You have signed the contract to work with an organization in India. Are you concerned, confused, and even frustrated because things are not going the way you planned? Before engaging in a business deal, it helps to get advice from someone who has experienced both cultures.
Here are five tips for working successfully in India:
- Don't put your thoughts in your questions.
- Ask questions so that you get a direct response.
- Words convey different meanings in the United States and India.
- Respect the silence and acknowledge the work.
- No is not a word in the Indian vocabulary.
Note: In this blog post, Indian refers to someone who lives in India or someone who has recently moved to the United States from India.
Don’t Put Your Thoughts in Your Questions
You have someone on your team, Mala, who has recently moved to the United States from India. You need directions to the new office location, and ask her, “Should I take Route 5?” She knows Route 5 is congested at this time but she is likely to say, “Yes, take Route 5.” Why? People in India have a tendency to say what they think you want to hear. It is a sign of respect for someone in authority.
To use another example, if you really want an Indian to suggest ways to approach a marketing campaign, don’t ask, “Do you think we should use paid advertising?” Instead, ask, “What media do you think we should use?”
Ask Questions so That You Get a Direct Response
Indians also convey their messages in an indirect way. For instance, say you are a client manager based in New York. You are asking Mala, based in India, to participate in a conference call on Saturday. The conversation may go like this:
You: Mala, let’s discuss the project on our call on Saturday. We have reached an important milestone in the project.
Mala: Yes. It is an important milestone. We have to discuss the project.
Mala: My sister’s wedding on Sunday is going to be very grand, you know, and I am organizing it. It is in a remote village in India.
You: It’s all set then.
You and Mala did not come to an understanding. Based on this conversation, you think Mala will attend Saturday’s meeting. Mala is glad you understand why she can’t attend the meeting. She assumes that you are familiar with Indian culture—weddings in India last a few days, attendance of relatives is mandatory, and telephone connections in remote villages are unreliable.
Instead, ask questions so that you get a direct answer, like “Will you attend the meeting this Saturday?”
Words Convey Different Meanings in the United States and India
One culture’s “yes” is not the same as another culture’s. For example, Mala, who recently moved from India to the United States, works for a bank as a market research expert. She accompanies her boss to a meeting with key stakeholders. When they proceed to ask Mala questions about changes needed for a project, she smiles, nods, and says “yes” to each one.
Two weeks later, Mala’s boss realizes that her “yes” meant that she was listening, not that she agreed to make the changes discussed at the meeting. Mala’s boss lost two weeks of productive time and had to face the wrath of the stakeholders.
Clarify what the person means by the word yes. Mala’s boss would have avoided misunderstanding by asking, “Are you agreeing to make the changes?”
Respect the Silence and Acknowledge the Work
A person’s status has an enormous impact on communication in India. It is inconceivable for Indians to tell bosses or clients that they made an error in their work.
Mala leads the team in India. Tom is managing this team remotely from the United States. Mala notices that Tom failed to include an important update in the client meeting. She says nothing in the meeting, and quietly includes the update in the written report after the meeting. The client is annoyed and Tom conveys his disappointment that she did not bring that up in the meeting. Mala remains silent. She probably will never fix Tom’s omissions in the future because she thinks she did something disrespectful.
Client satisfaction is very important for Indian teams. Tom should convey to Mala that the client would be more satisfied if such updates are included in the meeting. He should also reassure Mala that her action would not be perceived as disrespectful.
The Word No Is Not in the Indian Vocabulary
Indians think it is impolite to say “no,” especially to a manager or client. For instance, Americans will directly say “I don’t know the directions to the restaurant” because they don't want the other person to get lost. Indians, on the other hand, will give directions even if they have no idea where the restaurant is, and you will probably drive for a while and end up exactly where you started.
Sequential questioning helps. Ask if the person has heard of the restaurant. If he says “yes,” ask him the street name. Then ask for directions. Use same tactic in business situations.
Find Common Ground for Communication
Companies that outsource work to other countries experience delays, losses, and termination of business deals when they fail to recognize that the problems are not due to technical or management issues, but cross-cultural divides. Indians have exceptional technical know-how and intuitive problem-solving abilities. Creating cultural awareness will help businesses leverage these skills and achieve their goals.
The best resources for learning about these differences are works by Gerard Hendrik (Geert) Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist well known for his pioneering research of cross-cultural groups and organizations. For more information, visit http://geert-hofstede.com/the-hofstede-centre.html.
When I speak on this topic, people comment that they have had similar experiences with people from other parts of Asia. Have you had similar experiences? Please share them in the comments.