Is there any space for Indian modesty in professional life?

बड़े बड़ाई ना करें, बड़े ना बोले बोल।
रहिमन हीरा कब कहे, लाख टका मो मोल।।

Approx. translation: Great people do not praise themselves, they do not talk big about themselves. Who has ever heard the diamond claiming loudly that it is valued at lacs of rupees.

Modesty is one of the most valued traits of human character in Indian culture. The lines quoted above from the celebrated poet Rahim are something most Hindi speakers would have come across at some point of time or the other. There is a very famous Sanskrit shloka also, which I am currently unable to recall, which extols the virtue of modesty. I am pretty sure that most other Indian languages would have poems/sayings to similar effects. And its so much of a part of our upbringing.

I do not know if people from metros and bigger cities have had slightly different experience, but in the environment in which I grew up, you were not even supposed to accept complements by saying “Thank you”. If somebody complemented that you or your dress is looking good, you did not say “Thank you”. You said something to the effect “Oh! do not embarrass me”. If somebody complemented you for doing well in examination, you did not say “Thank you”. You said something to the effect “I was just lucky!”

You get the point, right?

Overall, you were not supposed to try to stand out, but were supposed to try and blend in. And no, this is not the kind of blending in that suppresses individuality. Somewhere the assumption behind all this was that if you are good, the world will recognize you. You don’t need to speak out for yourself. And in fact, you should not!

This principle suited most good people. It was just so much easier to keep doing your stuff well and the world will recognize you. And you know what! It worked. You just did your stuff. You did well in studies, you did well in extra-curriculars or even just one of them. You did not have to shout. The world recognized you.

And as you go to new places for studies, it would always be the same pattern. If you are not the shout-about-yourself type, people would not know you in the beginning. Not in the introduction/ragging period. But suddenly with the first exams, first opportunity for showing your talent, everybody spots you. They wonder where you were till then. And then they remember you. Not just for the rest of your stay there, but for many, many years after you have left.

It happens during student life.

If you have been an MBA student at some point of time, then there is a faint hint of things to come. Your marketing classes will tell you that making a better mousetrap is not good enough. You need to market it, sell it. But as a student, world will still recognize you, if you are good.

And then you enter the professional life. The story is different – totally. And not just for those who are in marketing. Even if you are in a role that will have nothing to do with the customer ever, you need to sell. You need to sell yourself to your boss, your colleagues, your company, even if not your company or its products to the customers. Otherwise, does not matter what you do or how good you are, you will be overlooked. The world will not discover you. It won’t even be enough to just shout our how much your real worth is. Because others will shout out an inflated worth for themselves and will get ahead. You have to shout out louder than the rest and you have to put a value higher than the others. You have to push yourself in front of everyone else; you have to reach on the top of the world by pushing every one down. Otherwise, the world will not recognize you. And don’t even bother with arguing for modesty anywhere. “You have to learn to project yourself in good light; become a professional.”, you well-wishing mentor will tell you.

If your are an entrepreneur, then there is even less scope for modesty. You, of course, have to sell yourself, you company and product to the customer. You have to sell it to everyone else too. To every potential employees, to potential vendors, (to investors), to the people you meet everyday, to your family. And you better appear confident even of the things you would rather accept you are not sure about. You better shout out loud about how great you and your company are. Else, you will not be heard. People do not have time or motivation or skills to assess your real worth. You have to shout it out well and shout it out for much more than your real worth. Because again, you are competing with those who are inflating the values they are shouting out.

What do you do with the baggage of your modesty, which asks you to just shut up and do your job and let the world discover you? It fails you.

Its not that Indian culture and its expectations are inherently impractical. The same culture said long back “सत्यम् ब्रूयात् प्रियम् ब्रूयात्। न ब्रूयात् सत्यम् अप्रियम्।।” “Don’t speak the truth, if its unpleasant”. How much more practical can you get! But, whey the hell did not one creating the foundation stones of this culture could see that world does not always discover what is good. You have to shout out your value some times. What went amiss? If modesty works only in certain circumstances, they should have taught us to have it only in certain circumstances. Somehow that does not happen.

If there is one thing about my upbringing which I find limits me and which I also find is impossible to leave behind, it is this lesson in modesty. I have learned to respond to complements with a “thank you” over time. But thats a mechanical learning. Shouting out is still an issue and it hurts!

What do you think? Is there a place for the modesty our culture teaches us in our professional lives? One thing I would like to give reference to is Nadeem’s post here on his experience of trying to find an alternative career in corporate world. Specifically

However, I must confess that the new rules are not easy to play by. Self praise is frowned upon in the Services and I still blush when I have to assure the HR recruiter that I am good.

