Cultural Tips

What you should know before you negotiate

Always present your business card. It is not necessary, however, to have it translated into an Indian language. It's usually helpful to have an Indian intermediary. For example, you can bring an Indian colleague.

Another option can be to hire someone whose knows how to manoeuvre within India's intricate bureaucracy and get the necessary papers signed and stamped.

95% of the Indian Business Community are these three communities:

  • Sindhis
  • Marwaris
  • Gujratis

Very rarely will you find Muslims in the legitimate business community. Sikhs and Christians are there but in small proportions.

Sindhis, Marwaris and Gujratis are further subdivided into lots of castes and dietary habits change substantially.

In India, "outside" information and new concepts will be accepted only if they do not contradict prevailing religious beliefs and social structures.

Indians tend to think associatively, largely because the country's educational system places a heavy emphasis on rote learning. Indian businesspeople with a higher education, however, are often more abstract, analytical thinkers.

In Indian business culture, perceptions of the truth tend to be guided by feelings; a strong faith in religious ideologies is also common. An argument appealing to both feelings and faith will often be more convincing to an Indian than one using only objective facts and empirical evidence.

The caste system remains one of the most important influences in Indian society.

Most of the business in India is Family oriented, so you may negotiate with the siblings, but the final say will always be the head of the family.

In India everything has to be bargained, always deal with multiple business from different castes and you will get more realistic prices.

Although technically there is equality under the law, inequality between the castes is an accepted reality of Indian life. Because of the strong, coherent, social structure there is little anxiety about life because one knows and accepts one's place in society and the workplace.

Each employee plays a role in the organization; often the role is as important as the actual work the person may perform. The hierarchical nature of Indian society demands that the boss is recognized as the highest individual in authority.

In some offices, employees may rise each time the boss enters the room to acknowledge respect.

Employees do as they're told; even if they know the boss is wrong, they won't argue.

The boss makes all of the decisions and accepts all of the responsibility. Consequently, you'll often find that subordinates are reluctant to accept responsibility.

Because so many pressures are placed on the boss, qualified Indian employees often do not seek such positions of leadership.

Success and failure are frequently attributed to environmental factors.

Whenever you are convinced that you are right, insist that whoever objects accepts in writing the full responsibility for the consequences of not following your instructions. Staff members are usually so reluctant to accept responsibility that making this demand usually ensures that your wishes will be respected.

It is important to insist that employees write instructions down or for you to distribute written instructions, so that no one can later deny being informed of them.

The best policy is to create a "paper trail" by circulating reports and memos, even to people not directly affected, so that staff members can't claim that you didn't inform them. Complaints, requests, and decisions of any kind should be given in writing.

A business traveller who is a boss will be forgiven most lapses in etiquette.

But even the slightest physical altercation, such as shoving or grabbing someone by his or her shirt, is unacceptable. Lose your control and you will automatically lose authority of any kind.

It will be in your best interests to mask any hostile feelings with a smile.

Interpersonal skills such as the ability to form friendships are sometimes considered more important than professional competence and experience. Nevertheless, there is a deep respect in this culture for university degrees.

Indians are generally too polite to directly answer "no."

Since the word "no" has harsh implications in India, evasive answers are considered more polite.

For example, if you have to decline an invitation, it's more acceptable to give a vague and noncommittal answer such as "I'll try" or "We'll see" rather than "No, I can't."

If you are the boss, it's often your presence that's important, so that the negotiations can take place at the top level.

Because of the rigid hierarchy in Indian business culture, a subordinate will be able to meet only with a subordinate. Once you have gained access to the necessary senior contact, however, the two of you may need only to exchange pleasantries while your assistants concern themselves with the details. At this stage, allow your Indian counterpart to do the talking.

Business in India is highly personal. It is also conducted at a much more leisurely pace than in the United States.

Hospitality is an intrinsic part of doing business in India; most business discussions will not begin until tea is served and there has been some preliminary "small talk."

When refreshments are offered, it is customary to refuse the first offer, but to accept the second or third. To refuse any beverage will only be perceived as insult.

