Doing Business in India: 20 Cultural Norms You Need to Know

Updated: March 17, 2010

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.

1. 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 clue-it'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 job-the 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Strikes-even 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. Don't toe the line: The word "queue" has no significant meaning to the average Indian. The country has developed in leaps and bounds, but a few of its citizens still think that leaps and bounds are the way to go when asked to queue up at a public facility. Even the most civilized person can be reduced to fighting for his rightful place when others form a mass of people all jockeying to be first.

13. Call them more than cards: Indians place a lot of importance on business cards, handing them out even for casual occasions. A stranger will offer you his card if you so much as ask him his name while you're traveling on the same train. He's not being pushy: it's just his way of packing his name, profession, and other details onto just one card.

14. Transport traditions and travails: If you spend some time in India, you may be forced to test its public modes of transportation at some time or another. You'll find that your fellow passengers will be more than happy to help when you find yourself unfamiliar with the local lingo or have difficulty deciding where to get off. On the other hand, local auto rickshaw and taxi drivers may try to fleece you when they see you're not a native. Familiarize yourself with the local currency and the approximate transportation costs before you venture out on your own.

15. Is that English? It's the same language, but it's spoken with a distinctly different flavor in each part of the world. Every country adds to the language or takes words from it for its own tongue. In India, the English language is spoken with an Indian accent, although it is not as pronounced as some other countries. You'll find unusual expressions being used: "cousin brother/sister" (cousin), "co-brother/sister" (brother or sister-in-law), and "What's your good name?" (What's your name?). Most Indians are familiar with the Western accent, but it helps to speak slowly. If you don't understand what they've said, don't worry-they don't mind repeating themselves.

16. Not too good with paperwork: Indians are not very big on documentation; they generally have to be taught to maintain proper records. Official correspondence is usually long-winded with pompous language that the ordinary person does not understand. E-mail has become a replacement for hand-written or printed documents, but there's a general ignorance of email etiquette. However, once shown the right way, Indians are adept at picking up any new technique.

17. The tower of Babel? India has a potpourri of local languages, with most Indians fluent in more than just their mother tongue. If you come across a group conversing in the local lingo, don't take it as an affront-they aren't talking secretively about you. It's just their way of connecting to people who remind them of home.

18. Herd mentality rules: Most Indians are not very confident speaking in public. If you ask a group of Indians to raise pertinent questions during a meeting, you'll find that all the queries are posed once the meeting has broken up, by a small crowd that draws support from each of its members, and when the speaker is alone.

19. They mind their Ps and Qs, but differently: "Please" and "Thank You" are matter-of-fact for the polite Westerner, but an Indian may not feel the need to mention them. It does not mean that he's rude or impolite. Indians express their pleasure in a different manner: with a smile or a nod of the head.

20. Pecking orders matter: Most Indian businesses have an order of hierarchy that's very important to those in the chain. When communicating with Indians, it pays to address the more important members first.

There's an Indian adage that says, "It takes two hands to generate applause." That's especially true when two cultures meet. Both should be willing to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other and work together to reach a common point of agreement. Keep these tips in mind when working with Indian people.

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