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  • Writer's picturePeter Yawitz

Indian English phrases that don't translate to Western English

Over the years I’ve been impressed by my Indian clients’ and colleagues’ strong work ethic. Many of them, in fact, have demonstrated a resolute desire to understand a task and to perform it perfectly and on time. A noble quality, but one that can frustrate some Westerners, especially when certain tasks and instructions may not be clear-cut.

Recently an Indian client of mine explained that this laser-like focus on perfection stems from a culture where people learn that they have one shot to get things right. Or, as he pointed out: “We’re taught that if we miss our train there won’t be another one coming after.”

Moreover, his school’s grading system didn’t exactly take cues from the boost-your-child’s-ego progressive education model. Grades were: “good,” “should have done better,” “poor,” and “very poor.” Getting a “good” was truly outstanding achievement. When he later studied in the U.S. and received a “good” on his first paper, he was thrilled, only to learn soon after that an American “good” is pretty middling.

My client suggested that Americans may want to focus on process rather than outcome when working with Indians on projects where goals are undefined.

Finally, here are some phrases that don’t translate well between Western English and Indian English.

  1. “Hmm, that’s interesting.” Although we might use the phrase as an automatic response to people when we’re not really listening to them, Indians take the word literally.

  2. “Hmm, that’s funny.” See above about taking it literally. We often say it when we’re puzzled, not doubled over in hysterics.

  3. “Do the needful.” I’ve seen this phrase many times in emails coming from India. Westerners just don’t understand the phrase, which roughly translates as “Get it done.” In a nice way.

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