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Societal contradictions

Family living style is an important criterion to gauge a candidate’s ability to take responsibility at work.

February 23, 2014 4:01:10 am
We are all familiar with joint families, but how the young generation is confronting change is the most important aspect to discover. (PTI) We are all familiar with joint families, but how the young generation is confronting change is the most important aspect to discover. (PTI)

“How do you differentiate between an Indian joint family and an extended nuclear family when both family units have the grandparents living with them?”

This was the query made by the head of human resources of a company that belongs to one of my clients. We had advised the client that family living style is an important criterion to gauge a candidate’s ability to take responsibility at work.

I’d written about India’s heterogeneous family units three weeks ago; how it connects to business because multi-social elements and living styles impact work life. Let me illustrate with different flavours of family structures.

Joint family: Simi grew up in Nainital, Uttarakhand. Between May and August, her family hotel sees the most business as tourists flock to the state. Her grandparents, parents and father’s younger brother run the business. After her uncle married, things went topsy-turvy. It was an arranged marriage — her aunt was from a joint family too — but as she was the only daughter, she was a demanding, spoilt person. Simi’s mother would cook breakfast and lunch from their single kitchen for the 11 family members before beginning with her hotel duties. Pouting through the day, her aunt would intermittently keep her word about cooking dinner. Total unpredictability reigned about household basics as nobody could gauge what would upset her aunt when, or how she would react. When she threatened to break up the joint family, the family gave her the money to start a beauty parlour. She selfishly pocketed the revenue, but that was no issue as the family split had been avoided — not because of finances — but for the “What would we tell the relatives and neighbours?” After Simi’s grandfather died, her aunt created a scene. She announced that she’d return to her parents’ home if Simi’s parents did not move out of the house. The aunt finally got her way.

How did such brawls at home impact the children? Simi says that compared to her friends from nuclear families, she feels more mature. She learned how to keep the peace, to steer clear of rocking the boat, uphold family honour, anticipate, be patient, consider consequences before acting, shun pettiness in achieving the bigger objective, and look after the vulnerable. In short, she understands the value of intangibles and of building and preserving relationships as the bedrock for the future. If you look at these characteristics with a business perspective, they are desirable. The counter argument that joint family children cannot take decisions because the elders run the home, is negated by this aunt who wanted her own way.

Living with his grandparents, parents and his father’s four married brothers, Hemant has seen tremendous stress and strain through his 24 years. The elder boy in a joint family feels completely accountable for his younger cousins, especially the girls. Hemant’s cousin, a girl, confides in him. She shows him the miniskirt she wears to a party, then quickly pulls a loose salwar over it as Hemant responsibly drops her off in his motorbike. He knows he cannot reveal to the elder generation that he’s allowing this, but he cannot deny her this lifestyle as he too is doing something the elders will disapprove of — he has a girlfriend who does not belong to the same caste. He knows this will be his monumental problem soon.

Extended joint family: Namita lives with her parents and grandparents in Tamil Nadu. Her father is the earning member of the family. It was he who brought his parents to live with his nuclear family; making it an extended nuclear family. Here too, the social values of the older family members have been transferred to the children. Namita and her sister would never go against what they perceive their family would disapprove of. There’s a visible demarcation between her and her friends from nuclear families. Namita says she’s more traditional in her dressing style and approach towards the opposite sex. She’ll never appear provocative. Nor would she, like her friends, spend on expensive cosmetics and perfumes. Her big worry is the caste factor. She and a boy from her college are deeply in love, but social issues have put a question mark on their happiness. He belongs to a higher caste joint family. He says he loves her but has no guts to reveal his love to his parents, fearing their reaction. Namita believes her father may have guessed the situation although she’s not revealed anything yet. He’s told her about their looking out for an alliance for her. He adds that she should not mix with young boys, pointedly mentioning the boy she loves. Namita’s fluid situation is unnerving her, but she says she knows that if her boyfriend does not commit to marrying her, it’s a dead end. She’s willing to risk everything, but her boyfriend’s hesitation tells her that their love will never converge because of caste. She lives with the uncertainty of a love and begins to believe she may end up in an arranged marriage to someone else.

Nuclear family: Anjali’s parents had eloped, so her mother is banned from entering her maternal home. Subsequently, Anjali says she has no restrictions whatsoever on whom to marry. Ranjana is from a nuclear family too, but she has self-imposed discipline. She will not do what she imagines her parents will not like, but seeing her sisters marry outside their caste, she knows her boundaries are not too tight. Both these nuclear family girls are outgoing and extroverts, oozing confidence. They have chosen high-pressure careers, they burn the midnight oil at work and travel nonchalantly, zooming into different cities.

India’s social fibre is so strong that whether you are targeting a consumer or employee, the more you go in-depth to understand the microcosms of this society, the better will you understand the aptitude of your employee for recruitment or the purchase motivation of your consumer. We are all familiar with joint families, but how the young generation is confronting change is the most important aspect to discover.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative  business strategy consultant to top management.

Reach him at

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