Over the past several years as an IT and Engineering manager in a global organization I have had many opportunities to resolve conflicts resulting from communication issues. It is unfortunately a common event to see some colleague or another make a humorous cultural mistake. On a few occasions I have even given others the opportunity to enlighten me on my own egocentric communication mistakes. In hindsight such conflicts can be humorous, but they only seem confusing, frustrating, or even infuriating when they are occurring to us.
A common inter-cultural communication conflict I have run into several times with colleague’s in India is the phrase, ‘Do the needful’. This is a terribly common phrase in various areas of India, with it turning up in email and chat conversations between myself and folks from Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru regularly over many years. Many times I saw this phrase in emails and chat sessions and the combination of a high and low context cultural difference and the 22% gap in what senders expect people to understand and what receivers actually understand for e-mail (Kruger, Epley, Parker, & Ng, 2005). My colleagues in India came from a high-context culture (van Everdingen & Waarts, 2003) while as an American I come from a low context culture (van Everdingen & Waarts, 2003) meaning that I prefer more direct detailed communication while my colleagues expected the details to be drawn from the context of what they were saying (Moran, Abramson, & Moran, 2014, pp. 43-44).
To my American ears this phrase has always sounded humorous and sort of rude. It sounds humorous because grammatically it kind of sounds like someone is referring to a dance move like ‘doing’ The Twist, The Macarena, The Shuffle, or some dance challenge on Tik Tok. (All the dancers in these video are better than me, even the fails!) I guess the Harlem Shake most reminds me of what popped into my head when someone says ‘do the needful’. This may be because my low-context frame of reference as an American becomes confused by the general lack of direction provided by the high-context communication represented by this phrase. There are literally no directions on what it is they expect me to do, or how they expect me to do it many times when I see this phrase. I imagine the many people in the Harlem Shake videos had little direction to end up doing many different dances instead of one coordinated dance.
Early in my career this phrase would turn up in email, usually something like this. (Many times, with no more context than this.)
From: (Not a real address)
Subject: I have some problem
Phil, I have some problem. Do the needful.
Variations may include other pleasantries, but the messages didn’t often include enough context for me to tell what was actually needed. I would run into this frequently when I was in a support position. Several rounds of emails would follow as we tried to get to the actual details, possibly lasting one day per round due to time zone and shift differences. At first, I thought my colleagues were saying, “This is your problem, not mine, fix it so I can get on with my work.” I took this to be an offensive way to tell someone, ‘I am being taken away from my important work because of some failure you are responsible for, stop whatever you are doing and fix the problem’, the lack of additional information provided with the phrase was a confirmation in my eyes that the writer could not be bothered to help resolve this problem that was obviously beneath their position. My local coworkers and I even began to joke about this phrase when it would occur because they had a similar impression. A
We weren’t the only ones who felt this way, Urban Dictionary defines the meaning of this phrase very similarly (there are other definitions listed but some are cruder):
“Do the needful – The person uttering the phrase has indicated to the listener that they have decided the issue being discussed is not their problem. They don’t care how it is solved, but know they will not be involved in solving it (Willy, 2018).”
As I rose through the ranks of our organization over the years I began to here this from more senior leaders in India including directors, and senior managers over large groups and teams, though they would typically provide a little more context and say Please in front of it.
Subject: We have some problem
Phil, At some time we started having some problem, preventing our teams from delivering on their commitments in some way.
Please, do the needful.
This was almost more frustrating to me than the others because I thought that the more senior members were talking down to me and blaming me for their team’s problems. They would commonly copy other senior leaders of our organization on the emails, and the phrase seemed to assign blame for whatever issue they were having to me or my team. I began to respond defensively to such communications when the phrase was used, and push for more detail of what was occurring only to get handed off to a less senior person to provide details which also reinforced my impression of what was being communicated.
Eventually I was on a work trip to India and while working with teams in their normal workspace noticed this phrase used several times in daily conversation with each other. Both senior and less senior people in the organization used it with each other in my presence. The tone and inflexion of their voices as well as their body language did not convey what I had been reading into the emails. This aligns with research that suggest that 80-90 percent of communication is nonverbal (Hall as cited by Moran, Abramson, & Moran, 2014, p43). As a result many of these details were unavailable to me before meeting face to face or even on the phone. While in the emails even our cultural conflict styles may have led to further misunderstanding (Croucher, et al., 2012).
