learning new English

Lucky for us, business is conducted in English. Sure, the good jokes come in Hindi, and we sit there grinning as we pretend to know what’s so funny; but for the most part, we get by in the office in our Mother tongue. Except when our Mother tongue meets Mother India, where a brainstorm is an “ideation” and an annoyance is a “botherization.”


This is nearly every conversation we have when a stranger calls us:

Phone rings.

Me: Hello?
Person: Hello?
Me: Hello?
Person: Hello?
Me: (exasperated) Yes? What do you want?
Person: (confused) Ma’am?
Me: (nearly shouting at this point) WHAT?
Person: (tentatively) Ma’am, I’m calling from Vodafone about…)

We thought it was just us. What are we doing wrong? How are we supposed to answer the phone? Why do they always sound so confused when they call us, as if we’re the first sales call of their entire career?

And then we began to notice the receiving halves of “Hello? Hello?” during meetings. (In India, the person on the phone inevitably takes precedent over the person in front of you. There is literally no such thing as voice mail. Conversations end and meetings are put on hold for people to answer the phone. The first time Dave answered his phone with a quick “Jenny, I’ll call you back,” everyone in the room was shocked at how rude he was to his wife.)

So after paying attention to conversations around us, we’re convinced the Four Hellos happens to everyone, not just us. Except they don’t get exasperated. They don’t shout. That’s just us.

(By the way, when the above conversation occurred, I cut the sales guy off by telling him I wasn’t interested, and then I hung up without waiting for a response. The joke was on me: he patiently redialed and the entire conversation, including the Four Hellos, was then repeated in its entirety.)


On the other hand, if you *do* know the person calling you, you don’t say hello. You say “Tell me.”

When we call our landlord: “Yes, Dave. Tell me.”

When our bosses pick up the phone: “Yes, Anuj. Tell me.”

“Tell me.” Not “How’s it going?” or “What can I do for you?” or even “What’s up?” — just a jarring, demanding, abrupt, “Tell me.”

Me: “Hi, Prachi, this is Jenny from downstairs.”
Prachi: “Tell me.”
Me: “Uh…”


Dave’s coworkers have taught him Hindi curse words just to hear them said in his American accent. It’s like when you teach your four-year-old brother to say “doodie”. They giggle when he says lund (dick), they laugh when he says choothia (bastard), and they love it when he says bhen calera (a nonsense swear they made up especially for him; it means “sister dick”). And when Dave learned gaand meh le lo (eat my asshole), Dave’s boss ran around the office telling junior account staffers to go ask Dave for such-and-such piece of paper so he could hear him tell them to gaand meh le lo.

And lo, did the office ring with cruel laughter that day.

Dave is reciprocating. He recently taught his coworker the word “douchebag.” His coworker has a thick Bengali accent, though; he now runs around calling everyone “doozebag.”


Indian corporate and governmental entities don’t like to take responsibility for anything. Their efforts to apologize for the horrific state of the infrastructure take the passive voice to enterprising new heights with three simple words: “Inconvenience is regretted.”

“Rest assured,” they’re essentially saying, “that someone is sorry this four-lane highway is squeezed into one lane so we can spend six months installing these sewer pipes. We’re NOT saying that WE feel bad about anything; but we want you to know that someone, somewhere, is filled with intense remorse. Not necessarily us. But someone.”

At the airport, which is under a perpetual state of construction, someone somewhere is really ringing their hands over the plight of the traveler. “Inconvenience,” say the signs, “is deeply regretted.”

52 responses to “learning new English

  1. Hello?


    Just wanted to drop a note to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. Great stuff, Dave and Jenny, keep it up!

  2. Thanks Russ! Your feedback positive feedback means a lot to us. Hope all is well with you, Beth and Owen.

  3. Great post, I love the bit about the ‘inconvenience is regretted’.. and the swearin of course!

    Just because I’m obsessive-compulsive, I need to tell you that ‘chootiya’ means fucker and ‘gaand mei le lo’ means take it up the ass, you!

  4. I am glad someone has helped convey the correct meaning of the abuses (Danu).
    I am also amused that you have used gaandmelo as a tag – Are we to expect from articles from that genre 🙂

    I love this blog. (Thanks to Desi Pundit). This one is getting added to the google reader list.

    Keep them coming!