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About Jaya

Jaya Jha is an entrepreneur, a techie, a writer and a poet. She was born and brought up in various towns of Bihar and Jharkhand. A graduate of IIT Kanpur and IIM Lucknow, she realized early on that the corporate world was not her cup of tea. In 2008, she started, one of the first print-on-demand publishing platform in India. She currently lives in Bangalore and divides her time between writing and working on her company's latest product InstaScribe ( with a vision to make it the best e-book creation tool. Blog: Twitter: @jayajha Facebook:

13 thoughts on “Is there any space for Indian modesty in professional life?

  1. I think the demography of fans of Sachin Tendulkar and Tiger woods is a pretty telling sign of the disconnect between still inhibited Indian society and the “new world”.

  2. Yes,I agree whatever u wrote. One should market oneself well in order to earn more fame and money.If u r employee then best way is participate in arguement with other coleagues and never let yourself down in company.But do not advice to ur boss unless asked it would harm u sometimes.If u r employer then u hire and train ur employee in such a way that others tend to think that if employees are such great then how could be the owner.

  3. Nice thoughts Jaya, but not sure if we got the right meaning of modesty still in here. I think modesty is more to do with one’s nature and behavior than the words. The scenarios covered in your post that mentions responses to some appreciation, not sure if those can be considered as signs of modesty. Honestly I think those responses are kind of “shying away” responses. A honest and modest person as you mentioned would take appreciations for his/her work by saying “thank you”, but at the same time would avoid over appreciation/over valuation. Also, think a modest and thoughtful person would not pride about his/her value (or achievement), rather the person will make people realize that value. The person would think more towards applying and using them for betterment of him/herself and (may be if he/she is benevolent, would try to apply the same thoughts for betterment of people around).

    Business world is a different story. Selling and inflating things are part of the game, and I’m not sure if modesty has anything to do with that. However my thinking is – successful businessmen like say Tatas or other bigshots work on altogether a different calculations. Not sure even if they think in terms of marketing their products. For them, marketing is just a part of the business. Their mind would think more on what they want to buy and sell. They would want to peg the right purchasing and the right selling value for any stuff. Would never care about whatever hype hoopla anybody makes. They would rather think on whether buying stuff at the given price makes sense and also think on how to achieve the targeted price they have in mind for the stuff – be it through marketing or through other means. Also I think they factor in recognition/branding when they are calculating the purchasing/selling price. The thing they call in Hindi – “Paar ki nazar”.

    Think this calculation should also be in the minds of anybody who goes for deals with them. Perhaps they have to get prepared in this way rather than just trying to sell their stuff.

  4. This is were East meets West.

    Indian value system is going change, and modesty is one of those affected.

    Another example, Indian value system initially belived in, what today’s marketter brand it as “go green”. “Go green” propagate the message that Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi has practiced since ages. However this change of heart in western thinker has been from fear, rather than a well discoursed path to live life in simplicity.

    With the global competition around and influence of western though process, Indian life has started searching for survival mantras, which is a drift from the old values system where life objective was to look for “mukti or moksha”.

    Gone are the days, when Indian belief was “Less is your need, more is your happiness”, now the measurement is, “More the consumption, more is the GDP, and thus more the happiness around”.

    Today’s world is living in paradox, where “prevelence of peace is being guranteed, with the strenght of military might”. And Indian is also part of this worldly phenominan.

    Ram Manohar

  5. As you have rightly said, there is capability + performance + perception. Somehow the line between performance and perception has become overly blurred over time – credit goes to our professional system, which in the hurry of copying the western world has become a demon in itself. You are lucky you are out of the rat-race, those who are outside sometimes don’t even have a clue as to what’s going on. They will read something as pertinent as what you have written and think of it as “the commentary of the loser”. Therefore, to each his own – we can only lament

  6. This post on modesty makes a good read. Modesty in itself is as uncommon as common sense. I like and completely agree with the sentence in post: “….upbringing which I find limits me and which I also find is impossible to leave behind, it is this lesson in modesty.”

    I have seen this in people around me where in modesty really limits them as against the shout-for-selves kind of people who benefit from the lack of it.

  7. In my opinion it’s the issue of bandwidth, rather than values. In the ‘small world’ of family, friends, small towns, people have the bandwidth to notice, recognize and appreciate your talents, your accomplishments. On the other hand, in the ‘big world’ of corporates, metros and large cities, people do not have the bandwidth to take notice of you. So you need to market youself.

    The different norms of these two worlds are only the consequences of their structural dissimilarity.

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