Many Indian immigrants to Silicon Valley struggle with the language of Big Tech. The language in question is not English, or for that matter, Python. The dialect of corporate America can seem vaguely indecipherable, where the words spoken aren’t necessarily the words meant and sentences must be decoded for hidden subtext.

Successive HR training programmes and employee manuals have led to a sort of erasure of personality at work, where employees find themselves speaking in templated formats. “Political correctness is taken to an extreme, where even in casual conversations, you need to be as careful as a lawyer filing a legal notice,” said an employee of one of the world’s largest tech giants.

Another says she vets each sentence to ensure it lands correctly and that her intent is not misunderstood. She has long since replaced “Hi guys,” with the more gender-inclusive “Hi all”.

While respect for different cultures, communities and genders is valuable in any workplace, the narrow, tight boundaries within which people are allowed to express themselves results in the “shredding of any form of humanity and authenticity”, as one employee put it. The concern feels less about inclusion and more about ensuring the company doesn’t get sued.

As people are discouraged from bringing their full range of emotions to work, passive aggression often replaces plainspeak. This is particularly true of big tech companies with bloated bureaucracies. Startups and smaller companies do not have the money to lose on indirect communications.

Indians who have previously worked at both the India offices of multinational tech companies, as well as on America’s East Coast, find the Silicon Valley offices especially challenging to navigate.

While some have experienced toxic workplaces in India, they were better able to interpret social cues in an environment where people brought all their emotions to work – anger, sadness, frustration, joy.

“Things are different here,” said a young man from Hyderabad, pointing to the difficulty of working in an environment where familiar points of reference don’t work any more. Nor do cues for language or body-language, making it difficult to read the room. “You may assume that when people say something in a positive manner, it means they’re happy with you, but that’s often not the case. People don’t say things directly.”

Phrases used by managers, like, “This is great. Let’s flesh out your document further,” have left employees unsure of whether they’ve actually done a good job.

It isn’t long before Indians in tech are introduced to the sandwich method of feedback, colloquially called the “shit sandwich”, which involves inserting a piece of negative feedback between two compliments.

Employees at the office of a technology giant in California in 2012. Credit: AFP.

A few years ago, a tech CEO called for a meeting in which he started out thanking a team for the work they had done on a particular project. “Those who were naive looked on eagerly, while the veterans figured early on, that this meant the project, and consequently team, were going to be disbanded,” said an Indian executive present at the meeting.

“First, you’ve got to hear what someone is saying at face value,” said a woman from Mumbai who works in Silicon Valley. “Then you’ve got to understand what they’re actually trying to tell you. After that, you need to formulate a response and eventually frame your response in appropriate language without changing the tone of the conversation. There is so much more information to process than we’re used to in India, it’s exhausting.”

She believes this style of communication makes the workplace inefficient. “What’s the point of communication if you can’t understand what the other person is saying?”

After perplexing conversations at work, she turns to a WhatsApp group of Indian friends in Silicon Valley to help her interpret what was said.

Growing up on a diet of Hollywood and American sitcoms did not prepare her for the country’s corporate culture, which left her so tired during her first few years in the Bay Area that she retreated into a shell and turned introvert for a while.

Several years after moving to Silicon Valley, she says she now understands 50% of what’s said to her. Navigating corporate culture, the specific way language is used, and directness of communication or lack thereof, feels to her like an additional tax she has had to pay to live in the Bay Area.

While navigating a new culture, several Indians speak of the acute need to make meaningful connections with other human beings. What they get, instead, is extreme friendliness and copious amounts of small talk – devoid of intimacy.

“You can have years of small talk with a person without building any real relationship,” said a tech employee from Pune who moved to Silicon Valley in his thirties. “Friendships at the workplace are like umbrellas; you check them in when you enter the office and check them out when you leave.”

Much of the small talk revolves around American sports. During a temporary stint in Silicon Valley, an Indian intern researched baseball and football in case she needed to participate in conversations around sports. An Indian manager caught match highlights in order to make small talk at work. Yet another downloaded the ESPN app for the same purpose.

In response to the perfunctory Monday morning “How was your weekend?” an Indian woman noticed, over time, that while she shared more and more of her life, her colleagues shared less and less of theirs.

“So often, while traveling on buses and trains in India, you have meaningful conversations with strangers,” said another tech employee. “The connection, though momentary, is real. But here in Silicon Valley, relationships feel synthetic.”

