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"Conversation. What is it? A Mystery! It's the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest, of pleasing with trifles, of being fascinating with nothing at all. How do we define this lively darting about with words, of hitting them back and forth, this sort of brief smile of ideas which should be conversation?" Guy de Maupassant

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Hemant just told me a little anecdote that made me smile and despair at the same time. Smile because I've experienced much the same and despair because it begs the question of who is literate in our country, and how many.

There was a discussion today among senior market research industry heads around definitions of literacy, socio-economic status, affluence etc. The Government of India in its Census reports defines literacy very loosely (see page 11 of this PDF document), in some cases translating into the ability to sign your name, while the marketing research industry defines it as the ability to read, with understanding (which is possibly ambiguous in its stringent definition!!!). The government uses one definition for projecting it's success in social development, while market research reports are used by advertisers who pour in huge amounts of money to fund publications.

They were trying to explain this difference to a client, who didn't quite know how to resolve this difference - and wanted to essentially figure what is the bang for his bucks. But he just wasn't able to grasp it (I don't blame him!). After trying all the technically 'correct' angles to this issue, Hemant says he threw his hands up in the air, and a senior industry leader took it upon himself to explain it - and was tremendously successful at it.

This is the gist of what he said (he needed 15 minutes to get his point through). He has a maid who has been with him for over 10 years now - everytime she takes an advance of even as little as Rs. 10 (less than 25 cents - USD), and this happens every other day, he makes her sign a receipt which is like an IOU. She signs it in perfect English although she can't read or write anything else in English or in any other language. And everytime she irritates him, he gives her a piece of his mind in the Queen's English, she is completely impervious to it, stares back blankly and goes back to doing just the thing that he was berating her about.

Is she literate .... or not .. or just very smart? What do you think?

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