There Is No Irony in India

January 1, 2019 8:30 PM Chicago, IL

As we waited for the wedding ceremony to start, my colleague asked me to compare and contrast Indian and US culture, and if my time in India had changed my perspective on anything.

I told him that there were some things about India that seemed objectively worse - air quality, traffic, and cleanliness. And there were some things that seemed objectively better - hospitality, family connections, and fruit! While the reasons for these differences were worth exploring, I didn't feel much uncertainty about the experience of them.

I was far less sure about how I felt about another difference - one that I had a difficult time getting used to.

There is no irony in India.

"I don't know the word 'irony', can you explain it?", he said, unironically.

My best definition: "successfully communicating an idea by saying its opposite".

As for why American communication is laced with so much irony, my best guess was part indulgence and part defensiveness. It's a good time! It makes communicating more game-like for both the sender and receiver. It's exclusive - a sorting hat to identify common sensibilities and weed out those that can't "see". It's interesting, affording plenty of room to build a unique style that is still honest. And it's revealing, making clear who shares what context.

And so which communication style is better?

As far as protecting one's downside, irony seems essential. It's expensive to be the person that doesn't understand what others mean, and since we can't control how others communicate, fluency in irony is critical.

But to maximize one's upside, it might be best to abandon irony when you're in control. Take all of the time and energy and lost fidelity required to mean what you don't say and reinvest it in clarity and directness.

Try-hards play well in India. Earnestness is preferred to ambition. Coldplay, Michael Bublé, and the early Beatles sound better.

And that's interesting, literally.