This is ironic, given how much companies talk of the importance of authenticity and vulnerability at the workplace. But the vulnerability on display seems performative. Managers share “vulnerable” moments of their life, in curated fashion, as the opening act of a team meeting in order to bond with teammates, in an almost theatrical display of authenticity.

“The strategic choice of when and where to divulge one’s personal life begins to feel more opportunistic than real,” said a disillusioned Indian employee who was once wowed by the seeming wokeness of corporate America.

Credit: via Canva.

The ability to turn one’s struggles into a compelling narrative that can be suitably marketed is a skill that many Indians struggle to adequately develop. Take for instance the LinkedIn bio of an American tech worker that says, “First-generation college graduate.” While that’s a line that would apply to many Indians, they may not feel the need to play it up.

“Life in India is hard and we jump through so many hoops to get to America,” said a man who has worked for both the Hyderabad and Silicon Valley offices of tech multinationals. “Hardship isn’t really seen as something to brag about. Rarely do Indians know how to market their own adversity to climb the rungs of corporate America.”

An Indian woman on the diversity, equity and inclusion team of a tech company talks of how adept the white man leading the team was at perfectly articulating why he was the right person for the job. “While I have had more diverse experiences than him, he definitely did a better job storifying his life than I ever could,” she said.

Two popular Silicon Valley apps serve as a metaphor for the growing gap between one’s workplace manner and what one actually feels. The professional networking site, LinkedIn, is much like the workplace, replete with the humble-brag, demonstrations of thought leadership and unique insights. On the other hand, Blind, an anonymous platform for verified tech employees, can sometimes devolve into a cesspool of negativity and cynicism.

“One has respect without authenticity whereas the other has authenticity without respect,” said a tech worker.

Manager training manuals at a social media company mentioned the need to “show care”, prompting the observation that actually caring for those who report to you may be preferable to “showing care”.

Over time, expressions of care and concern can seem robotic. In response to catastrophic world events from wars to shootouts, managers receive emails asking them to check in on their teams. Managers, in turn, email their subordinates with links to mental health resources provided by the company. At face value, this seems kind and considerate. Over time, it begins to feel formulaic, aimed at protecting managers from negative performance feedback and ticking the “show care” box.

If you’re a product manager, it isn’t enough to drive impact on your product. You must also demonstrate collaboration across functions, with measurable metrics like “lunch-and-learn” sessions in which you share your insights with other product managers.

A designer at work in San Francisco in May 2012. Credit: Reuters.

Likewise team building activities can seem farcical, too. In an environment of wide-scale layoffs, a mid-size tech company has banned the F-word, the word being family. Managers are discouraged from calling their team a family as employees have begun rejecting displays of intimacy in transactional workplaces.

“Dysfunctional corporations aren’t too different from dysfunctional families,” said Tina Aggarwal, an Indian therapist and director of Meadows Outpatient Center in Silicon Valley. “In both environments, you don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel.”

In a hire-and-fire environment, she believes superficiality at the workplace protects managers from getting emotionally involved with people they may have to fire.

Safety, in any relationship, comes when there’s a real connection, a sharing of vulnerability, says Aggarwal. “But what happens if this vulnerability is fake or used as a weapon against you?” she asked. “We grew up in a culture where the norms and nuances of language and relational dynamics were very different from the West, because of which Indians are caught off guard at the workplace. As a result, they often get discriminated against or exploited.”

Coming from a country that values modesty, several Indians struggle with a corporate culture that encourages people to market themselves. “While I may simply say that I have helped to launch a particular product, others articulate the process of doing so to sound as if they’ve navigated life’s toughest challenges,” said an Indian in tech.

Another Indian, who manages a team, said that he used to think that if his work was good, he’d be rewarded. “But here, annual reviews and calibrations are part science, part art,” he said. “It’s as important to demonstrate what you’ve done as it is to do the work. It’s exhausting. Half my brain is on solving a problem and the other half is on telling people I’m solving the problem.”

After a decade in the Bay Area, he has begun indulging in behaviors that are unnatural to him, like posting updates about the work he is doing on office Slack channels.

An introvert by nature, he’s been told he needs to demonstrate confidence to succeed. When presented with a problem, he’d rather think it over and consult others before coming up with a solution. He has learned that the workplace values people who can show confidence by conjuring on-the-spot solutions.

In such an environment, feedback can be vague and baffling. An Indian member of a strategies and operations team was told that, in order to grow in the company, he needed to be more strategic. When he asked specifically what that meant, with examples, his manager promised to revert to him. Before he could hear back, the team was laid off.

Anahita Mukherji is an award-winning Indian journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.