Indians place great value on relationships in business so it is essential to understand their rich and diverse culture, from the complex politics to the steep hierarchies in business to the influence of the family – and, of course, how to interpret the famous head wobble. Here are our top tips for doing business in India.
- India itself offers vast cultural diversity in everything from language to ethnicity and religion. Do not generalize about Indian people or assume that everybody thinks and behaves in a similar way. Understand the difference between traditional, rural India and fast-paced, urban India, where there is a lot more social mobility, a new aspiration, a whole generation of entrepreneurs and contemporary influences, from popular culture to Bollywood stars.
- Although discrimination by caste has been illegal for more than six decades, Indians still define one another by caste. While the new social mobility is breaking down some of the economic barriers, and many people regard traditional caste stereotypes as just that – stereotypes – the old system still plays a role in marriage and politics. The caste of a politician and a marriage partner will always be an issue.
- Always dress smartly as a sign of respect. Indians will not understand why somebody wants to look poor, or scruffy, like the most impoverished members of their society. Stay in a good hotel, too. Money is looked up to.
- Although they tend to be indirect communicators, Indians can seem very direct in their questioning. Do not be surprised or offended to be asked what your qualifications are, or how much you earn. This is just part of polite conversation.
- Hierarchy is important in India and is ingrained in most companies. Decisions are made from the top and Indians expect to do business with people of similar seniority. Employees at the bottom of the hierarchy do not expect to question the decisions of those at the top. This can be an issue if you put somebody relatively junior onto a team to negotiate with high-ranking Indians.
- Indians can be very formal in their approach, using language that may sound old-fashioned to a native English speaker. You will be addressed in a relatively formal manner – Doctor, or Professor, or Mr. or Mrs. – until you are on much more familiar terms with your counterpart. Greet people with a handshake – but do not be surprised if your Indian counterparts use ‘namaste’ as a greeting, accompanied by a slight bow with hands in the prayer position.
- There is a strong sense of ‘face’ at all levels of Indian society. An Indian person will often find it difficult to say a straight ‘no’, as this will cause both them and you to lose face. You need to learn to read between the lines and to study body language. Answers like ‘We will try’ or ‘maybe’ usually mean ‘no’.
- Learn to interpret the Indian head-wobble, which has many meanings. A repeated nod can mean ‘yes’ and a shake, ‘no’, but wobbling one’s head while listening to someone can be a sign of respect, and tilting it repeatedly from side to side can mean ‘maybe’.
- Be sociable. Business is based on relationships and it is important to get to know your counterparts. Deals will not be done until they have placed you in context and developed trust. You are quite likely to be invited to large gatherings and parties, so accept invitations and try to reciprocate.
- Understand the attitude to time. Indians can be very flexible and take on last-minute projects without complaining – but at the same time, be perplexed by the rigid adherence to deadlines expected by some European and north American cultures. Get people to buy into the ‘why’ of a project and its deadline, rather than just the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.
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