Global Leadership Blog

Understanding Indian Culture

In working with a favorite colleague, Shaw Dunton, I was struck by his analysis of his experiences in India (a couple of which we had together). I thought his knowledge would bring tremendous value to readers. Below are Shaw’s top tips for doing business successfully in India (in his voice):

1. Talk about something other than business to begin. I think some recommendations for this are to not talk business for the entire first time you meet someone you’re going to do business with, but I have found this is rarely realistic given the time frames. This is likely the same for you, so I have tried to spend the first part of most initial conversations talking about something else such as the delicious chai, asking about a local sport I might have seen during the day like cricket, or food.

2. Shaking hands is not always appropriate. Particularly across gender, but its hard to know when not to do so, so I usually look for their hand to be offered first. Also men’s handshakes are not the firm grips as encountered in the U.S. or Europe so don’t be caught off guard by that (just know that’s how it is and its not a big deal).

3. Roundabout decision making. I have found on more than one occasion that when a decision needs to be made about something, there is a circular type of conversation that often takes place. An initial decision is discussed at length and many other options are considered before coming back and choosing that initial decision. This can be frustrating and confusing – along the lines of thinking “wait a minute, didn’t we already consider that option and determine it was not going to work but now we’re back to it and it is going to work?! How did that happen?” Breathe. It’s normal. 🙂

4. Things take longer than they might in the U.S. This is true for many circumstances, such as when making decisions as mentioned above, but also for events, meals, meetings, planning, etc. Events, such as dinners or entertainment often happen much later than in the U.S. and often at the last minute (planning, arrangements, etc), as well as often get started late (meetings, appointments), and can go on for a very long time, so be patient! This is not for a lack of wanting to get these things done or to not be at a meeting on time, it’s just a different rhythm and approach to time.

5. Be Specific yet appreciative and [roundabout]. “Roundabout” is probably not the correct word to use here but I can’t put my finger on the right word to use. I have found I am most effective at getting results (“results” meaning anything from having temperature in a meeting room adjusted to describing where I want to go in a taxi to how many sections of a form I would like my participants to complete) when I am able to articulate my request but also do so in a way that is not too direct. Aha, “indirect” may be the right word! This is about making sure you have stated your expectations without forgetting to take the time to deliver your request in a respectful and perhaps layered way. There is a great inclination from those in India to want to be of service and get things right but being too direct in some matters can be seen as inappropriate or rude. I’m not sure if I can identify which matters, so perhaps best to keep in mind for most.

6. Hierarchy is alive and well in India. Both in cultural caste/class and in business. Therefore there is an acceptance and an expectation at work that bosses will tell subordinates what to do and subordinates will do it. This is a generalization of course (as are all these), but it’s worth remembering because there can be an expectation that you (as a traveling presenter and with an important role back at HQ) will carry a lot of weight in what you say so people will be looking to you for guidance. You may have to be clear that decisions will be made as a group (if that is your intention), not just by you. You might also find that you don’t get specific, direct feedback, especially from anyone at levels lower than your own.

7. Promotions are at the forefront of people’s minds. I have found people in India, at least many of those I’ve worked with, to be particularly interested in what they can do to get the next promotion at work. How will the material you’re presenting or discussions you’re having have an impact on their future? While that’s a consideration in the U.S. and elsewhere as well, I was more aware of it in India than anywhere else. You may want to make the link to one’s career obvious, even its just to learn a new skill that will help them in their further growth.

8. Be respectful. This is true anywhere of course, but perhaps heightened in India. Being respectful in all regards – toward people, animals (especially cows!), different belief systems, philosophies, religions, approaches to getting work done, relationships between yourself and others as well as others and others, changes in plans (even last-minute ones), etc., will go a very long way.

Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication. More About Melissa Lamson


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