Making sense of the Indian headshake

Making sense of the Indian headshake

In a global workplace, managing people from different cultures is a big challenge in itself. But managing and getting the assistance of workers from a different culture, in a different country, remotely without ever (possibly) getting to see them face-to-face is a whole different ball game.

In my opinion, understanding each others context and cultures is critical for any business relationship to succeed. We are acutely aware of this given that we serve busy individuals and small businesses (not corporations) from 50 odd countries. Each client comes from a different culture and context, much different from us. And we do have to contend with problems arising due to these differences, every single day. Not a easy task by any stretch of imagination. For my fellow Indian workers who may be displeased with this post (please read the disclaimer at the bottom to understand the context).

Now let me point to some examples that highlight the key differences in the thought processes between a Western client and his or her Indian assistant or worker (cultural context), which may appear rather funny, but could have a very serious bearing on the long term success of the business relationship.

1) The inability of Indian workers to say ‘NO’ is probably the biggest culprit to misunderstanding when working with western counterparts or clients. Being hospitable, being friendly and being helpful is ingrained in the Indian culture and hence people generally find it difficult to say ‘NO’.  Even when it comes to things they can’t do or things they are not comfortable with. So when they say ‘we will try’ or ‘we will give our best shot’ it means that they are taking on work they don’t understand or can’t handle. It merely means that they will be attempting it, (of course) with the best of efforts. While the Westerner wants you to tell him that you can’t when you really can’t, the Indian just finds it difficult to say anything other than a ‘YES’. Results in a big let-down. The client, because he actually thought the worker would be able to help; the worker, because he feels that his attempts to be helpful were useless.

2) Deadlines are sacrosanct for the Western and many other cultures (Japanese). But the typical Indian is more worried about the goods and less about the deadline. In fact, a particular delivery may have some serious issues or may have run into unforeseen problems and the Indian may have taken great pains to solve the issue or somehow make it work. But he fails to understand the importance of communicating back on the timeline delay, well in advance for the client to make alternate arrangements.  And this results in dissatisfaction for both parties. The client because his deadline is simply not respected; the worker because his efforts on the face of the difficulties he had to surmount in getting the job done, have gone unappreciated.

3) Westerners expect people to ask questions if they do not understand. Most Indian workers presume that asking questions will be perceived as a sign of weakness or ignorance and hence fail to ask them when it is most required. This leads to a lot of assumptions that could easily go wrong. The problem lies in the upbringing from childhood that places greater emphasis on being taught, than in learning. Asking questions was rarely encouraged in those days. Of course, the current generation of children in India are a lot more confident about themselves and wouldn’t hesitate to ask, if in doubt. And hopefully, that will change things over a few generations.

4) Failure was taboo in post-British era Indian society. And hence fear of failure can stop people from pushing the limits or taking decisions on their own, especially when it comes to client’s work. It is a good thing if clear instructions have been given, to stick in within the fence. But even otherwise, Indian workers are generally fearful about making decisions that may backfire. This again has to do with the fact that failure is not well accepted. Failure is not seen as a stepping stone to success or as part of learning process. Filing for bankruptcy in a business means your are doomed to never do business again. On the contrary, in the western world this means you are better equipped to get it right the next time and make a success. Hence in India, you will find people more willing to merely comply than raise their levels to create new benchmarks. However, the newer generation of Indian youth is quite different and is moving in a positive direction.

These are just some of the numerous aspects of cultural differences that may result in an imperfect fit, if not properly understood. And it happens primarily due to a lack of awareness from both sides of the sensitivities involved. Of course, there are numerous positives to the Indian culture which is highly contextual and flexible. To better explain this, I would like to point to this TED talk from Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik which illustrates the difference beautifully.

So while every person’s culture is deeply ingrained in their psyche, it is inevitable in a global workplace that no one shall be left untouched by the culture of people living thousands of miles away on a different continent. Cultures are exchanged day in and day out, at the global workplace and it may result in a fusion; a kind of melting pot, which hopefully will take the best from every world. The success of the Indian IT-ITES industry globally is a clear indicator that cultural adaptation is happening faster than ever.

Disclaimer: Indian workers are generally seen as hard working, congenial and smart and are respected globally. The problems if any, crop up due to the cultural disconnect with their western counterparts. This post is meant to address that issue and appeal for a better understanding from both sides, in order to do business successfully.

Sunder P


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