This series is edited by Dick Locke, SI’s resident expert on International Trade, author of Global Supply Management — A Guide to International Procurement (which was the definitive guide for almost a decade), and President of the Global Procurement Group which regularly gives seminars on International Trade and working with International Cultures.
As highlighted in last year’s post on Overcoming Cultural Differences in International Trade with India, India, like China, has a long cultural history with roots that go back at least to the Indus Valley civilizations in 3,000 BC. (Recently, archaeologists have discovered abandoned and buried port cities and temples over 6,000 years old, suggesting their culture could be much older.) And while the official languages are Hindi and English, India has 5 languages in the top 20 spread across its 28 states, 6 union territories, and the National Capitol territory of New Delhi. As a result, its society is a bit fractured compared to China (where differences are primarily North/South), with mild to moderate differences in culture and behavior, but there are a number of common threads that, once unwoven, will make your dealings with India easier.
With respect to Locke‘s seven key cultural differences (first outlined as six in his classic text on Global Supply Management), power distance is generally quite high as India is based on the caste system (which you must never bring up) and its values and beliefs are still strongly held (despite the movement by some of the newer consulting organizations to abolish the system within their four walls). While they may attempt to be monochronic in their dealings with the west, they are a polychronic culture that does not work by the clock. Buyers and sellers are roughly equal, and any inequalities will be due to any personal relationships that exist between the parties. They are tolerant of uncertainty and even known to take risks and experiment. Harmony underlies almost all of their religions and every aspect of their daily life, and face must always be given. Despite the caste system, and the fact that tasks are collective exercises, they are very individualistic and highly personable (as privacy is rarely indulged in or sought).
With respect to non-verbal communication, it is moderately indirect, as you should not refuse a request outright, but there is a strong history of bartering, so you are free to debate the pros and cons of any situation, as long as your “no”s are indirect and gentle and you tiptoe around delicate issues (such as caste and familial privacy). Unlike some Asian cultures, they can, and you can, get quite loud, but only if you are passionate about what you are saying.
As with any well established culture, there is a lot of non-verbal communication that occurs, and a number of actions that are taboo. For example, while limited touching is permitted (such as same-sex handshakes, and collegial backslapping between members of the same sex, as long as you never touch someone’s head), you should not stand with your hands on your hips, whistle, wink, or point your feet at a person. Hand gesticulations, which many Indians are prone to use when speaking passionately, should only be used if they speak English and you have a basic understanding of their language. You don’t have to be as reserved in your facial expressions as you would with other Asian cultures, but you need to take your cues from those around you, as the degree of expression permitted is situational. While direct eye-contact may be made, it is seen as intrusive by many, so you will again have to take your cues from those around you. Distance, due to crowding in many cities, is minimal, generally only two to two and a half feet. And it is critically important to always maintain an agreeable attitude, even if you don’t agree (as you can always indicate your disagreement indirectly (by indicating that you’ll consider the request, get back to them later, or try). Of course, if dealing with an Indian in North America who is used to your culture, all this goes out the window as they can be very adaptable and will attempt to tune their behavior into your cultural norms in their attempt to maintain harmony and an agreeable attitude.
Meetings, which often begin VERY late, will often begin with small talk and fail to follow a structure. Like other Asian cultures, they will want to get to know you professionally and personally before they get down to business. Remember that time is an expression of eternity in India. Meals are common, and the etiquette is to politely refuse the first offer of food or drink. You will be asked again and again. Just remember not to thank your hosts after a meal. A thank you is considered a form of payment and is insulting. When negotiating, be humble and polite and prepared for concessions on both sides. It is expected. (Although if you were to observe a meeting between two Indian teams, you might find that whoever has the most passion and screams the loudest wins.)
Finally, learn what Namaste is.