Rana Sinha

Article Summary:

Cultural differences in telephone and Internet communications between Western countries and India.

Communicating with an Indian Company via Telephone/Internet

Foreigners doing business with an Indian company sometimes run into problems due to cultural differences. Seemingly small matters like different pronunciation grow into larger issues and slowly undermine the smoothness of operations, which in turn reduces efficiency.

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However, making sense of business behavior in the diverse cultural setting can be very difficult. An article or a mentor gives you a valuable piece of advice on telephone or e-mail business etiquette and then you notice that people behave exactly the opposite in some contexts. When we use the term Indian and use that to map certain behavior patterns, we forget that we are using a broad generalization involving a billion people. It is like saying “Christians behave like this” or “Managers in companies don’t do this.” While India is not a monolithic culture, the kaleidoscopic variety does contain underlying streams of unity that we will examine here.

The mobile phone is changing life in India more than anything else before. In the past, the “license Raj” tradition of the Nehru socialistic vision of India required one to wait up to ten years and pay huge bribes to get a telephone connection. Then you had to pay up and go through the intermittent hassles when the line didn’t work. The mobile phone has changed all this. There is fierce competition between service providers and phone sellers. A consumer can just buy a phone, choose the service provider and start making and receiving calls. The Internet is also changing ways of acquiring information. Even the lack of literacy is not always a barrier as one can always find someone who has access and can use the Internet mainly because the number of users is growing rapidly.

The main problems foreigners and Indians have when interacting over the telephone and when doing business via e-mail are related to deeper layers of culture and established practices. The deeper layers of culture dictate how power or information is shared in that culture, how social structures and hierarchy affects communication or how culture shapes thinking patterns and affects orientation to physical space. All these are much more crucial in the interaction between foreigners and Indians than the visible layers of culture such as dress, food, music or films.

Common mistakes Indians make when dealing with foreigners via telephone/Internet

  • Failure to understand the sense of linear and ‘mono chronic’ or linear time-flow time with high priority of timetables that many cultures have.
  • Not understanding that Indian logic is inductive and not deductive like Western business logic.
  • Lack of documentation: most things are kept in the head.
  • Lack of e-mail etiquette: many don’t take e-mail seriously.
  • Not communicating in a precise manner but resting on assumptions.
  • Not asking questions to clarify all doubts in the initial stage and then coming up with a whole list of questions later.
  • Addressing people by first name does not come naturally to many Indians.
  • Awkwardness while dealing with women clients.
  • Not recognizing that many people are not comfortable with ‘Sir’, ‘Madam’, ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Mr.’ being used constantly.
  • Assuming that decision making processes are similar to their own.

Common mistakes foreigners make when dealing with Indians via telephone/Internet

  • Failure to understand the sense of cyclical and adaptive time of Indian culture.
  • Not understanding that Indian logic is inductive rather than deductive as in Western logic.
  • Too much reliance on e-mail.
  • Assuming that all Indians are comfortable with addressing people by first name.
  • Not becoming comfortable with ‘Sir’, ‘Madam’, ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Mr.’ being used constantly.
  • Having the misconception that “getting-to-know-you” questions are an intrusion into personal life.
  • Getting nervous when Indians come up with questions at all stages.
  • Finding out who the real decision maker is.

Orientation to time
In India there is never a shortage of history and people don’t think of time as a scarce resource. It is also a very diverse and complex society. So Indians are used to the fact that schedules change, many things happen at once or they don’t. To the chagrin of foreign partners, secretaries in India barge in to get documents signed or give some message even in the middle of important meetings or video conferences.

  • Always keep margins in schedules.
  • Be prepared for interruptions.
  • Triple check everything about schedules to eliminate the effect of unforeseeable events.

System of Logic
Many people think that Indian logic and philosophy is founded solely on mysticism and renunciation. This originates from a colonial world view that seeks to obfuscate a rich tradition of scientific thought and analysis in India. India has a rich tradition of logic and mathematics with diverse schools of thought dating thousands of years.

