How to do business in India
American companies doing business in India will likely encounter some stark differences between Eastern and Western cultures. The good news for them is that educated business people in India almost always speak nearly fluent English, so there isn’t the same language barrier that they might encounter elsewhere in the Near East or Asia. There are, however, differences in etiquette and other aspects of interpersonal interaction that affect business transactions, and savvy corporations will educate their international workers about them.
Many cultures do not share the western value on making everyone feel as though they are equals. For instance, an American CEO might insist that people call him by his first name to make them comfortable even though it is clear he is the boss. Indian culture, however, is highly stratified, meaning it recognizes and exaggerates differences in status between its members. And even though one could argue that in other ways we all do deserve equal treatment, in the business situation, where there are clear hierarchical differences between employees already in place, it pays to note when there are sensitivities that wouldn’t exist elsewhere.
For instance, if two American men in a meeting found that they needed to move a desk, they would probably both get on either end of it and move it themselves, even if one of them were the CEO. To assume that an Indian businessmen (even on the middle rungs) would be willing to do this task, considered manual labor, is insulting to their honor — they may assume that you are suggesting they are a lowest rung worker.
This type of social stratification has implications for many business specifics, including making introductions. It is good to find out the senior employee because he or she will expect to be approached first. Most Indian businessmen are familiar with the handshake and incorporate it in their business rituals. But those who desire to show a more advanced knowledge of Indian culture could possibly make an attempt to learn the particular bowing
customs of the area. It is important to always address an Indian, even one whom you know personally outside of the business transaction, with their appropriate professional title, even if it is not known and one must use Sir or Madame.
When business people meet in India for the first time, cards are customarily exchanged right away. It is an additional sign of sensitivity to have the card translated into Hindi (the official language),
The creaky wheels of bureaucracy: One of the downsides of the great Indian adventure is the political parties that wield a huge amount of power. Industrial ventures are not easy to set up. At times, you’ll need to grease their palms. And just when you think you’ve won them over with your powers of persuasion and financial might, the next election rolls around and another party is lodged in the seat of power. No matter what progress you’ve made with their predecessor, it’s back to square one for you. It’s extremely frustrating, but that’s the lay of the land.
Festivals: The flavor of sub-continental life: India has its fair share of religions, each of them with festivals. A few are short and sweet, but the rest are long, drawn-out affairs. Reasons for celebration range from the long ago slaying of mythical demons to the bountiful harvest that is reaped in the present. National holidays are declared for a few festivals that are celebrated by the majority, but there are others that often go unobserved. Overseas companies should anticipate and accept employees asking for vacation time around these days. It will be more appreciated at this time than around Western-centric Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year.
Marriages are made in India: An Indian wedding, especially one that goes on for days, is one of those things that you have to see to believe. In India, marriages are occasions for large get-togethers. They include not only the immediate family, but also the extended cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas and new additions to the family. Keep in mind that it’s not just the groom or bride who’ll be asking for time off: even a distant third cousin will deem it imperative that he or she attend and enjoy this three or four-day affair.
Familial fraternization: The joint family system, prevalent in India for ages, is being nudged out by the nuclear family, a new discovery for the modern Indian. Even so, there are many who still have aged parents and infirm relatives living with them. A good Indian son’s duties include taking care of the elderly in the family. Understandably, a broken bone or heart attack will require the son’s, and often daughter’s, attention. Employers must be compassionate during these times of family crisis.
Sometimes the office is taken home: Invitations to the home for business discussions are not uncommon. Don’t be anxious if you’re asked to lunch or dinner. Indians are very hospitable; the woman of the house will go to great lengths to prepare something she knows you’ll enjoy. On your part, you’ll earn brownie points if you treat your host’s family with courtesy and respect. A small gift is greatly appreciated when you’re visiting a business partner’s home.
Small talk is big: If you are hosting the business meetings, remember that Indians are not as direct as their American counterparts. They generally start with small talk and relatively unimportant topics before migrating to the main issue. They also place importance on refreshments during the course of the meeting, either at the beginning, or in the middle during a break, depending on the time of day.
Going by the book: While Americans are generally more results-oriented, caring more about the end result than the path taken to get there, Indians are sticklers for policy. They are used to following preset steps to arrive at a solution, usually because they do not want to get into trouble with someone above them in the hierarchy. Most of them are afraid of stepping out of line, but if encouraged to try new methods, they will be happy to do so.
When doing business with Indians, Westerners sometimes have a hard time understanding their customs. This can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. However, growth can flourish if an effort is made to understand Indians’ ethnic values. It pays to follow the adage: «When in Rome, do as the Romans do.» Read on for a primer on the formal and informal customs and conventions of India today.
A perspective on time: Indians are not particularly renowned for their punctuality; they are perceived as laid back people who only watch the clock when it’s close to quitting time. While that may be true for a small percentage of the population, such as government servants, the vast majority follow a different strategy. For most of the world, time is precious; for the Indian, it’s auspicious. One look at the Indian calendar should give you a clueit’s never complete without the list of auspicious and inauspicious times and dates. Be it weddings, christenings, new ventures, C-section births, or just stepping out of the house for the first day on a new jobthe average Indian allows auspicious times to dictate his activities. Don’t dismiss this belief as superstitious nonsense. Remember that the West has its own superstitions: Friday the 13th, black cats and stepping on sidewalk cracks.
Addressing issues of respect: When compared to the numerous vernacular languages spoken in India, English is much less polite. Indian languages, unlike English, differentiate between peers and those who are older and command respect. That’s why the average Indian tends to address people as «Sir» or «Ma’am,» or affix the title «Mr.» «Ms.» or «Mrs.» before their names: they don’t want to come across as disrespectful. English, on the other hand, is more informal: Americans generally prefer the use of first names. Remember that while most younger Indians will welcome the informality of first names, older ones may consider it an affront, especially if the speaker is much younger.
Comfort zone: A casual hug, peck on the cheek, or an arm thrown around a shoulder may not seem out of place in the West. However, in India, even shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex is only in the process of being accepted. The exception to this rule is a handful of metropolitan cities. With the younger crowd drifting to the cities in search of jobs with multinational IT companies and call centers, they’re adapting fast to the casual touch. However, their mates and spouses are often uncomfortable with this personal contact. Be mindful that your idea of touch may be too close for Eastern comfort.Strikeseven when the iron’s not hot: There are times in India when all activity comes to a screeching halt: shops down shutters, people remain closeted in their houses, public transport is shut down, and private conveyances are stoned or pelted if they dare make an appearance. This strange phenomenon, termed a «bandh,» is a source of bewilderment for the foreign business houses in the country.
�They’re not sure if they should declare a holiday: if they do, their offshore work suffers, clients back home are furious, and precious time and money go down the drain; if they don’t, they risk being the target of angry, irrational mobs. With political clout usually behind these bandhs, it’s best to go with the flow.
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