5 Things to Know About Indian Culture Before Doing Business in India

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The world’s fifth-largest economy by GDP as well as its largest democracy, India has intrigued many investors from all over the world. With a population over a billion including with a large percentage of youth coupled with economic liberation providing access to overseas investors to its huge market, India provides the ideal potential consumer base needed for any business to grow. One of the fastest growing countries in the world, India is a multilingual and multi-ethnic country with a rich cultural heritage and history that is deeply woven into the religious fabric of the nation. The cultural nuances across the nation vary as you move from the north to south. 

An understanding of these cultural differences and underlying values and beliefs become imperative to succeed in India’s business world.  Below are 5 things to know about Indian culture before doing business in India. Knowing these 5 things can help you understand business culture in India and help you through the first vital steps of starting business relations with Indian companies and clients. 

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A Microcosm of Many Countries  

India is a hugely diverse nation with 29 states with each state having its unique language and dialect and sub-cultures making it a hub of over one hundred languages. It is the home of some of the world’s largest cities as well as remote regions with almost no people. Knowing the culture of one state by no means should be taken as knowing the country. The traditions, beliefs and culture in every state differs from place to place.  

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Understand the Language  

While Hindi is the official national language, English is often used in business settings. Spoken English in India follows British Received Pronunciation, and the date format is also written in the British manner. Most of the middle class is fluent in spoken English while some sections have only basic English-speaking skills. Phrases like “Dear Sir/Madam” and “Yours Faithfully” are commonly used in written communication. It is expected to use salutations like Mr. and Mrs. While addressing someone in a business setting. A straight yes or no answer is difficult to get in a business setting in India. People there find it difficult to say no believing it might come across as offensive. They may resort to ambiguous answers like “yes, but…” or “Maybe”. It is important to understand the intention behind the answer being given. Shaking head to communicate a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be confusing to the someone who doesn’t understand the gesture and its meaning.  

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Conversation Starters 

There are some ripe and all-time favorite topics that can be the perfect ice breakers if you need to start a conversation with a stranger. Cricket, being the sport emotionally uniting the nation, serves as one of the smart topics to start to build a relationship. Other similar topics are Bollywood and movies. Weather can also be discussed if needed but some topics might be controversial to discuss especially to new acquaintances like religion, poverty in India, and neighboring countries that do not have cordial relationships with India.  

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Power Gap and Navigating Through the Meetings 

Making the right first impression is crucial to succeed in a business meeting especially in a new group of people. Before we discuss the meeting etiquettes, the first noteworthy thing here is understand the power gap that exists between a manager and subordinates in India. The hierarchical relationship in an organization is very clearly seen in the body language and manner of communication. Addressing your manager by his/her first name is sometimes frowned upon and that is why subordinates usually use the words “Sir” or “Madam” when addressing their managers.  The formal titles are also accepted in the business meetings and sometimes the use of regional words like “Ji” (mostly used in northern India) are also used to show respect.  

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While a handshake is commonly used to greet someone in a business setting, many people use the traditional greeting “namaste”, that involves putting your palms together with fingers pointing upwards. The senior most person is greeted first followed by others in the ranking. Final decisions are also made at the highest level and by the ones with the most authority. Punctuality is not something that is strictly followed, and meetings often run late with negotiations happening at a very slow pace intertwined with off-topic discussions about family and other personal things in order to build trust and rapport. 

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Building Relationships is Crucial 

Trust, intuition and gut feeling plays a vital role in making business decisions, and that makes it important to build strong relationships with the people in order to do business with them. Hosting small social events to get to know your contacts better can be helpful before moving onto big business meetings. In case of time constraints, a little bit of socializing before the business talks can create a good climate to build the right environment. A continuous focus on building relationships should be an integral part of the business strategy in India.  

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As one of the fastest growing countries in the world, India has become a powerhouse in the world of technology and innovation. Home of a number of the world’s most famous CEOs, India holds a huge potential for the investors especially in sectors such as telecommunications, information technology, pharmaceuticals, textiles, healthcare and engineering. Understanding the nation’s cultural fabric can play a vital role in the success of a new venture. 

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