague who was unaware of her role in some misreporting eviscerated me publicly this morning. When I spoke to her privately and helped her see the whole picture, she never apologized. It would have been so appropriate and helpful.
Totally agree. My personal experience of an Indian man who is so incapable of saying ‘Sorry’ is such that the only time he admits his mistake (mind you, no ‘sorry’ is uttered) is when he finished off his sentence with- “I behaved so badly because YOU caused me to react this way”. Wow! Encore!
I have similar experiences and encounter too!!!agree with this a lot!!!!!
I cannot agree less!!!!
hi. can i post this on fb? i can relate to your blog so much. for a long time (after moving to the subcontinent for work), i was taken for a ride because i said sorry, thank you, smiled or only because i am a woman. i had to become tough but i never let go of my politeness. its good to be polite and i will not change that because this culture does not appreciate it.If i do not like sthg now or i feel it is offensive, i will make it a point to tell it to the person. most probably, he/she did it out of habit but if i am willing to understand their culture, it is also important for them to understand mine.
the perception of invincibility at work, the competition, the double standard, never saying what you think, never saying sorry, sucking up to your boss and the art of twisting a simple conversation into a dramatic soap opera are sadly traits of many of my Indian colleagues. not all of them are like that but sadly the majority is.
i find this draining.
at the same time, i do have good indian friends who are really really nice. my partner is indian and we have a beautiful daughter. but truth be said, i find the judgemental attitude of India very very exhausting. I have never been ‘questioned’ as much in my life as I am now…. phewwwww…..
i do love visiting India but I will never live there. i think you are very brave.
Thanks Jess, and yes of course you can post a link to this on FB.
It’s comforting to hear I am not the only one, and that my thoughts resonate with others. As you have pointed out, I have also met some incredible people, but navigating the intricacies that differentiate cultures can be challenging.
All the best.
Apology is something that is the solutions to many crisis and possibly the best option to save valuable energy. I found about your perception of the Indian culture
in context to sorry a very irritating one , and this is unfortunate for my
country . I would say one thing Not all the peoples are same in a society. This is of course.possible that proportion may vary significantly of one who apologizes in comparison to the one who do not depending on the present conditions prevalent in society.
Hope you understand what I intent to convey.
I had never thought about it in so many words, but after reading this, I can’t help but agree. I think more than the shame factor, it is individual egos that result in the inability to say sorry. I’ve heard people apologize to those senior / older than them, but never the other way.
At least some people get apologies I guess.
Miss Shivya it`s not the total fault of an individual. It also depends upon the environment created by his superiors. I will supplement with an example . There are people who always having dominant attitude and they always find fault in others.Now the one who is some timid or without principle he adapts himself in the environment and rejoices in repeating of what he was victimized.
Great post and interesting articles. And I must agree, for all the time I have spent in India I racked my brain trying to remember a single instance where an Indian apologized to me and I am at a loss…And the blame game is alive and well. Since I come from a hockey nation I love to make this analogy, that if Indian’s had more access to ice they would be the best goalies in the NHL since their ability to deflect is like nothing I have every witnessed in professional hockey!
To me this behavior is baffling and very childlike, because part of maturing into adulthood it taking responsibility for your actions and doing better. But then immaturity in adults seems almost as prevalent in India as the inability to say “sorry”
Yes it baffles me too, but if you have never seen others do it, or been taught to do it, then I guess sorry doesn’t come very naturally.
I have been thinking about your blog post and realized Indian’s see many apologies these days, especially by highly visible figures, especially politicians and police but I wonder if these so called apologies are sincere or a reaction to being caught?
For example on April 6th, Deputy Chief Minister of MH, Ajit Pawar apologized after the crude and disrespectful comments he made in relation to the drought stricken farmers of his state were made public and an immediate backlash began, demanding his resignation. He is now backpedaling with numerous apologies citing “this is the biggest mistake of my life”? And I say, really? Are you sorry about what you said or just sorry you got caught out?
