India could be the world’s most polite country. Everybody says “yes”. Nobody ever says “no”. It’s amazing. You arrive on your first trade mission, seeking new markets, and every meeting is a wild success – great friendship, much laughter, the response of “yes” to everything you ask. After day one you are exhilarated – how lucky am I to meet the right people? Day two is the same – “yes”. Days three, four and five provide more “yeses”. Then you go home, report on your extraordinary success and close relations with Indians and wait for things to happen. You might wait a long time.
What is happening here? Indian culture values relationship above all else. Everyone you meet instantly has a “relationship” with you and it is their duty to help. Indians cannot say “no” without giving deep offense. The nearest they come to a “no” is “I will try”. So, “yes” they can import your product, “yes” they would be a good agent, “yes” they know how to take you to market.
Is this “yes” just telling lies? Have you been deliberately deceived? If someone did this in the west, with our cultural background, their response of “yes” would indeed be an offensive lie. But consider my experience of being lost in Colaba in southern Mumbai – I love to wander around this fabulous part of the city. Getting lost is a regular experience for me. The first time, I asked a young man if he knew the way to my hotel. He immediately instructed me – “Go straight ahead, turn right then left and you will surely find it”. How wonderful, I am saved. But 100 metres later it does not feel right and I laugh at my own foolishness. I ask another, who sends me back and he actually knows the way to my hotel. The first person simply did the very best he could in the relationship at that time.
So next time someone in India says “yes”, just remember you are in the world’s most polite country. Otherwise, like me, you might get lost.