The greatest of people often falter and flounder due to use of inappropriate words during their conversation. Once Reserve Bank Governor, Raghuram Rajan landed up in big controversy by using a phrase that stirred a debate. A foreign journalist once wanted to know what it felt like to be the bright spot in the world economy.
The erudite economist, who perhaps may be more comfortable with numbers than words, replied “Andhon mein kana raja” or “In the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king”. The central bank Governor meant that India is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economy.
He used a proverb to substantiate his analysis, which was way off-the-mark. The Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, used this phrase in Latin when he wrote: “In regione caecorum rex est luscus.” There are two ways of interpreting the meaning of what Rajan said. Firstly, India is an island in a non-performing ocean.
It can also imply that everything is gloomy, including Indian performance, which was slightly better-off. The detractors of Rajan took the second analysis as his intent. They soon derided him for denigrating Indian’s economic performance that too being in the position of Central Bank Governor.
You should be very careful with your words and phrases when you are in a public discourse. In a live television interview, someone asked me whether India has developed or not since independence. I replied every idiot has a mobile phone today. Is it not development?
As I ended my live television talk, I started getting phone calls. Sir, we have a mobile phone. How can you call us an idiot? I never meant it. But, that is how many perceived it. Reflecting on his irksome experience, Rajan says, “every word or phrase a public figure speaks is intensely wrung for meaning.
When words are hung to dry out of context, it then becomes fair game for anyone who wants to fill in meaning to create mischief. Worst, of course, are words or proverbs that have common usage elsewhere, because those can be most easily and deliberately misinterpreted”.
Language can be quite tricky. It has different connotations for different contexts. People, hoping to outsmart others or to impress a gathering, use words and phrases that could boomerang. Of course, some people derive pleasure in drawing meticulous meanings. You should be conscious of such hypersensitive individuals. Raghuram Rajan himself narrated his personal experience after being irritated by unwanted controversy over his remarks.
A male professor used the phrase “As a rule of thumb” to make his point. A female history professor became visibly agitated and angry. She explained that “the rule of thumb” referred historically to the maximum width of the stick with which a man could beat his wife without breaking the law.
She was angry the male professor used the phrase so lightly, seemingly condoning domestic violence. He, of course, had no clue about the historical origins of the phrase. Rahul Gandhi responding to terrorist attacks in Mumbai said, “We will stop 99 per cent of the attacks. But one per cent of attacks might get through and that is what I am saying.”
His critics were quick to call him insensitive and irresponsible. He may be telling the truth. But, in such a context, what is true need not be told. The nation at that point of time needs an affirmation of zero-tolerance to terror. Understanding the inevitable is the genius. But telling the inevitable is not always a sign of genius.
The Gujarat police were facing allegations of complicity in the riots. When asked by the media, the Gujarat police chief replied that even police personnel were human beings and had emotions and sentiments. In this case, also, the senior officer was telling the truth, acknowledgement of this reality means a clear dereliction of duty. He can say so perhaps in an academic seminar, but certainly not in a public talk.
Similarly, Andhra Pradesh police chief was once asked to comment on combing operation against left extremists. He faced this question on umpteen occasions. Seemingly irritated by it, he immediately took out a comb from his pocket and started combing his hair to visually demonstrate what it meant. In the process, the highest police official though needed it to express his disgust that stemmed from frustration, displayed an utter lack of seriousness to the challenge confronting the State.
Narendra Modi compared his regret over a massacre of minorities in Gujarat riots to the sadness of running over a puppy. Modi, in an interview, contended that when we are at the wheel of the vehicle we are its driver, but when someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind and a puppy comes under the wheel, will that be painful or not?. Whatever may be his intentions, his analogy was bizarre, to say the least.
Colourful words and phrases decorate a speech. You cannot make your conversation dry and boring. But, in this urge to make your words attractive, you may be dragged into a controversy. This is the dilemma of everyone who wishes to influence others through their speeches or conversation.
Rajan himself speaks about this dilemma: if we spend all our time watching our words and using inoffensive language or hedging everything with caveats, we will be dull and not be able to communicate because no one will listen. At the same time, not paying attention to words or phrases that could be offensive will have adverse ramifications. Watch your words!
As Pearl Strachan Hurd advised, “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” Simply put-a watch on your words!