In deductive logic you go from general to specific. You eliminate certain factors to arrive at the conclusion. First you have a contract and a schedule and then you assume that by trying to remove all impediments to delivering what has been agreed upon in a contract, you can actually deliver. This is a common Western approach to business.

In inductive logic you go from specific to general. The focus is on how details relate to the whole. Inductive logic requires that you gather the data to arrive at a logical conclusion. If the system is very complex then the number of factors that can vary over time is difficult to control and thus the relationship between details and the big picture should be evaluated periodically. Indians might think that changes in top management or unpredictable events in the market would cause changes in schedules. Many Western people see this approach as a breach of promise. Indians sometimes feel that the schedule-bound approach is too rigid for their needs.

Transmitting information through oral tradition reaches across the whole of Indian history. Many people still rely on keeping information in their heads rather than documenting them. Business becomes smoother if both parties carefully document discussions, reports, agreements, in fact everything that goes on. When checking the accuracy of what has been documented, pay attention to their reaction. They might not say outright “This is totally wrong.” Write clearly to clarify – “This is how I understood this point – am I mistaken?”
  • Document all your dealings and share documentation with your business partner

Too much reliance on e-mail
Many people rely on e-mail to do business. Indians particularly appreciate face-to-face meetings more. They feel that there are many things one can’t write down. They believe that when two persons meet, there is more opportunity to exchange information, clarify doubts and reaffirm existing commitments. When a Western person claims time saving as a great factor and insists on doing business only via e-mail, the Indian counterpart might feel offended. Dealing with Indians you need to pay attention to what has not been said. Indians are very reluctant to say “no” directly.

  • Meet your business partner regularly in addition to e-mails and calls.
  • Watch out for what has been left unsaid in e-mails.
  • Learn to recognize the “NO” as Indians don’t say “NO” directly, unless it is a crucial issue.

First names
Not every Indian is comfortable with using first names. About 75% of Indian businesses are family run and thus very hierarchic. Foreigners should learn that the practice of using of titles and pecking order is carried over to e-mails also and would not be changed to a foreign model. Many Westerners get tired of this official mode of addressing people.

  • Get used to people always calling you “Mr. this” or “Madam that,” or saying “yes, Sir” or “yes, Madam” all the time.
  • Ask and find out how you should address the other person when using e-mails.

Knowing your business partner
Indians typically like to do business with people they know. Having common friends and references acts as background check. Curiosity is a common trait among Indians. People from many other cultures would consider questions like “Do you have children?” and then “Why not?” as not being public domain information. But for an Indian all this is in good faith, a genuine getting to know you. The credibility and trustworthiness of a business partner are critical in securing cooperation so these have to be built up over time. Indians appreciate intelligent conversation.

  • Devote time to get to know your business partner.

Decision making process
Generally Indian business is very hierarchical excepting IT and some other sectors. All decisions have to be cleared with people who might not be easily available and this would take time.

  • Don’t expect quick commitment as all decisions take time and may involve people difficult to reach.

Indian English
Officially English is the co-official language of India. The majority of Indians doing business with foreigners would be using received pronunciation or BBC English with an uniquely Indian flavor. Indian English has its own characteristics with regional variations e.g., the pronounced and trilled r is a Scottish influence, Telegu speakers pronounce zero as ‘jiro’ because they pronounce ‘z’ like ‘J’ as in John or the ‘gi’ combination as in giraffe. American English is spreading in the larger cities through movies, music, MTV culture and also because many younger people choose to study in American universities rather than in the UK.

  • Indians like to make and use abbreviations, especially in e-mails
    e.g. FOC = Free Of Charge, subsi = subsidiary, supli = supplementary
  • Unique use of phrases: Indian newspapers report politicians “air-dashing” to destinations, “issueless” couples (those without children) and people “preponing” (bringing forward) meetings. Receptionists ask callers, “What is your good name?” before informing them that the boss has gone “out of station” (out of town) with his “cousin-brother” (male cousin).

Most importantly, when dealing with Indian businesses pay attention to establishing shared rules of communication and being sensitive to what is left unsaid. A structured, mutual and systematic approach where both sides can clearly follow the course of events would surely result in increased efficiency.

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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