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They say they’ll send it and they don’t? They nod they understand but it later turns out they actually didn’t? And they also ask how your weekend was or if your parents are well at the very moment when all you can think about are targets and deadlines? If you or your company does business with India on a daily basis you’ll probably re-read the questions right now and think: “Yes, that one is so true!”. All of them are true you say? Well…

Because of individual differences, false assumptions and accidental misunderstandings, cooperation and communication are always challenging. Add to that some limitations, which are the fundamental ingredients of long-distance communication, and pair it with cultural differences. Et, voilà! Your recipe for frustration is here. I would hear a lot of complaints, discuss problems, answer questions, explain difficult emotions or even analyse some examples of conflicts at the beginning of practically every communication skills training course I run that talked about cooperating with India.
You can avoid misunderstandings and the feeling of frustration, if you:

  • become aware and understand the fact that these situations often result from the lack of understanding between cultures and not from bad intentions of any of the sides
  • acknowledge that different behaviours can be conditioned to a large extend by deeply rooted cultural factors such as values and beliefs
  • realise that values are not to be evaluated, which means that we don’t have a right to say that one culture’s values are better than other’s
  • become more familiarized with cultural conditions that determine specific behaviours you see everyday

What is important for better understanding of culturally determined behaviours of your colleague from India?
The importance and value of a relationship are the underlying principles of Indian culture. The group is traditionally (and still generally, despite of the present dynamic changes in Indian society and culture) the basic point of reference. The group defines the individual’s identity. It answers the question: “Who am I?”. The group also sets priorities upon one’s needs, since the group’s needs come before individual needs. In return for loyalty the group guarantees nearly unconditional care and protection.
This is reflected directly in the preferred communication style in India. There are two main communication purposes: to exchange information and to develop and maintain relations with others. Each culture favours one of these purposes to a varying degree. In India, the communication is rather relationship focused. For example, my friend Panaj, a talented graphic designer I asked for help with some small projects, has never said to me: “I’m not quite sure what you’re asking me for.” or “It can’t be done.”. Instead, he accepts my unrealistic suggestions and afterwards sends a design that quite significantly differs from my original ideas. His comment is that he introduced some changes in the process and asks if I am fine with that. I once had the opportunity of asking him about that in a heart to heart conversation and the answer was: “Oh, I knew it wouldn’t turn out as you suggested. I just didn’t want to disappoint you…”. The main function of communication in India is building and maintaining balanced relations, very often at the cost of an effective exchange of information. That is why saying “yes” is very welcome here and, likewise, “no” is not. Saying “no” or admitting that something is impossible or incomprehensible is a kind of bad news for Indians. And bad news requires special and careful delivery. The fact that Indians rarely use the word “no” doesn’t mean they don’t send the same message. India are a high-context culture, which means that many things are left unsaid, letting the body language, context and subtle suggestions explain. With high-context messages it is essential to “read between the lines” – spoken words often carry little or no meaning.
For example, a message like: “Yes, I will do my best…” most probably means: “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to do that.” and “It’s going to be difficult.” stands for “That’s just impossible.”. There are many ways of saying “no” without actually saying it and Indians have practiced those ways since they were just kids.
If you have been co-working with Indians who communicate in this manner, let me give you some advice.

  1. Avoid yes/no questions.
    Asking “Is everything clear to you?”, “Can you send it by the end of the week?” is pointless, because they will probably just say “Yes.”. Choose “Wh-” questions instead, so ask “What…?”, “Who…?”, “When…?”. If you want to be sure you and your co-worker from India understood each other, you can also ask him or her for some kind of a summary.
  2. Avoid suggestive questions.
    Rumour has it that Indians tend to say whatever you want to hear (or what they think you might want to hear). Taking their values into consideration, the rumour definitely makes sense. In order to increase your chance of getting an honest opinion from Indian people, try to avoid suggesting them your expectations or viewpoints (“It should be ready by Friday, shouldn’t it?”, “It’s a good solution, isn’t it?”). And if instead of answers you get “What do you think?” questions, don’t hesitate to tell them that you care about their opinion first.
  3. Be open to “reading between the lines”.
    When you know that a simple “yes” does not mean the actual approval (and for an Indian it is always obvious) and “no” is usually not said directly – have your eyes and ears wide open so that you don’t miss any additional info in any conversation (“Oh, report XYZ…? Yes, we’re working extra hard on this one…”). Just in case, feel free to inquire with open questions of course.
  4. Building relations is worth investing into.
    If you think that another small talk on your company’s chat is a waste of time, especially if it is not all about the “What is the weather like?” questions (when you could both complain a little at least), but verbally going through your personal life, be it your family, free time or interests – then trust my advice. In case of cooperation with people from cultures that favour building relations, like India, it is essential that you try to leave your comfort zone (e.g. it is easier for befriended people to say some things more directly and easily, especially in India) and make an effort for a better and more effective cooperation. Personal relations can be a great incentive as you can do much more for your “homies”!

I encourage you to put all this advice into practice and check how it works for you. I can’t wait to read your comments. I hope you have a lot of effective, enriching and enlightening cross-cultural experiences. As Carl Jung once said: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”. 😉