Talking about your friends and family is an important part of establishing a relationship with those involved in the negotiating process. Indian businesses are often run by families. Within family-run businesses, there is a common belief that people outside of the family are not to be trusted.

Often, no one else is allowed to do the work when the head of the family is away. The head of the family usually keeps firm control by limiting information, even with his own family members. Expect Indian negotiators to be shrewd at the bargaining table. Although it's necessary to obtain good legal and tax advice before proceeding with negotiations, you will have to be flexible and not appear too "legalistic" during negotiations.

You will have to be prepared to offer competitive technology packages with close technical follow-up, if your business deals with these concerns. The technical assistance you are willing to provide and how effectively you can train your client's employees will be key considerations in the decision.

Delays are inevitable and must be expected, particularly when dealing with government bureaucracy. The Indian government is notorious for moving at a slow pace, and communication within the country is often a challenge. You will have to be patient and set aside any unrealistic expectations regarding deadlines and efficiency.

There are some foreign women in responsible positions working in India.

In Indian business culture, any final decision must be in accordance with the family, group, and social structure.

Entertaining for business success

Business lunches are preferred to dinners.

A visitor to India will probably receive a deluge of social invitations, even from minor acquaintances and total strangers!

People will sometimes urge you to "Drop in anytime." Consider this a genuine invitation. It's still the best policy, however, to phone ahead before visiting--particularly if it's someone you've just met.

If you are invited to a dinner, arrive a few minutes late unless it is an official function. If the dinner is in a home, you should arrive 30 to 60 minutes late. Remember in Indian home and parties liquor/ alcohol is served first and food is served later and could be as late at 11 midnight, so be prepared before for this. Indians drinks first then eat.

Once you arrive at an Indian home, you will sometimes be adorned with a garland of flowers, which you should remove immediately as a sign of humility.

Remove your shoes before entering an Indian home.

According to Indian custom, the guest is regarded as a kind of god and must be welcomed as such. As a guest, any mistakes in etiquette will be forgiven and never brought to your attention.

Muslims, as well as Hindus, generally keep their women within the confines of the kitchen, although this practice is less pronounced among Hindus. In modern homes you will find ladies sitting and enjoying with everyone, in these houses drinking and smoking is not treated as taboo. In most of the Indian homes inspite of having air-conditioned smoking inside is accepted. No one goes out to smoke.

Businesswomen can take Indian businessmen out for a meal without causing awkwardness or embarrassment to the men. A male guest, however, may insist on paying for the meal.

Washing your hands both before and after a meal is essential. Moreover, in Hindu homes, you will also be expected to rinse out your mouth. Eat only with the right hand, as the left hand is considered unclean. It's considered acceptable, however, to pass dishes with the left hand.

Touching a communal dish with your hands may cause fellow diners to avoid it.

Never offer another person even a spouse food from your plate. This practice is regarded with disgust in Indian culture.

Do not thank your hosts at the end of a meal. Saying "thank you" for a meal is considered insulting because thanks are perceived as form of payment. Instead, offer to reciprocate by inviting your hosts out to dinner. This invitation will signal that you value the relationship you have established with your hosts.

Over tipping is discouraged. In better restaurants, 10% is a sufficient tip, if the service charge hasn't been added to the bill. Tipping in India is used not only to reward competent service, but to ensure that "things get done"; the term "baksheesh" is defined by both of these practices. Discreet and strategic use of "baksheesh" will give you access to increased privileges, such as getting a seat on a train that is officially "sold out."

If you stay overnight in an Indian home, you may not always have your own room. The "guest room" is a concept known only to the very rich. In most middle-class homes, the bedroom is wherever the bedding is rolled out.

When you stay in a house with servants, and the servants have had extra work because of your presence, it is an appreciated and thoughtful gesture to give them money as a gift when you leave. Nevertheless, consult with your hosts and let them tell you the appropriate amount to give. Giving too generously, in relation to the servants' monthly pay, may put your hosts in an awkward position.

When you are hosting a social event, every guest should be contacted personally by phone, even if you have already sent a printed invitation. Be aware that Indian guests will not always "R.S.V.P." or turn up after insisting that they will be attending. you may also expect guest walking with their friends or relatives.

