Rana Sinha

Article Summary:

Westerners doing business in India need to show common sense, mutual respect and be sensitive to the context at all times.

Business Etiquette in India

Westerners going to India to do business find out pretty soon that India is a culture where it is absolutely impossible to just drop in to conduct business and then fly away unaffected.

The pace of life, the vivacity of the teeming masses, the mêlée of sounds, the richness of colors and smells, the tenacity of the unpredictable to surface like an ubiquitous spook amidst all attempts on both sides to make business smooth and manageable – all this is India. Trying to understand the astonishing diversity of this ancient yet vibrant culture and yet finding rules for behaving in an effective manner is a daunting challenge for anyone.

In India you would discover thriving matriarchal societies, a group of people utterly convinced that they are one of the lost tribes of the Jews, signs of democratic forms of governments 2000 years before the Athenians, aboriginals who shun `civilization’ and shoot poisoned arrows at anyone going near them etc. India is not a monolithic culture but the kaleidoscopic variety also contains underlying streams of unity. One mentor gives you a valuable piece of advice on business etiquette and then you notice that people behave exactly the opposite in some contexts.

The first thing for Westerners to learn about business etiquette in India is:

  • You need to be sensitive to the context at all times.

Focus of Business
One of the major blunders Western people make in India is to forget people and concentrate on schedule, contracts, results, facts and issues.

Western Business = End Results
Indian Business = Process of Interaction, Relationships

The credibility and trustworthiness of a business partner are critical in securing cooperation so these have to be built up over time.

Orientation to time

West: Time = Scarce commodity
India: Time = Expression of eternity

In India everything takes time. Indian business people like to be on time but in real life things don’t work like clockwork. Keep a lot of margin in your schedules for the unexpected events. A Western person likes to concentrate on one thing at a time while his Indian counterpart is poly chronic and attends to many things at the same time. Be prepared for lots of interruptions all the time.

Personal space
Indians keep very small bubbles of personal space around them and there is so much touchy cuddly walking hand in hand behavior all around. However:

  • Men don’t touch women in public and vice versa.

Superiors pat subordinates on their shoulders and there is much collegial backslapping. The handshake is practiced everywhere in cities. The traditional Indian greeting is the “Namaste,” which you do with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, in front of the chest with a slight nod or bow of the head. This has a spiritual basis in recognizing a common divine essence within the other person.

  • Always be polite, although you need to be firm.
  • Never lose your temper, even when it is to your advantage to show anger.

All meetings start with some small talk. Indians are very curious and like to exchange views even with total strangers. Be prepared for Indians talking about matters which would be considered an invasion of privacy in the west.

  • Learn to recognize the “NO” as Indians don’t say NO directly, unless it is a crucial issue.
  • Don’t point out poverty, dirt, and social ills to Indians as they might interpret it as condescending coming from a foreigner. Indians are proud of their rich history and appreciate intelligent discussions with mutual respect, so avoid preaching about democracy and women’s rights etc.

Addressing others
Indian businesses are hierarchical. Titles such as Mr, Mrs or Professor are used almost always unless the other person asks you to go on a first name basis.

  • Get used to people always calling you Mr this or Madam this or saying “yes, Sir” or “yes, Madam” all the time.
  • Find out how you should address the other person – naming and addressing practices vary across the country.

Giving Gifts
Gifts are not opened in the presence of the giver. If your Indian host insists on your opening the gift, do so and show appreciation for his/her choice. If you are invited to an Indian home for dinner, take some small gift, like a box of chocolates or flowers or a gift for the children (if they have any). Wrap in red, yellow, green or blue colored wrapping paper. White and black colors in wrappings are considered inauspicious. A small gift from your culture or a framed photograph with the host or colleagues would be valued as a gift. If your Indian host drinks and keeps alcoholic drinks at home, a bottle would be an appreciated gift.

Meetings and Negotiations
Meetings and negotiations are spaced over time and there are many digressions. Give background information such as who is involved, who else has implemented such a proposal or who higher up has endorsed – Indians understand matters in their overall context and such information is vital for them. Don’t get nervous over frequent interruptions, digressions or bargaining in negotiations. Keep buffers, which you can cut in your offers as Indians interpret fixed offers as inflexible thus unsuitable for their needs. Don’t expect quick commitment as all decisions take time and may involve people not present in meetings.

Business Dress
Business attire varies in different parts of India. Decency and decorum is the guiding principle here. It is better to dress slightly more conservatively than too casually. In India position in the hierarchy of business dictates formality of dress. Use common sense in dressing

Visiting Cards
The visiting card ritual is not so formal as in China or Japan but you should always carry decent and presentable cards with you. Cards in English are fine. You don’t need to print them in local languages.

  • Never use the left hand to give and receive cards.

Appointments must be fixed well in advance. Always confirm beforehand to make sure nothing has changed meanwhile. Traffic is always unpredictable so leave a lot of margin.Be prepared to be kept waiting when visiting government officials.

Foreigners visiting India might receive many social invitations. A direct refusal to an invitation (e.g., “Sorry, I can’t come.”) would be seen as impolite or arrogant.

  • Use “I’ll try” or “I will confirm with you later,” etc. when declining social invitations.

When refreshments/ snacks or beverages are served, it is customary, though not compulsory, to refuse the first offer, but to accept the second or third. Accept what is offered to you even if you don’t want to eat or drink everything. Leave some on the plate or all of it untouched. If you eat all, it is a sign you want more.

What people consider taboo in food or drinks varies greatly among people in India:

  • Generally Muslims don’t eat pork and Hindus shun beef.
  • Chicken, mutton or fish suit most people.
  • All vegetable menus are safer choices for everyone.
  • Be very sensitive to customs and preferences when hosting invitations.
  • Never use your left hand for eating, serving, or taking food or in fact handing over or accepting things. The left hand is considered the toilet hand and thus taboo.

Rana Sinha is a cross-cultural consultant and author who has lived in many places and traveled in over 80 countries. Rana runs www.dot-connect.com, which specializes in designing and delivering cross-cultural training, professional communications skills, personal development, and management solutions to all types of organizations and businesses in many countries.

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