Indian business etiquette: How to excel in a diverse country

India’s statistics are quite impressive. With approximately 1.37 billion inhabitants it is the second-most populated nation and the world’s largest democracy. Considering these numbers, it should come as no surprise that the way of life within India’s borders is all but monotonous. India is renowned worldwide for its rich, diverse and exciting culture, often described as an amalgamation of many different cultures over then country’s long history.

The diversity of the country leads many business professionals and travelers to ask the same question: How do I know what to do and how to behave in India?

But have no fear! In this article, we will provide you with a few guidelines to navigate your way through the Indian way of life.


The Indian Business Etiquette

Never generalize

The most important thing to consider is that there is no single “Indian culture”. While this blog entry aims to help the reader  prepare for their trip as much as possible, it is impossible to provide black-and-white guidelines that are universally applicable. The various aspects that might differ between regions include holidays, office hours, language and many other aspects of daily life.  If you really want to be prepared, we would advise you to research the specific regional and organizational values, norms, and traditions of the area you’re visiting in India.


Do’s and don’ts

Despite our previous advice to avoidgeneralizations, there are a few rules that we would recommend any visitor of the country to follow.

  1. Pay special attention to elders and people of high seniority (in an organization).
  2. You can discuss cultural and historical topics (many Indians are rather open-minded and proud of their culture). However, you should avoid criticizing their culture and traditions.
  3. It is advisable not to discuss the topics of politics, religion, the caste system, Kashmir, and Pakistan.
  4. Do not eat or pass objects on with your left hand. The passing of items with both hands is acceptable, but you should eat only with your right hand, as the left one is considered unclean.
  5. Do not touch people – it might be seen as inappropriate. The head is considered the seat of the soul, and therefore strictly taboo.
  6. Do not step over things/touch them with your feet – always walk around them. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is easier to remember to simply avoid it.


About the language

One thing that is important to keep in mind is that English is one of India’s official languages. This means that you do not have to translate business cards or presentations – which might have been a little difficult anyway, considering the huge number of languages spoken within the country. There are 22 recognized languages (also referred to as scheduled languages in the Indian Constitution), and about 100 other major languages. Note that these are only the major languages! India’s incredibly rich culture and the sheer size of the country is the cause of these numbers, which really could have made preparingfor a business meeting in India rather bothersome, if most of the Indians active in international business-settings were not fluent in English.


Two types of companies

Does the company whose representatives you are going to meet focus on a modern or a more traditional industry? The answer has a great influence on what you can expect from the meeting, as a family-led business or companies in the banking sector, for example, are far more likely to adhere to traditional standards than an emerging technology provider: Companies with a focus on modern aspects of the world often conduct their businesses in the ‘western way’, meaning they often make use of solutions such as a chairperson and business agenda.

People from the Netherlands would, ironically, consider business meetings with more traditional companies less formal. The meeting might be interrupted several times and it is perfectly normal for the manager to deal with two separate topics at the same time. We advise you to try to avoid feeling frustrated because of these interruptions, and to simply accept them as a part of the culture.


The organizational structure

Indian businesses are generally structured in a hierarchical manner, and micro-managing subordinates with direct orders is an important part of a manager’s job. Do not expect individuals to take initiative – while it is not entirely unheard of, these sort of things are certainly less common than in most EU-countries.

Similarly, you cannot expect a manager to undertake any actions that could be done by a person of a lower rank. The hierarchical division of tasks makes the responsibilities within the company quite clear.


Hands-on advice for your business meeting

The dress code

Now that you know a few things about the Indian business culture in general, you can start packing your suitcase – but what should you bring.

Regardless of gender, it is important to ensure your clothes are tidy, and devoid of avoid any stains or wrinkles. It’s also recommended to bring warm clothes and an umbrella.

Women should wear modest  clothing with high coverage, which can take the form of a pantsuit with a high-cut blouse, or a long skirt.

Lightweight suits are common among men, but they can be replaced with smart, comfortable clothing such as a shirt and slacks. But do not wear jeans/denim clothing.


The greeting

The first greeting and introduction is done in order of the person’s position within the company. The most senior person usually leads the procession entering the room, which makes it easier to determine who to greet first. Use formal titles and shake that person’s (and everyone else’s) hand; do not greet the group as a whole.

Give and receive business cards with both hands. Examine them carefully and with respect before putting it in your chest pocket or on the table before you. Never put it in your back pocket.


The business meeting

Be punctual or even early – but do not expect the Indian party to adhere to this rule.
Meetings often end later than planned, so you should schedule your day accordingly. But to avoid getting too far off track during the meeting, you can prepare an agenda and send it to your business partner a few days prior to the meeting. This way you refer to it and stay on topic.

Use technological aids to support your statements and mention all necessary details before starting any price discussions.

Meetings are intended to result in an important conclusion. The first meeting is likely to be focused around you and your company rather than about a certain product or service. To determine whether you are a suitable partner for their company, they might ask for a lot of (personal) information – try not to let this affect you.


Body language and the spoken word

Many Indians dislike saying ‘no’. Your Indian business partner might therefore use ambiguous wordings such as ‘we will see’ when they actually mean ‘no’.

Alternatively, they might even say whatever they believe you might want to hear. It is important to know this of course, but urging them to be clearer is likely to be counterproductive.

Instead, you could rephrase the question in a way that allows you to gather more details from the answer. Or you could pay close attention to the person’s body language to find out whether they are merely being polite or actually serious.

Nonverbal communication is important: some Indians have a rather keen eye when it comes to your body language. Be aware of what your body is saying. Do not point at anyone – neither with your hands, nor feet (toes and soles). The best practice is to keep your feet flat on the ground whenever possible.

You should also avoid crossing your arms, backing up, putting your hands on your hips and certain hand gestures such as waving.


Follow-up and further information

After the meeting (within 24 hours), you should send out a brief summary and an accompanying schedule for the next meeting.

In India, everything is subject to change – even contracts. They are seen as an agreement of the willingness to conduct business rather than a specific set of rules for future cooperation. It is necessary to try to be as flexible as your Indian partners, because a request for a more detailed or precise document could be seen as a lack of trust. This would consequently have a negative influence on your business relationship.

Are you preparing for a business trip to India? Or would you like to know more about the Indian culture and languages? Feel free to contact us for more information.

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