For business communication in India, English is the lingua franca. Almost all Indian business people have attended English Medium Schools and completed their studies in English. Many have been trained in England, the USA or Canada. You can therefore expect a high standard of language skills with a differentiated vocabulary in India’s business world. Sometimes the rhythm and melody of spoken English are based on the Indian language, so you may have to listen carefully at first.
You should seek the assistance of an interpreter if you are travelling in rural areas, as you may encounter some people who are not as versed in English and would prefer to hold business talks in their local language.
“Namaste” is a greeting that is widely used throughout India. This translates to “The Divine in me greets the Divine in you!” This greeting is spoken with hands folded at chest height.
In Corporate India, however, an English greeting with a handshake is also standard. Therefore, if you meet an Indian businesswoman, you should wait and see if she reaches out her hand. If not, the Indian greeting with folded hands is appropriate.
There are several reasons for the traditional Indian greeting gesture. First, it’s not very pleasant to shake a sweaty hand in a hot country like India. Moreover, many people do not want to touch people who belong to lower castes or are Dalits (lowest caste, untouchables).
After greeting, you introduce yourself and name your responsibilities and areas of competence. If several people meet, it is up to the highest-ranking person to introduce themselves first and then invite the others to follow their example. The introduction includes handing over business cards.
By the way, if you have trouble keeping the different players on the Indian side apart during your first meeting, you can put their business cards following the seating arrangement in front of you on the table. A little cheat to get names and titles right.
Indian hospitality begins with tea (black tea boiled with milk and sweetened with lots of sugar), coffee, mineral water, or soft drinks. It is a courtesy to accept the drinks offered. If you don’t want tap water ice cubes in your glass, it’s no problem to say that. Indian businesspeople know that tap water is not digestible for foreigners.
Indian Conversation Style
Right from the start, a relationship-based communication in India lays the foundation for successful business. In India, it is inappropriate to speak in a factually focused, objectively distanced manner that characterizes the Western business style. It seems cold, aggressive, insensitive, disinterested and dismissive.
In India, personal matters come first. Always. Business comes after that. What is regarded in many other countries as just a pleasant chat until you get to the point is extremely important in India.
Communication in India is indirect and includes many euphemisms and hints. Indians also read between the lines a lot. Learning to understand subtle communications is one of the things that Western businesspeople should do.
Spurred on by risk-taking, self-confidence, optimism and youthful dynamism, Indians also tend to exaggerate their achievements. As a result, any neutral and factual style seems distant and unappreciative to them.
Indians have no problem showing their emotions. For example, moaning about being ripped off by the deal and already having given all discounts is part of the Indian negotiation drama.
“Talk is silver; silence is golden”. This saying has minimal value for communication in India, as silence is of little help when establishing a business relationship with someone. Small talk is obligatory in India, not a chore! Family, friends, education, hometown, hobbies, and travel are good topics to get to know each other. Besides, Indians like to hear people praise Indian food and culture (buildings, literature, dance, music, etc.). Many are proud to belong to one of the oldest and most influential civilizations in the world. Expressing appreciation for the country’s philosophy, religion and spirituality or admiration for its diligence, ambition and dynamism and mentioning that India is increasingly becoming an essential player in world affairs are also very much appreciated in India.
Avoid any criticism of India, e.g. politics and conflicts, corruption, environmental pollution, poverty and poverty reduction, religion and religious conflicts. Indians consider these topics to be their affair and only accept criticism from those who have booked a one-way ticket and intend to live permanently in India.
Assent And Disagreement
“No problem” is a statement that you will frequently hear in India. Be cautious, though, as this sentence only means that efforts are being made to achieve the desired outcome. By no means is it a promise that everything will go smoothly. At worst, “no problem” indicates a huge problem that is not openly discussed.
A direct “no” is rare in India because it is considered rude to give someone a negative answer. Even if you ask for street directions, you will often get some sort of description. Although this may not have anything to do with the sought-after objective, the person asked is just being polite.