And of course there are the almost daily examples of apologies cited on the news by police and politicians for their ignorant and cruel comments especially relating to women, but again the apologies only seem to be made after their comments are brought to the attention of the masses. And then their ability to apologize seems to come quite naturally with no fear of losing face whatsoever?
Personally, I think those “apologies” are just to save their position, not even face. I find very little sincerity in many of them, its just politics. But then that is just my opinion.
I have just gone through the blog and found your comment. I would like to suggest something which might convince you ! Indians are I admit that some what stubborn and they really find it hard to accept sorry. But this is just a superficial nature . You just interact with some one for a time and initiate the matter(crisis you would better call it) in amicable way and I assure you that his attitude will be changed and he would reply in a hospitable way.All is about Environment .
You have mentioned what I have noticed, which isn’t that Indians (generally speaking) don’t say “sorry,” but, rather, CANNOT ACCEPT an apology! I had to apologize for something tonight and he flat-out wouldn’t accept my apology, even though I was actually just apologizing for my own bad behavior. This is quite shocking for a westerner to face, someone turning down an apology. But…I ascribed it to culture, which is what got me looking into this tonight when I found this blog.
Well Mr. Ashutosh tiwari
please do not try to defend something which is absolute
actually! If you read this article carefully without getting any offence
which is totally impossible
you’ll realise that he/she’s right!
Let me simplify for you
He/She said that Indian try to defend them selves at any cost
so here you are just doing the same thing
while you know somewhere he/she is damn right
stop doing that
im an Indian
and i know what is the truth
you can fool others by saying about the good of your pond
but every toad got eyes
and you cannot fool a toad from the same pond
and stop wasting your valuable time and energy
I think this article also mentioned that !
Great blog Rakhee. I don’t think Indians can say sorry, at least in the way it is said by western cultures, particularly the English and Australians. However, I don’t think this inability is due to rudeness but rather due to the importance of “face” in Indian culture. Past experience has shown me that “face” is of extreme importance in many Asian cultures and although it differs slight in each culture most facets of “saving face” remain the same. Face roughly translating to our concept of honour and prestige is paramount in social, family and business dealings in India. Giving negative feedback on someone’s behaviour, ideas, appearance is a not welcomed in India as if is a slur on their honour. I imagine that saying sorry or also admitting fault for something also is a no no as admitting fault means they lose face and their honour and integrity is diminished. The importance of face is widely misunderstood by western cultures and I could not help but feel it may have played a part in the tragic outcome of “the royal phone prank” that occurred last year. Whilst all the Western newspapers were quick to jump to conclusions about Indian nation nurse Jacintha Saldahna’s mental state and that being the real cause of her tragic suicide. Not one mentioned the importance of “face” in Asian cultures and the Shame and dishonour that would have been attributed to Saldahna and her family as a result of her innocent involvement in the so called “harmless prank”. We really must try to not just acknowledge and criticise differences in culture but do more to understand and accept them. And please note that I knows that this is you were doing in your blog. As usual I really enjoyed it. Surely there is something to be learned from everyone!
Yes I agree with you that there is probably an element of “face” here. I worked a lot with Chinese culture for many years and “face” is incredibly important to them, but it manifests itself in a different way to what it does here. Here it feels almost more abrupt or rude. But yes, I think I need to explore the concept of “face”, perhaps here it is more about “pride”.
You make some good points and there are cultural differences between Asia and countries like Australia and America. But I feel that when an entire culture refuses to take responsibility for its actions for the sake of ‘saving face’, it is a becomes a great stumbling block for progressive change.
My only hope is that as more Indians start working in international environments and start travelling abroad more, as many are in fact doing, enough will realize that a lot of the things we Indians fret over are rather trivial.
I’ve thought about this some more, and I’m starting to think the Westerner’s “sorry” may not have a lot of meaning behind it. It’s often a ruse, intended to make the WESTERNER feel better, by getting someone else to forgive something that may not necessarily need to be forgiven. It’s sort of a social fog, based on longstanding English “manners,” but hides the real intent, and can put someone who is more grounded in reality (or at least literalism) in a bind. I’m sure there are many gray areas associated with all of this, but consider this?
