Dubai: Dubai-based Punit MK Vasu perhaps needs no introduction. CEO of the Indian High Group of Schools, he is a prominent educator and third-generation Indian expat in the UAE. He is an alumni of the University of Connecticut in the US and University of Bradford in the UK and has served as finance director at the London School of Economics. Understandably, the 43 year old has a huge circle of business contacts, family and friends.
Now, anyone who is in touch with him knows one thing: Vasu is not on WhatsApp or any social media. Few, however, know why. When Gulf News asked him for the reason, his response was candid. Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
How do you manage to stay connected with people without WhatsApp?
I think we can all remind ourselves that there was a well-functioning happy world out there, and complete, wholesome lives within households well before social media came about. So to gasp at the prospect of a life without WhatsApp would perhaps be a tad judgemental on previous generations because relationships during their period were happier, personal, well-connected, better-structured and closer knit.
I will not deny the convenience of WhatsApp.
But staying connected asks for more than just a device or a platform.
WhatsApp is a platform, your phone is a device. What drives us to use to stay connected is much deeper and very personal.
Not being on social media means I have more time for face-to-face meetings and meaningful dialogue and phone conversations. It means I can be part of townhall meetings and open discussions with colleagues, parents and learners. I am able to look after my well-being as I don’t feel the stress in having to instantly respond to a message because of the dreaded two blue ticks being seen by the sender.
How then do you go about your communication with the world?
You see, it is very important that in this world of social media and information overload that you control the narrative. That is what we teach our children too, both at home and in school. You step onto the social media world and be prepared to be swept away by all the chatter that is forever buzzing. In that situation, it is so very important to be purposeful. If not, very soon, without our realising, we fall victim to the random act of scrolling- which not only eats into time but nourishes neither soul, mind nor body. We may also fall prey to false hoax messages.
In our times, the life choices our parents and educators taught us were limited to food, partners, higher education, careers, health fitness and family. But today, we need to add one more important life choice and dimension to that list – communication and networking.
At The Indian High Group of Schools, our parent portal and registered school email ids are the two simplest and most effective ways of staying in touch with parents. The school website and official Instagram, X handle supports further. We are also connected directly on the phone with our parents and learners as should be the case for any emergencies. I use LinkedIn for effectively recruiting team members for school vacancies.
What about the personal front?
At home, I am fortunate to belong to a close connected family that cares, supports and backs each other in every way, and does not rely on the “forwarded many times” good morning messages to manifest our love and celebrate important occasions and festivals. My personal connections are too intimate, resilient and respectful, and have endured the pre-social media days.
After all, I am a third-generation Dubai resident. So, my parents and forefathers left families back home in India decades ago, but are still connected. They were present at every wedding, at ceremonies, did their share of hospital support, attended funerals, the entire lot. I am able to continue that tradition with elderly aunts and uncles, and the next generation of cousins, nephews and nieces, without social media.
Did you never have a WhatsApp account?
As with all novelties, I will admit I was fascinated initially by the convenience of the platform and jumped on board. But I quickly realised that this was not for me. The volume of transactions was just too much and there was no distinction between personal and professional messages. Just about everyone was on board, and everyone was reaching out on real-time basis and expecting an instant response. My focus was compromised and I would constantly feel the need to reply at messages pinging away, late during the night. So I decided to cut the cord.
I am also not on any other social media such as X, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat. I last updated my LinkedIn profile a long time ago though I use LinkedIn for effectively recruiting team members for school vacancies.
Have there been any repercussions because of this?
Apart from the shocked, aghast looks on everyone’s face when I tell them I am not on WhatsApp, everything is routine. When I was offered the role of becoming a CEO a few years ago, there was a very active discussion amongst the trustees of the school whether it would be an impediment and how I would manage to reach out to 28 founding trustees, 1,650 colleagues, over 13,000 learners and an even larger number of parents and related stakeholders. However, they were extremely supportive.
A lot of people think I have a secret alternative WhatsApp number, constantly keep asking for it and keep badgering my friends and family for my Whatsapp number. I have had very interesting conversations with business clients, prospective investors that have come to an abrupt halt when they hear I am not on WhatsApp.
I laugh when I explain they can still email me, text me and call me but unsurprisingly, quite a few think these modes are passé. It is also a challenge when courier companies and delivery vendors ask me to share my location and I have to convince them to check their SMS for my location.
Do you sometimes suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in this context?
I am missing nothing. My life is good, my professional commitments are secure and I am blessed to have a loving, nurturing and supportive environment at work and at home. I am learning, growing, and leading at work. I am caring, supporting and fulfilling responsibilities at home. I actually have JOMO – Joy Of Missing Out - as this means I only involved in events, conversations and activities that really matter and happy to miss out the rest.
What do you consider is your biggest gain from not being on social media?
A meaningful use of my time and other people’s time. Sharp focus. Purposeful professional interactions. Enduring personal relationships. Documented emails in the professional domain that can be accessed by others in the future even if I move to a different role. Picking the phone to talk and hear the other person’s voice, feeling and emotions rather than a cold chat on social media.
Do you observe any other forms of digital detox?
During vacations, I deliberately pick destinations where network is poor, rent cottages that are away from your typical metros and spend a few days there. Phones are silent because range connectivity is a challenge. It hits you hard the first day or two, because it is so automatic and reflexive to keep that device in your hand at the dinner table, in the living room, even while walking – and keep checking. But after a while, you realise there is and never was anything significant to constantly keep “checking”.
Your mind reconfigures and you begin to appreciate the trees, the birds, the water, the sky, the light, the darkness, the silence, the sights, the sounds, everything around you and more importantly the people you are with. Some of the best holidays I enjoyed with family have been where we have rented camper vans with absolutely no connectivity.