Invitations should be sent out early, and phone calls should come closer to the party day.

Although orthodox Muslim women are usually kept hidden from the view of men, husbands should nevertheless be invited to bring their wives to a social function.

Some guests bring their own guests; you will have to be accommodating.

If guests are late or come with friends (or aged relatives or strangers picked up off the street), or don't come at all, your warm and gracious manner must not change. You should consider the informality of your Indian guests as a compliment, rather than as a sign of bad manners.

Since it's so hard to predict when guests arrive, and how many of them there will be, it is sensible to decide for a buffet rather than a formal "sit-down" dinner.

A variety of catering services are available if you don't want to cook. Some restaurants and hotels also cater, or you can host parties on their grounds.

Lamb, chicken, and fish are the meats eaten by all Indians who are not vegetarians.

The food at the buffet table should be clearly labelled so everyone finds it easy to decide what they can eat. Ensure that you have plenty of vegetarian dishes.

Dietary Restrictions

  • Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork.
  • All other meat must be "halal" or ritually slaughtered.
  • Jains do not eat meat, honey, onion, potato and most vegetables.
  • Some Indians are strict vegetarians, so you should always take this into account. Whenever you host a dinner party, ensure that plenty of vegetable dishes are available.

Serving Alcohol

  • Although Islam prohibits drinking and the Sikh religion prohibits drinking and smoking, not everyone is strict in these observances.
  • Traditional Indian women, regardless of their religion, don't smoke or drink, but Indian women of a certain social position are almost as likely to drink and smoke as the men.
  • Among those who imbibe, the hard liquors are appreciated, especially whiskey, which should be imported (Black Label has the most prestige).
  • Keep in mind that Indian drinkers generally feel that Indian whiskey lacks the prestige of imported brands.
  • Some of the many brands of Indian beer are good. Indian wines are improving, and more Indians are drinking them.
  • It is better to ask your guest: "What would you like to drink?" rather than "Can I get you a beer?"
  • Even guests who are drinkers will not drink alcohol on certain occasions such as religious festivals or if there is an older, highly respected relative present.
  • Always have juice and soft-drinks available for the non-drinkers.

Making appointments

  • Indians appreciate punctuality but don't always practice it themselves. Keep your schedule flexible enough for last-minute rescheduling of meetings.
  • Request appointments by letter about two months before arriving in India.
  • When establishing business contacts, aim for those in the highest position of authority since decisions are made only at this level.
  • Although they usually do not make decisions, middle managers do have some influence. A middle manager on your side can forward your proposal. Often, they are more accessible and are usually willing to meet at any time of the day.
  • Indian executives prefer late morning or early afternoon appointments, between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
  • Business hours in the private sector are 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Lunch is usually from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.
  • The best time of year to visit India is between October and March, so that you can avoid the seasons of extreme heat and monsoons.
  • Business is not conducted during the numerous religious holidays. Different holidays are observed throughout the many regions and states of India. As dates for the holidays change from year to year, verify this information with the Indian Tourist Office, Consulate or Embassy before scheduling your visit.
  • Keep in mind that rescheduling and delays are sometimes a necessary part of doing business with your Indian contacts. Part of this is because in each household, it is the man's responsibility to marry children off, perform birth, death, and other ritual ceremonies, and take care of aged parents and other dependent relatives.

Selecting and presenting an appropriate business gift

General Guidelines

  • Gifts are not opened in the presence of the giver. If you receive a wrapped gift, set it aside until the giver leaves.
  • Don't wrap gifts in black or white, which are considered unlucky colours. Instead, use green, red, and yellow, since they are considered lucky colours.