Unusual tales are therefore not a sign of the inventiveness of the person who tells them, but most likely a clever excuse indicating that there are problems to be worked on.
“Let me think about it”, “I’ll try…” or “Let’s see” are polite Indian expressions for a “no”. The silence, when asked several times, most likely indicates a failed deal.
If you wish to express disagreement yourself, use the sandwich technique: Frame your “no” with something neutral or remark positively on a relatively unimportant aspect. As Indians are used to this kind of indirect communication, the chances of being understood immediately are good. If the Indian party inquires about it, you can then clearly affirm your “no” by supporting it with expressions such as “definitely” or “100 per cent”.
Voicing Criticism And Resolving Conflicts
In cultures that communicate directly, criticism is presented straightforward and constructively on a factual level without offending the person responsible personally. Communication in India means, however, that criticism can only covertly expressed. Metaphors and examples are helpful.
This causes a two-way problem. While all forms of direct criticism are seen as harsh insults in India, people communicating directly often do not hear the critical but subtle hints from the Indian side.
A style of communication that shows that criticism is always meant objectively and in no way aims to accuse a person is helpful. It is also helpful to draw the attention of Indians to the fact that some foreign businesspeople, because of their cultural socialization, may find it difficult to understand subtle language hints.
Critical points should only be discussed in private with the person responsible for the situation. Be careful not to become personally hurtful or to denounce or call out the person responsible in front of an audience. In some situations, it may be advisable to discuss critical issues with an employee’s Indian manager and ask them to pass the criticism on. This will ensure that it is understood correctly.
If you work in India as a foreign manager, adopting the Indian management style helps to prevent conflicts. Also, if you are a manager, you should continuously obtain reports on the status of ongoing work.
Should considerable differences arise and cooperation is at stake, it is advisable to work towards de-escalation early. Engage a culturally sensitive mediator who can help remind both sides of the conflict of their common interests and limit the damage. Out-of-court settlements can be reached more quickly and are usually associated with less effort, injury and loss of face.
More than 70 per cent of companies whose international business relationships ultimately failed cited cultural misunderstandings as the main reason for the failure.
A business mentality that relies on hierarchies and status expresses itself in body language through clear signals of superiority or inferiority – e.g., how managers interact with employees. For example, when talking to a superior, Indian employees automatically put their hands behind their backs and keep the front of their bodies unprotected. Emotions felt during a conversation are also clearly shown.
In some regions of India (e.g. Maharashtra), it is typical to wiggle one’s head slightly sideways and thus to indicate consent. However, since this movement looks more like head-shaking from a Western point of view, its symbolic content is often misunderstood.
Telephone, E-mail And Business Correspondence
In the beginning, it is usual to address people formally with their academic titles. This will later be replaced by the first name – provided that both partners or colleagues are on the same hierarchy level. Supervisors are addressed as Mr. and Mrs. and their surnames. Use “Namaste!” / “Namaskar!” at the beginning of a letter or e-mail to help foster cultural closeness.
On the phone, using “Hanji, Namaste!” – “Hello!” and maybe “Kya hal ha?” – “How are you?” in Hindi is much appreciated! Personal topics should always be mentioned both at the beginning and at the end of phone calls. This shows closeness and familiarity. This could be inquiring about the family, the children’s school leaving certificate or their last holiday. Tell about important events in your family, praise the newest Indian restaurant that opened in your city or emphasize how happy your colleagues were about the silk scarves and ties brought from India. India is a culture of relationships, and that means using every opportunity to develop this relationship.
It is imperative to address the person in charge of the relevant matter to ensure successful and targeted communication in India. Do not settle to talk to just any person who picks up the phone but is neither familiar with the matter nor responsible for the task. This ultimately means a loss of time because nothing will happen except the exchange of conventional niceties.
Extract from Business Culture India, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag