28 Oct 14 10 tips for doing business with Indians

We Indians have a lot of quirks. No doubt, people from other cultures have their quirks too, but arguably, we Indians have more of them. Maybe it’s because we’ve had thousands of years of civilization to acquire these idiosyncrasies, or simply because we’re relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Or maybe it’s something to do with the pollution of our holy rivers?

Whatever be the reasons, for an outsider trying to do business with us Indians, the journey can be both frustrating and entertaining (if you have a sense of humor). As India grows, the sheer weight of the economy will ensure that most of you (or your companies) will eventually do business in India or with Indians.

Here are a few tips for the uninitiated:

1. We don’t know how to say No

This is true! We’re taught from an early age not to contradict our elders. The definition of elders eventually gets extended to bosses, clients, business partners and so on. This can lead to a variety of problems at the workplace… not being able to refuse more work, promising what we eventually can’t deliver, unrealistic deadlines.

This is a tricky one to handle, and you will learn to appreciate doing business with Indians who actually say No occasionally. Be doubly skeptical of people who promise the earth and moon and Mars.

2. We don’t like asking questions up-front

I don’t know where this comes from, but it is generally true. Even in schools, active questioning is not encouraged. Could be our brain-deadening exam oriented education system that is to blame, or maybe it’s the heat, or an innate belief in our ability to survive amidst ambiguity. I don’t know why, except that you’ll never know whether we’ve understood what you said – because we don’t like to ask questions up-front.

We will sit quietly and wait for the appropriate moment (typically, when it’s too late) – and then when you think everything is fine, we will come up with a zillion questions and objections.

One way to counter this is to ask us to recap the conversation, and follow it up with questions to test our comprehension/understanding.

3. Indian Stretchable Time (IST)

Yes, that’s how we define Indian Standard Time – and this has been standard terminology since I was a kid. IST = Indian Stretchable Time. Possibly, the concept of timelessness and life after-life has something to do with it, or maybe it’s just that we believe that clocks are merely decorative pieces. Like the famous Konark temple! So a 10 am meeting will never begin before 10:15.

You could either get upset, or even more frustrated trying to enforce discipline. Or you could budget for this, go with the flow and preserve your sanity.

4. Deadlines, what deadlines?

Another dimension to the perception of time, or timelessness. What’s the rush, dude? We’re uncomfortable making deadline commitments, and the stock answer is, “we will let you know when”. But we don’t tell you when we will let you know!

Get written confirmation on all deadlines agreed. Write down and communicate schedules clearly. Don’t leave it to us! If you’re managing Indians, follow up and ask for updates regularly.

5. Hierarchy

We love our little hierarchies. In a meeting, we don’t like to contradict the boss, especially if he’s wrong! Many Indians are fearful of authority, possibly a result of colonialism, or the caste system or the rotten, callous government we’ve had for decades. The flip side is that those in powerful positions expect deference, and consensus.

So you have to work to inculcate a culture of questioning. Once we get over our (often imaginary) fears, we’re actually quite good at it!

6. Don’t show us the mirror

Ask an Indian what is wrong with the Indian economy, or the government or the cricket team or anything at all Indian – and you will hear a thousand complaints. But if you, an outsider, say the same things to us, we don’t like it. Maybe it’s a post-colonial mindset, or prickly skins from the heat – we hate to hear others tell us what’s wrong with us – even if we secretly agree.

7. Documentation, what’s that?

If massive tomes like the Mahabharata and Ramayana could be remembered and transferred across generations in oral form, then what’s the need to write anything? Either out of a mistaken belief in our own memory powers or sheer laziness, we don’t document things adequately.  If you’re working with Indian colleagues, start insisting on documentation early on.

8. Unnecessarily formal titles

Another habit we’ve learned from the British, even though it’s dying out in that country. We love to use titles such as Sir, Ma’am, and so on. It starts in school and continues in college. All teachers are addressed such, and this behavior transfers to bosses, clients and even business associates.

Ignore this, unless you have to deal with a senior Indian and want to massage his/her ego. Then it’s a good idea to throw in a couple of Sirs or Ma’ams. Else for the most part, encourage first names. Once we get used to it in the workplace, we tend to like the American first name system – especially the younger amongst us.

9. Nothing is personal

For Westerners, some topics are out of bounds in a business setting. But don’t be surprised if an Indian starts asking about your kids, your parents, how many cars you have, your salary, and other such sundry items. We’re naturally inquisitive and over-curious, and the Western concept of privacy is not so important. How could it be when 1.2 billion of us are crammed into the country?

It’s fine if you don’t want to share this “personal” info, instead of being offended try to see the funny side. If you do share, you may make some lifelong friends. And if someone you barely know starts confiding life tales that you would never think of sharing with a stranger, just take it your stride.

We’d rather invite guests home to dinner than take them to a restaurant. Apart from reasons of parsimony, we’re quite hospitable, and every Indian believes that food in their house is better than in any restaurant. Enjoy the experience, and the food! Don’t insist on hotels or restaurants.

10. The Argumentative Indian

This is absolutely true, and not just the title of a book by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen! Given a chance, we will argue about everything, and get stuck on minor inconsequential issues. Just take a look at our political parties! Meetings can be disastrous in such situations – be sure to have someone moving things along and after you’ve allowed for as much debate as you can stand. Try to get decisions to a Yes/No on major points… otherwise the argumentative Indian will be more than happy to quibble endlessly on irrelevant issues.

We’re more emotional than rational, so you will hear incongruous arguments because we often speak before we think. Try to get behind the emotions, let the person calm down – and then resume the discussion.

That’s it for now. If you have any more to share, please leave a comment.

Arun Jethmalani

Arun is one of the founders of ValueNotes. Apart from trying to build a high-quality research business, he has spent the last 27 years researching, analyzing, and dissecting companies and industries. He has worked with clients of all shapes and sizes, from all parts of the world – in providing them insights that make a difference to their business.
Prior to ValueNotes, he was an equity analyst/advisor, and wrote extensively on investing – including a column titled “Value for Money” which ran for 10 years in the Sunday edition of the Economic Times. To this day, he remains an avid “value” investor.
He has also been published in several other publications, and is a regular speaker at events related to technology, investing, competitive intelligence, business process management, Internet, etc. See: Valuenotes Events
He has been instrumental in developing a community of research and intelligence professionals in India, and is the founder and current chairman of the SCIP (India) Chapter. Arun holds a B Tech from IIT, Bombay and an MS from Duke University, NC, USA. LinkedIn Profile

  • Richard Baker
    Posted at 23:43h, 16 January Reply

    I recognise all those quirks Arun….my family, from the UK, though my wife is originally from South Africa, lived and worked in Mumbai for two years. It was fun, but there was a learning curve when it came to understanding the cultural differences, especially in business ! I have to admit to overstepping the mark regarding point 6 on a couple of occasions….one thing I often trotted out was about health and safety…yes, that old chestnut….but I do remember mentioning how few solar panels were in use and suggested all new commercial buildings should have them fitted, by law ( what a genius idea I thought ;-)….turns out India now has the biggest solar farm in the world, so i should’ve just kept my mouth shut ! 😉 One thing you don’t mention…Indians sure know how to party….often without out the ‘need’ of alcohol. Westerners have largely forgotten how to do that. Richard Baker.

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