Friday, April 29, 2016

From Social Relationships to Business Contracts: When Word Has No Meaning, Life Has No Essence

Words have enormous power, more enormous than one tends to understand these days. In fact, the ability to express through written and spoken word is the most important characteristic that differentiates human beings from all other known living creatures. Scientists hypothesize that the development of complex language was a key to the evolution and advancement of the human race. From the spoken word to the written word, it has been a most influential and most dynamic discovery of human memory. Civilizations and cultures got preserved by the words as spoken, and more importantly as written. Yet, words do good as well as bad, and some even tend to dismiss their impact saying “these are just words”. Equally, societies got fragmented between speakers and listeners and between writers and readers.

Words are the most important constituent of social relationships and business contracts. A whole range of vows and promises as well as agreements and contracts are expressed through words, and solely words. The traditional societies accord great importance to the spoken word as a contract that must be honoured in letter and spirit. The developed societies lay great store in capturing the intent, execution and consequences in terms of long legal contracts. While there was law and order as a function from times immemorial, there is no evidence that the written word was vested with so much legal import as it is vested with now. One would, therefore, imagine that words are more important than ever. Unfortunately, however, the more legal the words became the more travesty of justice began to be encountered in modern societies.  

Word quotes

Words are so powerful that some of them become timeless quotes, retaining their power and relevance across generations. The great epics of various religions paint a rich tapestry of teachings. Hinduism probably has the world’s most extensive heritage of impactful words expressed through vedas, upanishads, epics, keertanas, mythologies and theologies. In contemporary English, an Anonymous writer has said so effectively: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; Watch your words, they become your actions, Watch your actions, they become your habits: Watch your habits, they become your character and Watch your character, it becomes your destiny”. Societies, doubtless, are shaped by words, and words alone. Words by themselves are not worth the meaning unless backed by actions. Benjamin Franklin observed “Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning”. Thoughts, without words serve no purpose, and words without action have little credibility.

Words become more powerful when they are delivered with passion, piety and authenticity. Words become more powerful also when they are backed by actions. Swami Vivekananda, the great spiritual leader of India was known for his crystal clear thinking and power packed delivery. His words ‘arise, awake, and stop not till you achieve your goal” are some of the most stirring words ever uttered by a leader. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of India’s Independence, was known for his endearingly simple thinking but he imbued the words with great power by postulating and following non-violence and ‘satyagraha’. It is remarkable that both the great leaders were devoted to human service, committed to remove inequalities and promote holistic and inclusive living. Though both had different calls of destiny, both were highly charismatic leaders who influenced countless men with their thoughts, words and deeds in their chosen goals of spiritual awakening and national independence, respectively.

Word deluge

Modern world is overwhelmed by a deluge of words. Digital technologies have literally amplified the deluge, with unbelievable expansion of social media. Legal concerns have made words the addictive stimulants as well as fallacious solutions for a wide range of issues that never bothered the earlier generations. The romantic whiffs and emotional tethers of the past generations are now replaced by broken messages that are punctuated more by smileys and emoticons rather than by wit and sincerity. The gentleman’s understandings in business are now replaced by long essays of constraints and consequences which are incorporated more for form than substance. As a result, social relationships as well as business collaborations have become more complex, less utilitarian and finally more enigmatic. With so many meanings imputed to words, they lose their meaning. And, when words lose meaning, life loses its essence.

When the society is faced with a deluge of words there tends to be more promise than performance. This is not necessarily due to any bad intentions, per se. Promises require just words while actions require dedication, resources and efforts. The huge gaps one sees between social aspirations and promises on one hand and tangible goals and visible outcomes on the other can be attributed to people not being thoughtful about promises, and circumspect about resources. When business becomes concerned about eventualities there tends to be more unease of doing business than ease of doing business. This is not due to escapism per se. Eventualities require just plans which are tempting to make while outcomes require prioritization, focus and execution. The huge gaps one sees between business visions and aspirations on one hand and tangible transformations and accomplishments on the other can be attributed to businessmen being carried away by their visions and aspirations with less attention to resource and organizational mobilization.

Life’s essence

Life’s essence is development. Development requires collaboration. Collaboration is enabled by trust. Trust is reinforced by credibility. Credibility is a result of promise being in line with potential and performance being in line with promise. To complete the loop, authentic promises must be delivered by purposive action. It is, therefore, necessary that one must respect words one uses for their implicit meaning and endeavour to speak what is necessary, commit what is possible and deliver what is committed. This could be as simple as returning social visits or fulfilling social commitments. In fact, enduring social relationships are built when families, communities and societies stay together, and support each other. The traditional old world is built around the cared and the caretakers living together, and families being joint rather than fractured. When economic development and social diffusion throw people asunder what can still retain the bonding is the power of words on staying committed for each other.

Development’s enabler is economic activity. Economic activity requires judicious and productive deployment of resources. Those who can help must have both intent and platform to help the needy. To enable this, ease of carrying out economic activity is a must. A modern day business contract tends to have two pages of deliverables and twenty pages of warranties, assignments, terminations and consequences. All of them are signed off without the signing authorities not really delving deep into the need for, and meanings of such conditions. Today, a few companies have market capitalization greater than the GDPs of several nations. This wealth has to create more development and must improve the conditions of more people. A start-up cannot fly off immediately if the MCA portal does not function for weeks. That the development of the portal is being done by India’s iconic IT bellwether, whose new leadership is now committed to artificial intelligence and the like, and such prolonged glitches impact the exhortation on ease of doing business do imply that words are tending to have less meaning in modern business.

Gift of the gab, curse of progress

With words, and their proliferation, the ability to communicate has become a competitive strength for leaders. From intemperate filibuster to suave oratory, the ability to communicate is dictating the course of companies, governments, societies and nations. Those who have the gift of the gab – an ability and aptitude to speak fluently, glibly and persuasively – has become the hallmark of successful leadership. Swami Vivekanda’s oratory was based on deep spiritual knowledge and with ascetic-like renunciation of pleasures for uplift of the downtrodden. Mahatma Gandhi’s preaching was based on selfless practice of ‘satyagraha’ and non-violence that could galvanise a nation for inclusive, equitable and independent life. Such leaders may have had gift of the gab but they did not need one in reality, because their thoughts and words were backed by actions and outcomes.

When words are spoken with an eye on carrying the day, the gift of the gab verily becomes a curse for the society. Such approach feeds the society and economy with grand expectations with little to show on the ground. When companies hire people with extravagant promises, when businesses seek finances with magical returns, when foundations are laid without marshalling resources, and when collaborations are struck with self-serving agendas, the economic ecosystems become exploitative and stress-prone. Regimented economies as well as democratic countries have been unable to make meaningful progress when economic arrangements and business contracts are made more in letter and less in spirit. From social relationships to business contracts, the words must have meanings that are reflected in actions; otherwise, life itself would have little essence.

Gautama Buddha said,

“However many holy words you read,
However many you speak,
What good will they do you,
If you do not act upon them?”

There can be no better insight on the importance of words than this!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on April 29, 2016


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