Want peace and harmony within the family? Check out the Abilene Paradox

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

Vacation planning in my family is like a collision between a bullet train and a goods engine. Cousins living abroad are either jobless or have control over their calendars in a way that is not possible in India. They want to plan holidays a year in advance with the efficiency of a quarterly conference call. So, they email the family group with irritating chirpiness: “Hey, why don’t we all meet in Tanzania over Christmas?”

Radio silence from all of us living in India, caught up as we are with chasing plumbers who haven’t shown up or trying to link our multiple cards for the nth time.

A few weeks later, a more urgent email comes: “Hi guys, haven’t heard back so just thought I’d check about Tanzania.”

People abroad don’t give “gentle reminders” like we do in India. They merely check or “reach out” or wait to “hear back,” pretending to be pashas reclining on cushions while losing their patience.

After the fifth reminder, I decided to take action.

“Ma, do you want to go to Tanzania for Christmas?” I asked.

My mother was staring at the television where a serpent was rising out of a goddess’s crown and trying to devour a child who was floating above a fire made by zen-like rishis who were chanting stentoriously, ignoring serpent, child, goddess and the spear (trishul) that was flying towards them.

“What?” she asked without turning.

I repeated the question, knowing full well what her answer would be.

Parkalaam.” Let’s see. Dekhte hain.

For the elders in my family, urgency is reserved for three things: births, weddings, deaths. Everything else goes into the vault of possibilities – or uncertainties. A vacation six months later? Who knows? Things may happen. Plans get changed, shifted, cancelled. Zinda hain toh… dekhte hain. A double caveat. “Pozhaichu kidanthaal… parkalaam.”

This refusal to engage drives the NRIs nuts. More emails flood our family group, each getting progressively rude. They have to apply for leave, find a dog-sitter, get a phone card for Tanzania, take vaccination shots, book hotels. Hello? Why aren’t you guys responding?

The elders aren’t responding because they are trying to figure out if Kirti will get pregnant again and with whom.

I am trying to figure out in which camp I fall – the super planners or the ad hoc responders. The problem with the Indian approach is that it lends itself to the worst possible outcome. Consider this example.

A month ago, my husband and I visited an aunt and uncle in Saket. We were sitting around making small talk, when Uncle said, “Why don’t we go to Noida for dinner at this new dhaba?”

I was horrified at the suggestion. Before I could say anything, my husband chirped, “Why not? I love dhaba food. Of course, aunty may prefer to stay home.”

For the elders in my family, urgency is reserved for three things: births, weddings, deaths. Everything else goes into the vault of possibilities, including vacations

“Oh, no. You youngsters have come all the way. We should do what you like. And a drive is the best way to chat. Unless of course, Shoba prefers to eat at home.”

“Oh, no, aunty. I don’t want you to trouble yourself. Let’s go have a nice meal at this dhaba.”

You know the end of the story, right? We drove in the heat to a dodgy dhaba which took hours to find, ate some rotten parathas, and returned home late. All of us burst into the house, and burst out at each other. “I only said yes because I thought you wanted to do it.” “I only suggested it because I thought you youngsters were bored.” “We only agreed to go to save you housework, to be polite.”

This is called the Abilene Paradox: where a group does something that nobody wants to do because each person thinks that everyone else wants to do it. Public agreement, private disagreement. This happens a lot in India – among friends and especially in families that value harmony, so individuals are expected to go with the flow. This happens especially in cross-generational settings where nobody wants to rock the boat, ergo India’s greatest invention: the multi-cuisine restaurant where families don’t have to bicker about whether they want to eat dal or nachos or noodles.

Management experts use the Abilene Paradox in companies to foster employee honesty. Look for a series of articles on “The Abilene Paradox: the management of agreement” to know what I mean. One solution is to promote “graffiti” where individuals can anonymously voice their dissent or disagreement – kind of like the graffiti on walls where you don’t know who did it.

I decided to take this graffiti approach in our family email group. I created an anonymous email account and sent a message to my cousin. It said, “Vikram. Nobody wants to go to Tanzania. Everyone hates Tanzania. Stop bombarding the group with emails. Let us go to Matheran instead.”

Turns out everyone did, want to go to Tanzania that is. They had privately written to Vikram expressing interest. And I was caught in the paradox of the Abilene Paradox, which also is all too common in India: private agreement, public silence.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

From HT Brunch, May 13, 2018

BRUNCH Updated: May 13, 2018 01:59 IST

Shoba Narayan

Author’s Note: This is happening right now in many Indian families.  The NRIs want to plan months in advance and the Indians cannot even plan the next week.  It all depends on whether the plumber shows up :)  We aren’t a commitment phobic people.  We are just interdependent on multiple moving parts.

Thank you, Rama Bijapurkar, for introducing me to this idea.

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