How To Avoid Cultural Mistakes In India Business

Cultural mistakes while doing business with India can be a big handicap. The right attitude helps you form mutually beneficial relationships in spite of the many cultural mistakes you might make. Here are some do not’s of business behaviour in India.

Communication errors cause the most problems in business and human relationships. A large part of these originate in insensitivity to cultural differences. Problems do not arise just because of the cultural differences but due to our way of relating to the differences, in our attitudes and willingness to face diversity. 

In an urban setting, many of the people a foreigner interacts with in India speak good English and probably wear Western style clothes. You can see the same consumer products in India that city people all over the world consume. This can be misleading, as India is an ancient culture, with many contextual rules of behaviour and etiquette.

Business behaviour in Japan or Korea can be radically different from Western business behaviour, but India is much closer to Western business behaviour. Most of these behaviours and mindsets can be learnt if you do your homework in advance. Here are some quick guidelines.

The golden rule is: Always be sensitive to the context. 

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The Do Not’s of doing business with India are:

  • Make the other person lose face. Though this is not as serious as the Chinese face saving Gei MianZi, it is very important. As a foreigner, avoid shouting at an Indian or reprimanding her/him in front of peers. If an Indian manager shouts at his/her subordinates, it does not mean that you, as a foreigner, can or should.
  • Accept every ‘yes’ as a real yes. “Yes” is often the Enter of the computer keyboard meaning, “I have heard you.” Learn to recognise the "NO" as Indians don't say NO directly, unless it is a crucial issue. The NO is always hidden in niceties and lots of “yes” words and body language and gestures.
  • Do not lecture Indians about poverty, dirt, corruption, bribes and social problems. Indians might interpret this as condescending behaviour in a foreigner. Most Indians are proud of their rich history and appreciate intelligent discussions with mutual respect. Do not preach about democracy, social equality and women's rights etc.
  • Lose your temper over frequent interruptions, digressions or bargaining in meetings and negotiations.
  • Expect quick commitment from Indian counterparts. It is a hierarchic society. All decisions take time. Decision-making may involve people not present in meetings or negotiations.
  • Never use your left hand for eating, serving, or taking food or handing over or accepting things. The left hand is considered the toilet hand and thus taboo. This is a challenge for left-handers.
  • Do not turn up in a business meeting wearing Indian style clothes, especially the “Indian” hippie style clothes sold in cheap shops in Western countries.
  • Address Indian business partners publicly by their first name unless it has been specifically agreed upon. Seniority is important to the Indians. This is more important when dealing with people in the public sector.
  • Get upset when someone asks personal questions about your age, marital status, income, and family background. Indians are usually very nosey and talkative.
  • Do not appear drunk in public. Not only can you make a fool of yourself in front of other people, you can easily become prey to pickpockets, snatchers or scamsters found in all big cities.
  • Buy the same gifts for everyone in the same organisation. Show respect according to rank and seniority. Buy better gifts for the senior leaders.

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Attitude is Vital in Business Relationships in India

Doing business with the Indians can be difficult if mutual trust and respect have not been achieved. Try to make this your main focus. Gaining mutual respect is the key to managing relationships with the Indians. When you gain the respect, you have the foundation for a long-term business relationship.

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Even if you make cultural mistakes or faux pas, you will be forgiven most errors if your attitude towards the other culture displays a genuine understanding of the other’s position and background. Healthy curiosity and an appreciation of the other’s culture and achievements are a good basis for forming a long-term mutually beneficial two-way relationship.


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