In a conversation at English Language Learners Stack Exchange about the phrase ‘do the needful’ several commentors express their desire to use this because it simplifies conversation, and others provide several useful alternative methods to communicate the same thing, but Justinredd gave the following advice which pertains directly to this high vs low context issue of intercultural communication that I have observed and is commonly a point of conflict in high low context cultures.
“This is more about culture than about fluency. Americans prefer direct requests… …A polite desi will imply a course of action and request to ‘kindly do the needful.’
(Eg.) Mr. Singh, I’m sending my cousin who is interested in learning guitar. As you have better contacts with musicians, kindly do the needful.
This is well received in India, but this tends to frustrate and even confuse Americans. Most would prefer a direct request.
(Eg.) Mr. Singh, my cousin is interested in learning guitar. Would you use your contacts with musicians to help my cousin find an instructor?
Hearing this, an American will feel they are being treated with respect (justinredd, 2015).”
On the same business trip while at dinner with some of the senior leaders from the facility I was visiting we were discussing an issue that they acknowledged was outside my responsibility but that I understood well and was explaining the root causes of the issue for them. After taking the time to listen and understand the causes the most senior leader looked at me and with great respect said to me “Phil, please do the needful.” That was the end of the conversation.
A mentor of mine who had spent many years on several expat assignments and traveled widely, was at this dinner with us. When he and I made it back to the hotel, I asked him about this phrase and its’ frequent use. He said he also found it unusual at first and that it could be used multiple ways, however he had come to understand its’ meaning as, “I have confidence in your knowledge and capability to take care of this matter for me and would appreciate your expertise in resolving it to avoid further problems. ” He observed that in the discussion at dinner that night it was meant as a compliment and the other less senior local managers at the table would have seen it that way. The leader who had said it had not been blaming me, but had instead taken the opportunity to recognize me in front of his team as an endorsement, and to build further collaboration between us.
In fact, the next day at the office I received several invitations to join local teams at break time or lunch for a walk from the local managers. I also received requests for meetings to advise on projects they were working on that they had not mentioned before. They apparently found new value in a relationship with someone the ‘boss’ would put his trust in. I did not resolve the issue we discussed ad dinner myself but instead contacted the actual team responsible in the U.S. by phone, explained the issue and the impact to the business, provided good local contacts to work with to get more detail, and a suggestion of how they could resolve it. I asked them to keep me and the senior leader who asked me to do the needful in copy on email communications until the issue was resolved. The responsible team then initiated resolution communication proactively rather than being blamed for the issue as the start of the email trail. They collaborated with the local contacts and me for details on the issue as needed until it was resolved.
I have since talked about this experience with several of my direct reports in India and colleagues from India. My colleagues thought it was humorous how I had seen the use of this phrase, but my direct reports seemed almost shocked that I would have that reaction. It was a good chance to remind all of us that even though we work together daily the cultural filters that we view the world through can result in a significant misunderstanding even on an insignificant phrase. We need to speak up if we hear a misunderstanding occurring and invite feedback from others especially on how we communicate to ensure that we don’t miss an opportunity for improvement.
Croucher, S. M., Bruno, A., McGrath, P., Adams, C., McGahan, C., Suits, A., & Huckins, A. (2012, January). Conflict Styles and High–Low Context Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Extension. Communication Research Reports, 29(1), 64-73. doi:10.1080/08824096.2011.640093
justinredd. (2015, July 7). Response to: What’s a preferred alternative to the phrase ‘do the needful’? (Stack Exchange Inc) Retrieved September 20, 2020, from English Language Learners StackExchange.com: https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/17278/whats-a-preferred-alternative-to-the-phrase-do-the-needful/61233#61233
Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J., & Ng, Z.-W. (2005, December). Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(6), 925-936. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1995
Moran, R. T., Abramson, N. R., & Moran, S. V. (2014). Managing Cultural Differences, 9th Edition. Routledge.
van Everdingen, Y. M., & Waarts, E. (2003). The Effect of National Culture on the Adoption of Innovations. Marketing Letters, 217-232. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/204470861?pq-origsite=summon&accountid=13158
Willy, W. (2018, January 30). Do the needful. Retrieved from UrbanDictionary.com: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Do%20the%20needful