How can Indians succeed in cross-border communication with the west? Here are my 6 tips:
The west seeks certainty
While Indians are comfortable in an ever changing, flexible, unpredictable and fluid environment, your western colleagues seek certainty. Westerners resist change and are frustrated by uncertainty – and this shows up in communication.
That is why western business place so much focus on the contract and the business plan – they yearn for things to be set down, described and delivered.
This means in business the westerner will focus more on rules than relationships, while Indians generally favour relationships over rules. It means westerners see legal contracts as fixed whereas in India very little is set in concrete. It means westerners see a person who “honours their word” or contract, as being trustworthy, while Indians admire the ability to move with changes.
Your western colleagues become agitated when projects deviate from the plan, and expect that you will tell them immediately there is a problem or delay – they expect any bad news to be delivered up front and instantly.
The western cult of the individual
One of the biggest differences between the west and Asia is the “cult of the individual”. While Asian cultures are based on the group and the collective, in the west from a young age children are encourage to “be” individuals and to take care of themselves.
In corporations, individuals are empowered to make decisions – and are expected to show initiative.
In communication, this can mean the westerner just gets on with the job without much feedback.
The cultural difference here can be massive – the westerner can make decisions on the spot while in most cases the Indian refers decisions back to the organization – one is individual responsibility while the other is the group.
Most westerners really struggle to understand why Indians have such difficulty saying “no” – as individuals they (westerners) often say no. Subtle but polite refusals such as “I will try’ are rarely understood by westerners – who generally prefer blunt responses.
Life for westerners is a “row of boxes”
A big challenge for most Indians is that westerners do not see their life as a whole – preferring to separate life into a series of boxes. Life can include many “boxes” – home, work, sport and social – where the people in one group do not even know those in the other. It is why western cities often have an active centre during the day but little happening after work when everyone rushes home to suburbia.
One impact is that your western colleague is often out of contact on weekends, rarely stays after work for dinner or socializing and keeps family private – it is not meant to offend, it is just how culture is
Informality is the way in the west
Increasingly western culture is informal, where respect is only given to those who perform well, titles are not often used and first names are used even at the first meeting. In many western companies, a younger executive can challenge a senior decision on technical or other grounds. So when a young westerner might contradict a senior Indian, within their culture this is not meant to be offensive. This informality is also happening in most Indian cities, where dress is casual and meetings are held in coffee shops – but underneath it all respect is maintained for seniors.
The western view of time
How do we perceive time? And what does this mean for my appointments? In the west, time is seen as sequential, a straight line, whereas in India time is synchronic, almost circular, with the past, present and future interrelated.
This approach to time explains why westerners are always rushing about, completing one meeting and rushing on to the next, while an Indian host seems relaxed, not in a rush, dealing with many other things while conducting the meeting – signing letters, taking messages, making calls and instructing staff – all while listening to the guest. This really confuses westerners who like to concentrate on one thing at a time.
In business, the western view of time partly explains why they see schedules as so rigid, while Indians take a more flexible and relationship view.
Because “time is urgent” to westerners, they become uncomfortable with long pauses in conversations, will try to fill any silences and expect meetings to finish on time.
Westerners like to be in control
One of the biggest cultural challenges is this – does the individual control the environment (west) or must they respond as best they can to external factors out of their control (Indian)?
The business communication impact is that a westerner will often seem dominating and in control, while their Indian colleague prefers to be flexible, finding compromise, keeping the peace. For a westerner conflict shows you have conviction whereas most Indians will aim for harmony. Westerners become uncomfortable, even angry, when things seem out of control, while most Indians are comfortable with natural waves, change and shifts.
The key with communicating across cultures is to be sensitive and aware of the other, adapting to them but remaining true to your values and your culture.