  5. “Gand mein le lo”
    Ha ha ha…

    Though it means “Shove it right up your ass”


  6. Yeah, they giggle at me when I swear, too. At first I was told it’s because I didn’t use the appropriate amount of venom. So I say it while thinking evil thoughts. That doesn’t work, either, so I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong.

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  8. you are rushing through your post without interpreting each entry justly.

    btw…bhen calera … amusingly spelled

  9. “Tell me” is one of those literal translations that sound rude in English but are OK in Indian languages.

  10. LOL! I am dying to correct the spelling but I am guessing it wont matter anyway!

  11. Hey Jenny and Dave,

    “Inconvenience is regretted” is plastered across the walls of our temporary office in Delhi…it never made so much sense until now!!

  12. Haha “bhen calera” is spelt so wrong, it’s funny! Well, it’s actually “bhen ka lauda”! Not that I think it’s appropriate to use it anyways… Nice post!

  13. I suspect the difference is that Indians pay attention to the tone in which it is said, so “tell me” in a nice welcoming tone is equally polite.
    Perhaps Americans don’t use tone/pitch to convey meaning, so the words are important ? (I’m not a linguist)

    The classic example is how Indians convert a statement into a question by giving the last syllable an upward pitch.

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  15. I was laughing to hear of those frustrating phone conversations so similar to the ones I’ve been on the receiving end of — “hello…hello”. I’m now convinced it’s because they’re waiting for me to tell them to speak.

    When my husband (Indian) answers the phone to his friends he just say, “haan bol” (yes, speak) . Now when strangers call I just jump in and say “boliye” (please speak) so that they can’t even get to the second round of hellos!

  16. Hahahaha, Aaahahahaa. Doozebag – I know exactly how that would sound with a bengali accent. Me and my wife (we’re Indians in the US) had great fun reading this. Totally hilarious. A sincere Best of luck in India guys =). I hope in some time you see the order in the chaos (yes there is one!). Even I am amazed by the fact that my homecountry somehow keeps functioning, but it does. Inconvenience is regretted. =D

  17. Ha Ha!!!

    I just had comment on this one. The explanation of “Inconvenience is deeply regretted” is the best I have ever heard =)

    @Sharell: He He!!! Loved the “haan bol” expression, it is typically used for very close friends, where you don’t need any formal pleasantries, its almost like “I don’t need to be formal with you and neither do you, just speak up!!” and I loved the “boliye” part too, cause you are being polite but to the point at the same time 🙂

  18. When I moved to the US 24 years ago, people would first speak slooooowly and verrrry clearly to me. Then with a look of surprise they would say that I spoke good English. Things have come a long way since then.

  19. Made me laugh 🙂 “inconvenience is regretted”, it is always 3rd person, as if too ashamed or scared to take the responsibility…

  20. OMG! now it all makes sense to me… LOL
    thanks for this post guys!

  21. LOL
    goodness…this one is hilarious !!

  22. Here’s a tip:

    Me: Hello?
    Person: Hello?
    Me: Yes
    Person: Ma’am, I’m calling from Vodafone about…
    Me: gaand meh le lo

  23. Here is another English from a bizzare world:


  24. God! Even when I call my dad, we go through the “Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?” routine!

    I am from India (currently in Canada, hoping to visit NYC soon!) and your blog made me realize that I am actually so gora inside! 😦

  25. This is hilarious… I think the “Hello” thingy is a leftover from back when the government controlled the telephones, and it was terrible. You had to be sure the other person can hear you. If you can’t hear clearly you kept saying “Hello”, and the caller keeps saying “Hello”. Each successive “Hello” gets louder. So, “Tell me” assures the caller that you can hear. 🙂

  26. God u made me laugh like anything….Infact i too use “Tell me” with my friends and yah it just means 2 tell him/her that everything is fine and i can hear everything clearly and so there is no need to shout….

  27. this is funny..hihi….

  28. LOL!! I have been laughing the past 10 mins since i read “boss running around” bit and doozebag! i can imagine my own classmates in calcutta saying doozebag! 😀

    amazing!! this has been the funniest thing ive read all week!


  29. Hello’s and “Can you hear me”

    Ha ha, I remember my aunt shouting at the tip of her voice when she was trying to talk with my dad who was then out of India.

