Learn India in 12 Easy Steps


Doing business with India involves more than just technology, contracts, quarterly earnings, leadership, customer satisfaction, business value or other jargon. To have a long-term business relationship with India and most south Asian countries around India, you need to understand the unsaid and the unspoken that may often seem to have no connection to business needs.

Here I share 12 lessons that can help you through your dealings with this complex kaleidoscope of a country.

–> Lesson #1. Religion, caste and language play a dominating role in the country.

In India the major religions are Hindu, Christian and Muslim, along with an assorted sprinkling of Buddhists, Jews, Parsis and many atheists who believe in god by night. Within each religion there are several sub sects commonly known as castes. The sub sects within the major religions are normally based on food habits, family practices and ancestral beliefs. For example, you will see some Hindus eat meat, while other Hindus are pure vegetarian. Indians are very proud and sensitive of their religion, language and caste. So if you offend or make fun of these things, forget about doing business with that person or earning his or her respect.

–> Lesson #2. Festivals and beliefs are complex!

India has a cultural history more than 10,000 years old. Religion, philosophy, spirituality and belief in higher powers play an integral part of every Indian’s life. In addition to national festivals every state, every village and every family has its own festivals, beliefs and private gods. So if you hear someone say he was on leave because of his grandfather’s 10th death anniversary or his child’s naming ceremony or a religious ritual in his family, you should respect that practice and accept its sanctity. This means, no thinking to yourself: “Wasn’t that business strategy meeting more important?”

–> Lesson #3. Most Indians stay in joint families and have been doing so forever.

Indians don’t send their parents to an old age home nor nudge their kids to fly out when they reach college. And there is no need to hire a babysitter. So if you happen to visit an Indian friend’s house, don’t be surprised to see his father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, nephews, uncles, aunts, etc., in the same house along with lots of photos of gods and saints. And don’t feel offended if they start asking probing questions about your family or religion. Alcohol, cigarettes and meat are still taboo to many. So don’t expect a can of beer when you go visiting. All you may get is a cup of coffee, tea or lemon juice.

–> Lesson #4. Learn to say and understand namaste.

This is the way Indians greet each other – with folded hands. It’s OK to shake hands in the office or with business associates, but don’t go around trying to shake hands with family members. It’s considered inappropriate and embarrassing to many.

–> Lesson #5. Learn to live with uncertainties and a poor infrastructure.

Food, clothing, shelter and basic medicines are still premium products for many Indians. Look at it this way. If infrastructure, security, safety and all other groovy items were on par or better than fully developed countries, doing business with India would be as costly and forbidding as any other advanced nation. For example you don’t outsource to Japan even though the infrastructure and everything else is fabulous, do you?

–> Lesson #6. Watch your language.

The use of cuss words, the discussion of gay rights, body piercing, skimpy dresses and those candid dare all, bare all discussions of Oprah are frowned upon or simply not acceptable. In rural areas you may even be thrashed or worse for daring to be too daring.

–> Lesson #7. Be flexible with scheduling and deadlines.

In India you often can’t adhere to strict timings due to numerous internal, external and uncontrollable factors. So if you’ve scheduled a meeting at exactly 9 a.m. sharp and expect everyone to be on time, it may not work. Too many factors get in the way: traffic, public transport, queues, parking problems, road repairs, civil disturbances, processions, rainsÉ For example, it may take nearly two hours to travel a distance of just 10 kilometers in Bangalore.

–> Lesson #8. Emotional turmoil affects business.

Films, film stars, religious leaders, politicians, vegetable prices and cricket have a very powerful hold and influence on many Indians. So it may be necessary sometimes for a business to close for the day out of respect because a popular film star died, a political candidate lost an election, a film flopped or a cricket game was lost.

–> Lesson #9. Indians place great importance on family values, friendship, trust and respect for elders.

It’s inappropriate for a youngster to advise, chide or talk straight with elders. It wouldn’t matter if you were the tough CEO of a Fortune 1000 company. At home you’re still expected to respect and obey the wishes of your uneducated grandfather or even get slapped by your mother in front of the family members for saying something disrespectful. So if a top international business leader begins his speech like, “I had just divorced my third wife when my business associate called about that juicy billion dollar deal…” he is no longer considered a person of any earthly value worthy of emulation.

–> Lesson #10. Don’t get personal.

Just like every other human being on this planet, Indians also take criticism and insults about their work personally. Sugar-coated criticism and cooperation is preferred. Indians consider it disrespectful to speak their mind and don’t sue each other for trivial issues. Indians finds it uncomfortable to say things you don’t want to hear or say something that may disappoint you. So the straightforward management styles and candor of Jack Welsh or Donald Trump simply doesn’t work.

–> Lesson #11. Visitations aren’t always scheduled.

Prior appointments aren’t needed to visit your mother, father, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbours or even a colleague. An acquaintance walking into somebody’s home is often considered a pleasant honour. And you never see an RSVP on a wedding invitation or get stopped at the gate for not showing your invitation.

–> Lesson #12. The final secret.

The biggest reason why you should come to India is not for its low-cost software development or to see our snake charmers, Indian rope trick or elephants. The real reason is this: For less than two dollars you can get a great haircut. Try to find that in America.

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