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Understanding Indian Culture for Effective Business in 2015/16

by Chris Halward, Director of Professional Development, National Outsourcing Association

India is a fascinating country that, over the past 20 years, has developed into one of the world’s most dynamic economies. It has also become the centre of outsourcing and offshoring activities with organisations around the world, taking advantage of lower labour rates, skilled workers, the prevalence of English language skills and a developing infrastructure.  Some of the world’s biggest outsourced service providers are Indian-based organisations such as Infosys, Wipro and HCL who provide services to organisations across the world, particularly to North American and European organisations.

As a result of India’s success and growth, working with the people of India is an everyday occurrence for professionals all around the world.  Project managers will need to engage with Indian technicians based in Hyderabad to progress the development of IT projects; supplier managers will be talking regularly to their Chennai-based vendors about the service levels being provided; senior managers and directors will be negotiating new service contracts with Indian service provider account managers and directors.

Anyone that has experienced working and communicating with Indians will have recognised that – whilst of course not all Indians behave the same - there are some common behaviours and conventions.  It is helpful to be able to both recognise these, so as to adapt one’s own behaviours in order to be more successful doing business in India.


Around the world relationships are key to business success. This is never truer than in India.  Business people are unlikely to progress far without paying particular attention to nurturing relationships. While in some parts of the world the transaction is the focus and relationships are secondary, in India the relationship is the primary focus. Indeed, you may find that Indian business people might be prepared to lose a lucrative business deal if they are not comfortable with the relationship aspect.  Having said that, do not expect Indian business people to lack basic business acumen for this reason – the success of the Indian economy in recent years proves that to be a misconception.

Bear in mind that the need to build trust is likely to require both persistence and patience. Networks will also be of particular importance in India - being personally recommended is of considerable value.

Formality and Respect

Along with the importance of relationships, non-Indians will observe a high level of formality and respect shown in the way Indians behave. They will usually be exceptionally friendly but there may be a sense of them being somewhat guarded. Initially they will be uncomfortable about discussing personal matters, preferring to keep conversations based on non-personal and non-contentious topics: items of business news (or perhaps cricket) can be safe ground (although take care not to assume that every Indian is a fanatical cricket fan!)

Handshakes are the common method of greeting, particularly in the key business hubs (so don’t feel you need to use the “praying” greeting), although it is not unusual for the handshake to be less firm than that in the US and the UK. As in other parts of the world, it is often polite to be slower to offer to handshakes to the opposite sex as some may feel less comfortable.  Smiling though is de riguer when meeting people of either sex!

Saying “No”

Respect may often be behind a common complaint that many have about Indian colleagues and contacts, namely their reluctance to say “No”.  Many Indians will find it uncomfortable to say no - particularly to a client organisation - for fear of causing offence. The result can often be that an Indian manager will seem to agree with a request without in fact any realistic prospect of being able to meet it. Someone who is trying to get agreement to a proposal may not hear ‘no’ but rather will go through a series of non-committal meetings until they eventually just give up! 

The key here is to listen very carefully to what is being said and, when communicating face-to-face, then observe the body language. An Indian might use euphemisms for “no”. They may say “I will try” or “Possibly” for example. If you are working with Indian suppliers you should consider how you can help an Indian manager to decline a request, perhaps by exploring exactly how they will achieve the request and identifying issues which can then lead to suggesting a variation of the request.


It will not take long for anyone dealing with Indian organisations to recognise the importance of hierarchy. If you meet with an Indian team it is likely that you will find yourself talking only to the most senior person. Indeed, it is important when entering a meeting to ensure that you do greet the most senior person first, even if there are others there that you already know well.

It is highly unlikely that anyone in the Indian team will disagree with his senior colleague.  Senior, both in position and often in age, is still respected in India and a considerable degree of deference is shown to those who are most senior.

This can make it more difficult to progress matters given that many in the team will feel unable to express views and opinions immediately. Often such discussions will need to take place “offline”. You may then find that a subsequent meeting is arranged which will appear to be covering very similar ground.

Serial meetings may also occur in order to involve more people in the decision-making process. As matters progress it may be considered necessary to involve other people for a number of reasons – sometimes simply to ensure that appropriate people are involved in the process. Do keep in mind when dealing with Indian organisations that decisions are made at only the highest levels. It can often be a surprise to less hierarchical organisations that quite senior managers appear to delay decisions for no good reason. The truth is often that they need to get a sign-off from a more senior colleague but will not want to make that clear to the other party.

Again – patience is the key!

Your behaviour

While it is helpful to consider particular common behaviours and conventions the key to successful cross-cultural engagement is to first appreciate one’s own cultural behaviours and conventions (our own cultural baggage if you will). It is surprising how little most of us are aware of our own personal attitudes and behaviours, and how they might impact on others.

Having a simple list of “hints and tips” is helpful. If you are likely to be engaging a lot with India and its people, it is crucial to invest some time in developing your own skills and behaviours along with the ability to recognise the indicative behaviours of others. 

In this short article it is not possible to cover all of the aspects of dealing successfully with business in India. If you do want to explore the topic further the NOA has developed an Offshore Communication Skills workshop that you may find of interest. This workshop explores the challenges of working cross culturally and enables you to think about your own style and compare it to the cultural styles of others in the countries in which you are interested.

If you are interested in attending the Offshore Communication Skills workshop and improving your foreign business skills, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call 0207 292 8686.


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