When you apologize, you take responsibility. Most Indians don’t like to take responsibility. Furthermore accepting your mistake in India always has consequences, or so people think. Sometimes we Indians are very quick to put a person down; to the extent that pointing out someone’s mistake is sometimes done with the sole purpose of insulting or discrediting someone. Take,for example, when people pointed out the racism in Australia in response to your blog post about gender inequality in India. In their own way they were discrediting you because, in their mind, it would make your points moot. Making a mistake is a sign of weakness, so showing contrition is something we always shy away from. Instead we try to defend our mistake.
Weather I, as an Indian, like it or not, most of us do the right thing out of the fear of the consequences of doing the wrong thing, not because the right thing is well the right thing to do; or we do it because we believe that doing the right thing would entitle us to a reward. That last statement is a strange one to make but I think that is also where the corruption in our society comes from-“I cleared your documents even though I would not have been penalized for not doing so, therefore you must pay me money or give me a tip”. I would like to say here that I am not defending this behavior, just trying to explain it.
If I think back on how my behavior was, I can say that almost always it was fear of appearing weak that would hold me back from accepting my mistake. I now realize that doing that also makes you appear like a stubborn butt-monkey. So now I try to be more responsible and accept the mistakes I make and apologize for them. But even now I can think of certain people, some of my classmates from school, people who have always lived in the same city all their lives; they would stop taking me seriously if I made a mistake, a simple one like saying the distance between two places in Delhi incorrectly, and then accepted my mistake. My opinion about driving directions may never be considered again.
Thanks for your insights, they really do help me understand this more.
I’d agree with what Prateek said too. I’ve lived both in Britain and India and while personal circumstances slightly changed I found that I was able to apologise with ease when in the UK but found it incredibly incredibly hard to apologise in India (and on occasion to Indian friends in the UK) – there certainly is something about apologising that is associated with shame in Indian culture – it is seldom seen as the right thing to do, albeit in my personal experience.
Thanks for your comments Ankur. It is interesting how behaviour changes when you are in a different country, indicating there are very different cultural norms.
I have to agree with Ankur. While I couldn’t tell you why it is so – it was a lot easier to apologize when I lived in the US, than now, when I’m back in India. I think it is because we don’t have an easy way of saying it in our language/culture?
Then again, no one says thank you, either. I give my maid cash and a sari for dussera, she puts it in her bag and leaves. If I were to thank my relatives, I’d be laughed out of the house (‘Thanking your Grandma, indeed. Are we Westerners or what?)
Thank you for making me think, Rakhee. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to make us reexamine our values.
Thanks for your candid response. I find it fascinating that apologies and niceties differ depending upon which country someone is in. But I guess that means it really is a big part of the culture.
“Furthermore accepting your mistake in India always has consequences, or so people think.”
Amen to that! In my experience, when you deal with Indians on a professional level, it is always a good idea to give the impression of invincibility. In a culture where even the most incompetent give an aura of expertise, admitting your professional shortcomings or being a little self-depreciating can give off the impression of being untrustworthy, dumb and a pushover. Hell, I have known Americans acculturated to this environment start making the same presumptions (which shows that the behaviour is acculturated).
It was very draining to me for a while, the whole pretention, so I started writing to relieve the stress – where I am more honest, pragmatic and in-your-face, so to speak. However, over time, I found that being honest and straightforward among your peers, those that you have no ‘business’ to be overtly diplomatic with, gives you an edge. People are more comfortable about being vulnerable and human amongst someone who IS vulnerable and human, who defies the cultural practice of trying to be an emotional brick wall. You even develop a cult following.
Interesting observations, thanks for sharing. I do agree with your thoughts on how vulnerability is seen. I quick to apologise when I am wrong but am learning that it’s seen the wrong way.