    A lot of Indians (older generation) think that the farther they are from the receiver, more they have to shout. [Thanks to our telephone systes back then]

  30. These are all hysterically funny but may actually prove to help american/indian relations. its the quircky things we don’t understand about other cultures that make us mad at each other. thanks for sharing.

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  32. Hahaa… I laughed through every word of this post and almost all the comments too. Changed my status on Gtalk to ‘lol’ too. I just cannot stop laughing. 😀

  33. Hahahahah!!!!

    its really hilarious.
    Tell me….
    But things are a bit different with me. If I call or receive a call from person I know I always start with” How r u”/ but tell me/haan bol (hindi) is really common and really it does not sound rude in Hindi or with a different tone in English

  34. Love your blog …I tell you !
    My morning has started out so well, I tell you.

  35. I hear a lot of cribbing from the expats , if u dun like it , and find it bizzare why do u guys live here ? For some reason expats who come to India have the balls to tell Indians that their country is weird and their people funny . We dun do that when we get to the other poor countries

  36. Prav,Why do you read their blogs if you don’t enjoy them ?
    And who do you think you’re fooling when you say “we dun do that when we get to the other poor countries ” ?
    We do it to everyone, everywhere, all the time.

  37. So I just got to say that I love your blog! I come from an Indian family but have been raised in California. So I really consider myself more American than Indian in most respects. I’m not religious, I don’t speak the language that well, I can’t cook Indian food but can easily make Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings, my favorite holiday is Christmas and not Diwali, I don’t hang out with very many Indian people and those that I do hang out with are pretty “white-washed” just like me. I stumbled upon this blog and it actually brings to light a lot of things that I thought was weird about my own parents or about the culture. I didn’t really understand some of it until reading about your experiences. And I think its hilarious!! My mom always answers the phone in a really loud voice, “yah, tell me.” I was like what the f***? I never really got it. I never really get why Indian people have to talk to each other so loud either. I was rolling around on the floor reading this!

    • @dhiv

      I feel sorry for you. You sound very confused about who you are and who you want to be. You’ve obviously not been raised with the right values. Indian culture may have its faults and quirks, but you can be sure that no one who has been raised in that culture would ever say the word “f**k” when referring to their mom.

  38. I did not read through all the comments so I am sure someone must have mentioned it already.
    Tell me is direct translation of hindi. In Hindi when you call on phone or in person the phrases are kind of like “aur sunao” (And relate, as in speak) and “aur batao” ( tell me). The lieteral translation. The language however requires more than that as the exact conversation in hindi would be something like
    “Hello” “aur batao” “kya haal hai” –> Translation: Hello, How are you?
    “Hello, aur sunao/batao, kya chal raha hai” –> Translation: Hello, how is it going?
    and so forth…
    but translations are done word to word (who did them first who knows but it is a norm now) by someone without the complete understanding of English.

    I faced similar thngs when I first migrated to English speaking country. I had to translate everything in my head from Hindi to English. english did not come out first. So the first time I was in a heated arguement with someone and i said
    “Will you listen to me talk?” and pat came response “No. I will not. This is not one way conversation. I got things to say too”
    What i was translating was the hindi – “Meri ek baat sunoge” and i did literal “will you listen to me talk” (i left out ek = one as i used somewhat of my brain that it does not make sense 😀 ). Well translation should have been “Will you listen to me for a second/minute?”

    So the nuances are lost in translation uless the person has mastery of both languages.

    Did not mean for my comment to be a blog entry in itself.

    Awesome blog btw.

  39. I, Dave and Jenny, am at the other end of the stick, an Indian immigrant to the US. I have a colleague whose last name is Lund and I insist on addressing him as Dr Lund rather than Philip. This drives him up the wall, as he insists on me calling him by his first name.
    Last week, after 2 years of insisting on calling him Dr Lund, I told him what it means in Hindi and how I couldn’t lose the priceless opportunity!!!
    A year later I still call him Dr Lund.

  40. I am relearning how to talk on the phone here in the UK. In my Indian way I would launch straight into ‘Yes, tell me…’. I could hear the surprise on the other end. The poor Brit was hoping for a discussion on the weather. They must have thought I am terribly rude. After umpteen ticking off from husband, am slowly learning.

  41. What are we doing wrong? How are we supposed to answer the phone? Why do they always sound so confused when they call us, as if we’re the first sales call of their entire seo singapore?

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