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I am an academic in a US university. My co-worker is a more junior academic who grew up in India and has family in New Delhi. Today I learned that he has lost several family members (uncles, aunts, grandparents) to covid. He wrote an email to a few co-workers, explaining why he won't be able to meet an upcoming deadline. Even though he and I are not particularly close, I feel very much sympathy for him at this time, and I would like to express my condoleances. What is an appropriate way to do it to an Indian person?

I realize that more information may be needed, such as religion, language of his family, but I do not know them. I am female, and more senior. In the remote work circumstances, we communicate mostly by email, but we may also meet on zoom, together with the rest of our team. So I may write an email of condoleances now, and repeat them the first time we meet. I was going to also ask if some gesture (like sending a card/flowers/...) is appropriate and appreciated, but I would have to find his home address for that (possible). It's important that the message is warm, makes the person feel good and supported, but does not suggest any unprofessional relation. I want to add that I and colleagues intend to be as flexible as possible with his deadlines.

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  • Hey yo9cyb! While including more information like religion or language seems a good idea, I think one more point that you could include that could make a difference in the appropriateness of actions, is how you learned about this. Was there some kind of communication from the university about this, did you overhear him saying this to someone else, did he tell you directly (and only you, or also others?) or was this gossip shared with you by someone else? Or any other way? – Tinkeringbell May 19 at 6:22
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    Thanks @Tinkeringbell for the suggestion! I edited my question to explain. – yo9cyb May 19 at 7:43
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What is an appropriate way to do it to an Indian person?

In my (albeit Dutch) experience, the appropriate way to handle this isn't going to be any different just because your coworker grew up in India. You say you're not particularly close, so treating this with a more professional than personal attitude would be fine if your relationship is more professional than personal to begin with. I've worked with people from several cultural backgrounds now, and unless you're extremely close, say to the point where they've invited you to participate in their cultural practices, just being Dutch/professional has always worked fine for me in situations that required the offering of some support in a workplace environment: it ends up being appreciated.

My main guideline for situations where work obligations and private life 'milestones' overlap like this is that things need to be consistent: Any appropriate way of handling these situations treats everyone as equal and avoids people feeling bypassed/underwhelmed when it's their turn to receive sympathies or congratulations. This often means adapting to already existing practices within a team, or proposing to start a new practice within a team. It also means that what is or isn't appropriate in your specific situation can probably only be decided by you, but I hope the above guideline can help you do that.

I was going to also ask if some gesture (like sending a card/flowers/...) is appropriate and appreciated, but I would have to find his home address for that (possible).

Some teams I've been on sent cards to congratulate/sympathize all the time, others just reply to e-mails/whatsapp messages. I personally like the approach of the first kind better, as it is more likely to reach people that aren't checking their work laptop/e-mail/phone in such circumstances.

With Covid-19 and the increase in remote work, I also see a bit of an increase in situations that a card is sent for; for example with the team I'm currently working with. Where I would usually be bringing and sharing treats with my coworkers to celebrate my birthday, and be congratulated by them in the office, they now sent me a birthday card and a chocolate bar I didn't have to share for my birthday last year.

Based on that, I think sending a sympathy card wouldn't be out of line here at all. It's often done in the places where I work, though usually on behalf of the entire team and not on a personal account. So that's something you might want to consider/check: if someone is sending a card on behalf of the team, or if the team wants to start a practice of doing so.

As for sending anything to go with the card, pick whatever is culturally appropriate/common in your workplace. For someone dealing with dead family members, flowers or other gifts might indeed not be appropriate as those are usually celebratory, like you pointed out in the comments.

I want to add that I and colleagues intend to be as flexible as possible with his deadlines.

You can most certainly send him an e-mail that expresses your condolences regardless of whether you send a card or not, but only start about the deadlines if you actually have control over those, so you won't be making empty promises or raising false expectations. If you do have that kind of control, I'm sure that assuring him that you'll be as flexible as possible with the deadlines, and offering to work together to sort this situation out will be appreciated.

The few times I caught a flu and was ill for a week, it was nice hearing that deadlines could be moved or coworkers could pick up the slack. I can imagine the same feeling applies in situations where you're dealing with dead family members.

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    @Tinkieringbell thanks for the suggestions. I have more or less arrived to the same conclusion, that keeping with the culture of the team is best. But I had not thought of sending a card on behalf of the team. I'll do that. – yo9cyb May 21 at 16:41
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    I want to add,too, that if there is a scale cultural specificity for "personal difficulties that affect work", bereavement is at the top of the scale, and catching flu closer to the bottom. That is, sending food/flowers to someone with flu will hardly clash with their cultural norms. But what about sendng them to a bereaved person? in my culture of origin, flowers are never for the bereaved, they are always for the dead. If my colleagues sent me flowers when I am mourning a relative, I would understand that they meant well, but I would also feel that something "not right" has been done. – yo9cyb May 21 at 16:53
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    @yo9cyb Oh, yeah! I wasn't trying to suggest flowers or food are okay, the chocolate bar is just an example of what I got in the mail last year, when it was my birthday ^^ For sympathies, we've only ever done cards on behalf of the team (and/or verbal replies when meeting up). Honestly, flowers/food are for long-term illnesses over here as well, so I'd be feeling the same way (meant well, but 'wrong') if they went that overkill on 'just a flu' :D – Tinkeringbell May 21 at 17:25

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