Reverting to Emails: Confusion and the Indian English Language

In workshops about global email many people focus on their issues communicating with colleagues in India. Partly this is related to some deeper cultural differences that lead to misunderstandings. But many problems are also caused by the different ways in which Indian people use English.

There are some "English" words that you will probably only hear in India, like "stepney", their word for a spare wheel. A hundred years ago this term was coined in the UK and was exported to India where it survived. Back home only a few antique vehicle enthusiasts have any idea what it means. There are also many English expressions that are peculiar to India, like "What is your good name?". But in both cases an English speaker from elsewhere would just see an unfamiliar expression and either ask what it means or google it.

Most problems are caused by another kind of difference: where a standard US or UK English word is used but with a different meaning. Recently someone asked why so many people make the "mistake" of using the word "revert" to mean "reply", as in "I will revert to your email next week". This might be considered an error in other countries -- where "revert" means to restore to a previous state -- but in India this is simply the way the word is used. And given the numbers speaking Indian English you could argue that it is hardly fair to describe it as incorrect. Indian English is by now a language or dialect no less than many others.

Revert isn't the only word that causes problems. The word "doubt" also has an unusual meaning in Indian English, where it is often used to mean "question" rather than simply suggesting uncertainty, as in "professor I have a doubt". The word "scope", too, might not mean what you think. In most English speaking countries it means something like the coverage of something, but in India it refers often to job opportunities, as in "what is the scope of chemical engineering?". Even innocuous phrases like "I hope so" are a source of endless confusion because in Indian English it can mean "I think so", rather than "that is what I hope".

Outside of the world of business there are also a few words that can cause serious confusion. One of the most common is the word "propose". In most English speaking countries "Mr A proposed to Ms B" usually means that they proposed a marriage. In Indian English the word "propose" is used much more often and is the word to use when you invite another person for a date or attempt to start a romantic relationship. You can imagine that this has been the source of many misunderstandings.

There isn't, as far as I know, any definitive guide to purely Indian English expressions. Most of the lists available online list many words that are actually British -- flat for apartment, picture for movie and so on -- rather than being purely Indian. This is probably because there are not many people who know Indian, American and British versions well enough to know when a word or expression is used only in India.

Perhaps one day someone will compile a definitive list, but meantime be extra careful with emails coming from India or from Indians living outside of India because sometimes the words might be English but they do not necessarily mean what you think.

This note is based on content from a workshop called Writing Effective Email in a Global Business, a half-day introduction to the essential cultural understanding needed to make email more effective in a multicultural business.


Lectures, Workshops, Coaching, Writing

Andrew Hennigan does lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics. You can contact him by phone on 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France or 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden, by email at conseil@andrewhennigan.com or through his website http://andrewhennigan.com.

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