Appreciated Gifts

  • When invited to an Indian's home for dinner, bring a small gift of chocolates or flowers.
  • If you are staying with a family, feel free to ask them what they would like. Certain very basic, practical, items taken for granted in the West are unavailable in India. For example, electronic gadgets, computer disks, bandages, instant soup mix, and knives may be requested.
  • Chocolate, disposable razors, perfumes, toiletries, and household items such as sealable plastic containers can also be welcome gifts.
  • If you are sure that your Indian counterpart drinks alcohol, imported whiskey is usually an appreciated gift. The best policy is to purchase whiskey on the airline or at the duty-free shop, to avoid being burdened with the spurious which is available in abundance from bootleggers.
  • If you give money to an Indian, ensure that it is an odd number. Usually this is done by adding a single dollar--i.e., $11 instead of $10.
Gifts to Avoid
  • When selecting flowers, be aware that frangipanis are associated with funerals.
  • Muslims believe that dogs are unclean.
  • Images of dogs are also considered unacceptable, so never give toy dogs or gifts with pictures of dogs to Indian Muslims.
  • Observant Hindus do not eat beef or use products that are made from cattle. Consequently, most leather products will be inappropriate gifts.

Respectfully addressing others

General Guidelines
  • There is a reverence for titles in India. Whenever you can, use professional titles such as "Professor" and "Doctor."
  • For those without professional titles, use courtesy titles such as "Mr.", "Mrs.", or "Miss." Wait to be invited before addressing someone by his or her first name. First names are usually reserved for close friends.
  • Status is determined by a person's age, university degree (s), caste, and profession. Moreover, employment in government service is considered far more prestigious than private business. Most of the Indian females name ends with A and hardly a male ends name with A.

Hindu Naming Patterns

  • Traditional Hindus do not have family surnames. Instead, a Hindu male uses the initial of his father's name first, followed by his personal name.
  • Traditional Hindu female names follow the same pattern: father's initial plus personal name. When fully written out, "d/o" (for "daughter of") is used instead of "s/o" (for "son of") between the names. When an Indian woman marries, she usually ceases to use her father's initial; instead, she follows her husband's name.

Muslim Naming Patterns

  • Muslim names are usually derived from Arabic. Generally, a Muslim is known by a given name followed by "bin" ("son of"), then their father's name.
  • A Muslim woman is known by her given name plus "binti" ("daughter of") plus her father's name. Note that in English, "binti" may also be spelled "binte."
  • A Muslim male who has made his pilgrimage to Mecca is addressed as "Haji." A woman who has done so would be addressed as "Hajjah".
  • These titles are not automatically given to spouses; they have to be individually earned by making the pilgrimage. When you are uncertain, however, give the person the benefit of the doubt.

Sikh Naming Patterns

  • Indian Sikhs have a given name followed by either "Singh" (for men) or "Kaur" (for women). Consequently, always address Indian Sikhs by a title and first name--it's not sufficient to address a Sikh male as "Mr. Singh." OR Sardar ji / Sardar Sahib.
  • Westernized Indian Naming Patterns
  • Some Indians will use Western-style surnames. Christian Indians may have Biblical surnames, while Indians from the former Portuguese colony of Goa may have surnames of Portuguese origin.
  • Some Westernized Indians drop the "bin" or "binti" from their name.

Acceptable public conduct

Although you'll observe abundant sexual symbols in Indian society, this does not mean that public intimacy is tolerated.

 Never try to talk to a woman who is walking alone.

Indians of all ethnic groups disapprove of public displays of affection between people of the opposite sex. Refrain from greeting people with hugs or kisses.

The majority of Indians are Hindu. Most Hindus avoid public contact between men and women. Only Westernized Hindus will shake hands with the opposite sex.

A minority of Indians are Muslim. Traditionally, there is no physical contact between men and women. Moreover, if a religious Muslim male is touched by a woman, he must ritually cleanse himself before he prays again. Consequently, women should not offer to shake hands with Muslim men (nor should men offer to shake hands with Muslim women). If a Westernized Indian, however, offers to shake hands, you should do so.

Other Indian religious groups, such as Sikhs and Christians, will also avoid public contact between the sexes.

In large cities, men and very Westernized Indian women will offer to shake hands with foreign men and sometimes with foreign women. Western women should not , however, initiate handshaking with Indian men. The traditional Indian greeting is the "namaste." To perform the "namaste", hold the palms of your hands together (as if praying) below the chin, nod or bow slightly, and say "namaste" (nah-mas-tay).

This greeting is useful for foreigners in any circumstance in which a handshake might not be appropriate. