Working with India: What To Know before You Go

You’ve been in contact with several companies that are based in India. Now the time has come to make site visits and get to know the people at these service providers face to face on their own turf. But you’ve never been to India and you don’t know what to expect. Time for a crash course in cross-cultural training.


That’s where Dr. Karine Schomer, president of Change Management Consulting & Training, and her team of consultants come in. California-based CMCT offers services in change management, HR strategy, leadership and management development, executive coaching, team building and cross cultural training. In the latter category, the company provides training specifically about India that addresses cultural awareness and communication and team work issues.

Dr. Schomer knows the country and its people well. She’s lived and worked in India for eight years and has made many briefer visits to India over the last 25 years. We asked her to share some of her most practical advice about that first business trip you’ll be making to India. Here are 18 tips that stand out.

–> TIP 1: Be ready for true hospitality.

Traveling in the US means renting a car and conferring with the map or grabbing a cab and showing up at the front office for your next business meeting a few minutes before you’re expected. That isn’t the way it works in India.

“It is likely that when you arrive, you’ll actually be picked up at the airport by the person you are supposed to meet and taken to your hotel,” says Dr. Schomer. “Much will be done to make sure that you are comfortable, maybe a meal that is completely social for you to be welcomed and a lot more hospitality and welcoming events than you are accustomed to in this country.”

How do you respond? Accept it graciously and don’t consider it a waste of time or an imposition on your personal space. Avoid saying, “Well, I really would like to be left alone.” According to Dr. Schomer, that goes against the rules of Indian hospitality.

–> TIP 2: Expect true culture shock and fuzzy thinking.

Since a lot of flights to India arrive in the middle of the night, you probably won’t be at your brightest that first day. Do what you can to rest up before business begins. Dr. Schomer recommends getting to the hotel, sleeping, taking a shower, having a quiet breakfast or lunch and spending some time adjusting. In other words, don’t think you’ll arrive and get right to work.

Along those same lines, even though we hear a lot about the “new India,” the fact is that the old India will hit you the moment you leave the airport — “crowds, the intensity of everything on the street, great variations of wealth and poverty, the sheer intensity of the culture,” as Dr. Schomer describes it. “People stare at you, pressing in on you. There’s lots going on and everything is just different — the temperature, the feel of the air.” Your brain is “not going to be 100% functioning.”

No matter what your usual company policy is, build in buffer time at the beginning of your trip. It’ll more than make up for the extra expense of hotel nights in sharper thinking on your part.

–> TIP 3 Remember to pack for business.

In an Indian business setting, men normally wear lightweight suits with ties. If the day is extraordinarily hot, you can dispense with the suit jacket, but start with it on and see how your hosts are dressed.

For women, pack lightweight pant suits with sandals. Leave the short skirts at home. And, just like in the typical US setting, the air conditioning can be pretty cold — if it’s working properly. So bring a shawl or a jacket.

–> TIP 4: Don’t expect to start punctually at 9 a.m., or 10, or even 11.

“Being respectful of other people’s time is not an Indian value, nor do people expect you to be very respectful of their time. It is just not important like it is [in the US]. Things are very fluid and constantly changing,” says Dr. Schomer.

Unlike in the states, where you make appointments a month ahead of time, when you arrive in India, you “almost start from scratch” on setting your schedule.

Ask your host, “Is 10 still a good time for us to meet?” You may find that the meeting times have changed.

It is not that the meeting won’t happen, says Dr. Schomer. “It will happen.” But she advises against scheduling back-to-back appointments, because often the first meeting won’t start on time. It will start whenever the primary person shows up. Likewise, the question about when it will end is also open ended.

That means you need to leave an enormous amount of time between appointments, especially if your next appointment is in another part of the city.

In fact, Dr. Schomer suggests that if you’re meeting with more than one service provider, plan to schedule no more than one meeting in a day.

–> TIP 5: Expect and intend to spend time on developing the relationship before you get to business.

Avoid the American tendency to get straight to business. Take time to let the person get to know you and for you get to know him or her. Suggests Dr. Schomer, “Talk about things that are not directly business related. Establish a pleasant relationship. It’s very important. India is a relationship-oriented culture… If you don’t do that, it is hard to go beyond that. You need to show that you are interested in your colleagues as human beings and not just as business entities.”

Safe topics of conversation:

  • Your curiosity about things in India, showing an interest in what you are seeing and what you are experiencing.
  • Sports — especially cricket. If you don’t know anything about cricket, that doesn’t matter. You can ask for an explanation of the basics.
  • Movies.
  • Travel to foreign places.
  • Education. “They are very proud of their education and they are probably interested in what kind of an education you had,” says Dr. Schomer.

Topics to avoid:

  • The weather.
  • Poverty in India.
  • The caste system.
  • Election and foreign policy-type discussions.
  • Questions about immigration.

So how will you know when it’s time to move on to the business at hand? Dr. Schomer suggests taking the lead from your Indian colleague. That might be half an hour into the conversation. It might be slightly shorter or longer. “But don’t rush to it,” she says.

–> TIP 6: Be prepared to use last names until you’re told otherwise.

If you’re meeting people for the first time, you’ll probably want to use last names until you get to know people a little bit better. Don’t immediately jump to first names. “In the IT world especially, you may find people switch to first names,” explains Dr. Schomer. “But when you first meet them — especially if they’re high status in the company you’re meeting with — use the honorific and their last name.”

Prepare for that before you go. Learn how to pronounce the names and find out whether somebody is a Mr., Miss or Mrs. (“Ms.” is rarely used in India.) Suggests Dr. Schomer, get information about everybody you’ll be meeting with from whomever you’re corresponding with prior to leaving.

Of course, names can be lengthy and look deceptively hard to say. How do you get through possible mispronunciation? If you’ve obtained that list of people you’ll be meeting with ahead of time, practice with the help of somebody in the US who’s familiar with Indian names. If that isn’t an option, once you get there and you meet somebody, just ask: “Mr. Sravanapudi, would you please help me to pronounce your name right? I need help pronouncing it.” Then practice it a couple of times after you’ve been told.

It’s important to get it right for two reasons: 1) You won’t be corrected if you get it wrong; and 2) if you get it right, it helps on the relationship-building that you’re there to do.

–> TIP 7: Get straight in your head about who’s in charge.

Be clear about the roles, titles and positions of the people you are meeting and to make your own role, position and title clear. Roles, titles and positions are important in India.

Explains Dr. Schomer, “There is a respect for hierarchical structure, rank and for position. People are not comfortable until everybody is clear on who they are.”

What’s the top title? It’ll probably be a managing director heading up the operation.

And you can expect the seating arrangement for your meeting to reflect that hierarchy. That means you’ll also want to ask them where you should sit, rather than simply taking a seat. You’ll probably be seated in a way that faces the lead person.

At the same time, you need to talk up your title in your own company’s hierarchy. Although VPs appear to be a dime a dozen in the US, it makes for an impressive title.

If you’re female, plan to put a special emphasis on your title. And if you’re at the meeting as the representative of the president or COO or CEO, make that clear too. “That will immediately give her respect, which she might not get as much of if she doesn’t show what her hierarchical rank is,” says Dr. Schomer.

–> TIP 8: When the business card trade takes place, pay attention.

Be prepared to exchange your card with the person in charge, or the person who seems to be leading the meeting. Don’t volunteer to give your card to everybody without knowing who they are. When you take a card from somebody else, pause long enough to look at it (though don’t get “ceremonial” about it, Dr. Schomer advises).

Make sure to use your right hand to receive the card and to hand over your card (unless physical circumstances prevent that).

–> TIP 9: Consider traveling with at least one other person.

This will help you in a couple of ways.

First, it enables you to uphold your stature. If you tend to take notes during a meeting to keep track of details, that second person can handle that function for you. Otherwise, you won’t look like the “big picture person” you’re trying to come across as. You’ll simply look like an emissary for somebody more important back at the office. That means the Indian decision maker won’t treat you as an equal.

Second, if you’re trying to remember everything that’s being said, you won’t be able to pay attention to what’s going on around you, as we’ll get to shortly.

–> TIP 10: Don’t be surprised if other people you haven’t heard about show up at the meeting or if other business takes place around you.

Aside from the occasional under-the-table Blackberry use in the US, we like to be very clear about when the meeting is going to be, what it is about and who is going to be there. “Things are more fluid in India.” Says Dr. Schomer, “Several people may show up along with the person you think you are meeting and it is not going to be clear to you why they are there.”

These people may not be introduced, nor will they say anything. He or she may simply be somebody of lower rank in the organization who is just there to give support. Says Dr. Schomer, “It’s not a great idea to direct questions at people who seem to be there in the support role.” Make sure you know who the chief person is with whom you’re meeting. Then direct all your conversation to that person unless you have been asked to do otherwise.

Besides people walking in and out, expect phone calls and questions to the boss during the meeting. “The Indian environment is strong on multitasking,” says Dr. Schomer. “So you may be sitting in a meeting with the head of a unit, and he will pick up on the phone and talk while you’re sitting there, and somebody will knock on the door and will just walk in to ask him a question, and he will just interrupt his conversation with you and then go on. In the Indian business style, this is not considered rude.” In other words, “don’t feel like you’re being blown off.”

–> TIP 11. Provide the biggest possible context for why you are doing whatever you want to do.

Americans have a propensity for boxing in conversation — keeping it narrow and focused: “I need somebody to do this piece of our work. How much can you do it for? When can you get it done?”

India has a “high context culture,” says Dr. Schomer. Plan to provide background information about your company, including its history. Then drill down to broader efforts related to that, then to specific initiatives, and only then to the specifics related to your visit. The goal is to help explain why you’re interested in the service provider.

