The Indian Curry to Cross Cultural Communication

Cross Cultural CommunicationHave you ever found yourself puzzled by cross cultural communication issues with customers, vendors, acquaintances, and colleagues in India or of Indian descent? Yes, there is widespread English fluency in India. But is that enough, especially if your interactions are mostly in the virtual space?

Only after moving to New York as a graduate student did I realize that some Indian norms may get lost in translation. Let me share with you – in no particular order – some of the more obvious behaviors that may be misunderstood. Do take my thoughts with a grain of salt as India is too large and too diverse a country for such generalizations to hold true in all situations. Indian society (especially the newer generation) is currently in a fascinating state of flux, as it straddles between traditional and modern expectations.

 Cross Cultural Communication: Points to Consider

      • Yes, I Will Nod when I speak to you and I have been teased about it. It is such a reflex for me to nod, that many times I am not even aware I’m doing it. Does that mean I agree with what you’re saying? Not always. It’s often a non-verbal acknowledgement that I hear and understand your words. Personally, I think it actually aids communication because it demonstrates effective listening.
      • Apart from acknowledging understanding, the ‘Nod’ can also be used to (1) convey uncertainty (‘Maybe’ or ‘Not Sure’) (2) a greeting, like ‘how are you? While context and familiarity will increase your understanding, do not hesitate to ask clarifying questions to make sure that all those involved in the conversation are on the same page.
      • It is Less About the Weather and More About Real Life: When I first moved to the US, I was pleasantly surprised that strangers in elevators or otherwise would engage in small talk about the weather and sometimes ask how my day was. Although Indians in general love to talk and argue once they get to know you or even in a business setting, engaging in small talk and smiling at strangers in stores or elevators are not the norm. The absence of such behaviors should not be thought of as rude. On the contrary, it is quite common to have long conversations on train journeys in India with strangers, who may exchange entire life stories. Rather than small talk, strangers or new acquaintances in India may sometimes immediately ask you about your marital status, reasons for not being married and details about your kids. This is not considered private information and the boundary between private and public life can often be blurred.
      • Is it a Yes, No or a Maybe: Generally, we (Indians) feel uncomfortable saying ‘No’ to requests. You will instinctively receive explanations and reasons as to why something is not possible or getting delayed. In the midst of such an explanation, sometimes the ‘No’ could be lost in translation, especially when the cross cultural communication is virtual. Sometimes, reading between the lines – or non-verbal cues (tone, facial expression) – may be required to understand exactly what is being said, particularly if the topic is uncomfortable. If you are used to communicating more directly, this may be difficult at first, so make sure you ask clarifying questions to understand the exact meaning.
      • By the same token, an unequivocal ‘No!’ (without any further explanation) may be perceived as rude or offensive. If you are invited to a social occasion and cannot attend, a small explanation as to why you cannot join is appropriate. Moreover, it is customary for your host to pressure you to stay and refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer even if you appear unwilling, especially if your host considers you to be more than an acquaintance.
      •  Lack of Challenge May Not Always Mean Acceptance: The older generation is respected and considered to have a wealth of experience and wisdom. In the past, arguing with your elders was not considered acceptable. Although the younger generation is moving away from this ingrained attitude, it sometimes translates to a reluctance to challenge authority and voice a dissenting opinion at work. Consider encouraging your direct reports to disagree in an open, constructive manner and come up with alternate suggestions.
      • A Small Delay is Okay: Short delays, small interruptions, changes in schedule and slight time overruns during meetings are part of the social norm. Being ‘Zen’ about time orientation is quite common. In fact, slight delays are often expected, so don’t let it to get the better of you.
      • It is Polite to Take One Bite: During social occasions, even if you are not hungry, it is considered rude if you refuse to eat something you are offered. Another traditional norm is for the host to insist that a guest continue to eat even after he or she refuses – in fact, it’s considered impolite if the host doesn’t!

      These types of pointers about any culture are helpful, but they are just a start. Human interactions exist on multiple levels, and the good news is that interactions between any two individuals are much more than any stereotype. I hope that this makes you reflect about your own cultural assumptions and norms and sheds some light on the Indian ‘curry’ in the cross cultural communications pot.

      – Shreevi KR


      Shreevi KR is an Organizational Development Intern at AIM Strategies® and is currently pursuing her masters in Social Organizational Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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