India: avoiding cultural pitfalls

Published —
02.11.17
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A YOUNG population, expanding middle class and strong economic performance make India an attractive proposition but it is “critical” to understand its cultural nuances, according to HSBC.

It will come as a relief to most that while Hindi is the official language – and there are numerous regional tongues – English is the lingua franca of business.

But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.

“Hierarchy is central to Indian society and this is reflected in business culture,” HSBC points out. The most senior member of a group should be greeted first.

“You can greet business associates by shaking hands, but only use your right hand because the left hand is considered unclean,” according to the bank’s expat explorer insight. “Men must wait for women to initiate a greeting – give a slight nod of the head if you’re unsure.”

Business cards will usually be exchanged at the first meeting and gift-giving is not expected as part of business interactions, the bank says. If they are exchanged, they should not be expensive. “Accept them with both hands – and wait to open them in private,” HSBC’s guide adds.

Mumbai skyline at night
READ: Where the opportunities lie in India

Membership body the UK India Business Council advises: “Some Indians may use the namaste, a common greeting involving pressing your palms together with fingers pointing upwards, and accompanied by a slight bow.”

Use of formal titles, such as sir, madam, doctor or professor, is commonplace, while the suffix “Ji” is often used to address someone senior in age or rank, says the UKIBC. Lightweight suits – and trouser suits, rather than skirts, for women – are appropriate, although a sweater can come in handy during north India’s winters or in office and hotel air conditioning. Men should avoid wearing short-sleeved shirts to work.

“Although many meetings start late, punctuality is still important,” warns HSBC. And it advises maintaining a flexible approach to most matters.

“In India objectives are achieved by adapting and improvising rather than by implementing carefully constructed plans. While you may prefer to factor in known variables and have contingencies for every scenario, Indians place greater emphasis on flexibility.

“Business dealings and decisions are based on trust – so building good personal relationships with business partners is important. Ask colleagues about their families and interests and spend time with them outside work. You can be relaxed with your peers, but you should behave more formally around senior managers.”

When ‘yes’ means ‘no’

As the UKIBC website points out: “Indians may have a particular difficulty saying ‘no’, as it can convey an offensive message. Instead, they will prefer making statements such as ‘we’ll see’, ‘yes, but it may be difficult’, or ‘I will try’ when they likely mean ‘no’.

“A good way to seek a more positive answer is to rephrase the question, for instance if you are trying to secure a meeting and there is some evasion, one approach is to ask what day and time would be convenient to meet.”

And HSBC warns: “Avoid expressing anger as this will damage a relationship.”

Business hours are 10am to 7pm, Monday to Saturday, although a five-day working week is becoming more common.

A motorized rickshaw zips through the streets of Delhi, India.

Getting around the crowded cities can be daunting. In busy areas, taxis are often shared by people travelling in the same direction. “One of the quickest ways to get around town is to jump into a three-wheeled motorised rickshaw, also known as an auto,” says HSBC. “Drivers are adept at nipping through the traffic. Agree on a price before you start your journey because even if there’s a meter, it probably won’t be working.”

“If you want to travel between India’s cities or its outlying islands, it’s best to fly with one of the country’s many low-cost domestic airlines, such as Air India, GoAir, IndiGo or Jet Airways. High demand means you need to book as far in advance as possible. And leave yourself plenty of time to check in and board as this can be a long, slow process.”

As ever, thorough research is essential, according to UKIBC’s chief operating officer, Kevin McCole. He says spending time in this “big and complex” nation, getting an understanding of its cultural diversity, is essential to picking the right partners and regions in which to do business. Building relationships and taking advice will help ensure you hire expert local staff.

“Your business model may not translate to the Indian market the way you expect,” he says. “Don’t be put off by this. Adapt and seize opportunities,” says McCole.

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