Don’t expect to whip out your standard PowerPoint presentation and run the service provider staff through it. Slides emphasize bullet points and brevity. You want to expand.

Of course, by the time you reach the point of actually visiting India, you’ll already have had multiple conversations with people in the service provider about similar topics. But repetition is a useful practice. As Dr. Schomer explains, “The American mode of presentation is linear. It basically says, ÔOK, this is what I am going to say. I am going to say it. These are the points under each of the things I am going to say. And this is the wrap up at the end.’ Indian conversation tends to work in loops. Circling around and saying the same thing in many different ways, over and over again.”

–> TIP 12: Remember to pay attention to body language. It’ll reveal facets that the words won’t communicate.

You’re finally there in person, in front of a company you may be working with. Don’t act as if you’re still on the phone. Use your proximity to best advantage. “In general, Americans use their own body language as a way of reinforcing what their words are,” says Dr. Schomer. “But Indian culture is more indirect. The body language may be telling you something different from the words.”

Are people looking forward? Are they looking fidgety or uneasy as they say, “Yes”? If so, that may be telling you something.

At the same time, pay attention to how individuals in the room are interacting with each other, so that you understand a little bit of the dynamics of the group.

–> TIP 13: Don’t assume “Yes” means “Yes.”

So how do you tie the body language to the words being spoken? Let’s take an example, such as whether a service provider will be able to meet a particular deadline. According to Dr. Schomer, “We’ll try,” is the “diplomatic way of saying, ÔWe really can’t, but we don’t want to tell you.’ Indians have a certain aversion to saying, “No.”

Americans want a direct “Yes” or “No. For Indians, the tendency will be to say, “Yes,” and try to make it happen at all costs. That can create wide miscommunication and variances in expectations.

How can you get at a clear understanding about what people are really thinking? Don’t bring up yes- or no-type decisions in the context of the meeting.

“Meetings are to discuss and to build the relationship and to see what the issues are,” explains Dr. Schomer. “But the real deciding is almost always made offline by the decision maker.”

If you sense hedging, just let it happen. Don’t press for a hard yes or no.

“Just assume that later on you’ll have a chance to sit alone with the decision maker — maybe over a meal. The topic may come up indirectly, and this decision maker may either tell you directly or indirectly that something is unrealistic. “It’s not likely to happen with a whole bunch of other people present,” she says.

What if you’re asking questions and you see heads nod, as if in assent? “Don’t interpret this as a, ÔYes,'” says Dr. Schomer. “It really means, ÔI am listening… I understand what you are saying.'”

–> TIP 14: Pay attention during those last few minutes of the meeting — because that’s when some of the most interesting insights may occur.

Here’s another reason not to schedule meetings to take place on the same day. If you end having to say, “Well, I have to go in 10 minutes because I have another meeting,” you may miss the most telling points of the conversation.

Also, says Dr. Schomer, the American way is, “‘OK, here is what we are meeting about,’ and you get to it pretty quickly. Then if you have some time left over, you may do some chatting about other things. The Indian way of doing it is more the other way around. You will talk about all sorts of things and sort of circle around the topic, and then in the last 10 minutes of your time together, it will be, ÔNow about that deal we were talking about, maybe we could do this…’ But that may not come up until the end.”

–> TIP 15: You may find out that your host expects to take you out for dinner.

But since dinner won’t start until 9 in the evening, you can ask for a small break in between the end of the on-site business discussion and start of the social hour. (Pose it as their opportunity to provide you with good hospitality: “Of course, you’ll probably want a chance to talk among yourselves. Plus, I know you’ll want me to be alive and well to enjoy tonight’s festivities…”.) That’ll give you a chance to return to your hotel room and freshen up for the evening’s events.

However, if the conversation is going well, you’re learning lots, and you don’t want that break, don’t make the request. In other words, go with the flow.

–> TIP 16: Remember the right hand rule during dinner.

Don’t touch food with your left hand. If you’re reaching for bread, fruit or anything else, use your right hand. Don’t even use your left hand to tear bread apart. Use one hand for the operation. (Yes, this one will take practice — just like using chopsticks, says Dr. Schomer.)

When removing foods from communal dishes, don’t use your own utensils.

–> TIP 17: Stop saying, “Thank you,” so much!

The American propensity for saying, “Please,” and “Thank you,” comes across as a bit funny and unnecessary, even a little insincere, says Dr. Schomer. If somebody does something for which you’re grateful, a little nod of the head will suffice. That way, thankfulness is shown without much fuss and received without much fuss.

However, when the meeting is over and you’re either back home or you’ve moved on, plan to send an email thank-you to your host, which includes a summary of what you think happened during the visit. Frame it as, “My understanding of what we discussed is this… I’m checking in to see if this is your understanding too…”

–> TIP 18: Remember to reciprocate when you’re back in your own territory.

Expect to exchange favors. Act as host to your visiting guests from India — in a way that’s comparable to what you received.

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Listen to the archived Webcast, “Working with India: What To Know Before You Go”