Behaviors and practices change as you move from one town to another. Imagine the kind of differences in practices and etiquette when you go to a completely different country. Take for example the most basic of habits, the way people wash their behinds in different countries. The western countries use a paper roll and the South East Asian countries use water. What-er problem for westerners to come to India or vice versa, isn’t it?
Etiquette is not just about rules and regulations
We have all become ‘supermen/women’ thanks to our global workspaces that require us to constantly fly to different countries. But the only way to get magical results out of your work visit is by understanding the importance of cultural and social fabric of countries you are travelling to- because with ‘great power comes great responsibility’. You need to follow the rules of the land if you don’t want to end up offending someone you would be staying or working with.
While on a trip to Goa in India, I met a 36 year old male from Los Angeles on the flight. He was travelling to India on a business trip and was a senior member of an organisation. We got talking and as usual the first question that we hit each other with was, ‘Where are you from’? When I told him I was from India, pat came the reply, ‘oh so you speak Indian’? ‘Nope,’ said I, with a judgemental expression on my face. Because there are 780 different languages in India, and Indian is not a language. Hindi is the language.
As they say, “if you want to rule the world, all you need to do is win the trust of people”. Understanding cross cultural communication gives you a cut above the rest. Once you understand the country’s social fabric, it helps you to emotionally connect with people from that particular country. It helps to build a rapport and spread honest influence. The only way to connect with an individual is by matching their actions and behaviours. Hence, if you enthusiastically learn about the etiquette in a business scenario, it will give you an edge over other people.
Simply put, etiquette is a set of rules we follow in personal and professional situations. Understanding and following these rules will help you blend in with the existing group
English is our official language
I once met an Australian lady in my workplace. We spoke at length about our work and as the conversation came to an end, she said ‘you speak very well in English and you don’t have a weird accent’. At that point, I got offensive and felt like telling her that we Indians (at least in the cities) have our first language as English and infact, in our workplaces we end up conversing only in English .Her statement came across as inconsiderate to me , it came across as she was belittling Indians. A conversation that had gone really well ended on a sour note as the woman in question was not well versed with the cultural fabric of India.
We Indians are a population of 1.3 billion. English & Hindi are our official languages.
Nod if you agree, Nod if you disagree!
A question I’m commonly (rather most Indians are) asked about India is our famous head nod. Outsiders usually don’t understand what it means- a yes or a no.
Our famous Indian head -nod leave people confused. The indecisive Indian uses it as his/her tool. You see, we are a smart set of people who know how to turn a situation around. As we jokingly say, you can interpret the head nod to your advantage, assuming agree or disagree as you please.
But imagine, for an outsider who probably would have never heard or read about the Indian nod will be highly perplexed and lost in situations faced with it. So understanding the culture and social interaction is important so that it doesn’t leave you disillusio’nod’. It will help you in understanding innuendos and using it to your advantage maybe, like the head nod; and if you are ever faced with a situation where someone says “ Jon S , You know nothing’’ – just use the Indian head- nod
We humans are hardwired for familiarity. We are more comfortable speaking with people who have characteristics similar to us. So when an individual comes from a different country and wants to establish a trusting relationship with people from the host country, the most effective way to create it is by following the local culture and etiquette.
Talking of local culture and etiquette, let me familiarize you with a few but important business etiquette in India that will not only help you survive in India but will also give you an edge in establishing trust with people here. But ask me ‘nod’thing about the Indian head-nod please.
Type of businesses
- In India you are likely to encounter two types of companies. The first is a traditional, family-run business, the second being a more modern hi-tech operations with western business methodology.
Fix the date
- With nine major religions and many minor ones India enjoys number of holidays which change depending on the year. Always check the Indian calendar for holidays before planning your business meetings.
- Business appointments should ideally be made for late morning or early afternoon, between the hours of 11.00 and 16.00.
Introductions and greetings in India
- Handshakes are a common way of greeting in India when you meet a person in a business scenario
- Business cards are exchanged in the first meeting.
- When entering a business meeting, always greet the senior most person first.
- Small talk at the beginning of a business meeting is common. You could include questions about family. Enquire and talk about family, it’s an easy way to create a bond.
- Don’t refuse any food or drink offered to you during business meetings as Indians take hosting a guest very seriously and feel bad if he/she doesn’t eat or drink. Yes food is a very big part of our culture.
- Using a Mr. or Mrs. while addressing a colleague or someone senior is preferred. When addressing someone senior both in age and in rank, women are often addressed as Madam and men as Sir. (Though with change in work culture, a lot of companies follow the culture of addressing on first name basis.)
- In General, Indians place importance on using formal titles. So if you are meeting a professor or a doctor they may expect or appreciate being addressed by their given title.
Topics of conversation
- Do not touch on topics of religion and politics in India as it is highly sensitive topics
- Popular discussion topics include, cricket, films and in recent times, Indian economic reforms
- You can also talk and ask questions on Indian culture and rich civilization that most Indians are proud of
Professional business dressing
- Normal business dress for men is suit and tie. Since India has a warm climate, often just a full-sleeved shirt is also acceptable.
- For women, pant-suits or long skirts are appropriate, which cover the knees, are acceptable to wear.
- Indians follow the global professional dressing guidelines
I can go on writing about Indian business etiquette, but India is a vast and varied country. Which means, there are that many more practices and etiquette. What I have shared here is a good start. It will help you align with India’s business etiquette and make you feel confident. But you will always learn new practices and manners. The only trick that can help you to instantly align with India is by interacting with the locals here. Simply talk to them and you will learn some invaluable tips. And if you are fortunate enough, you may get invited to taste some authentic Indian cuisine too (remember I told you how feeding guests is an important part of our culture). India is a unique country and interacting with the locals will help you get comfortable with that uniqueness.
by Gauri Palekar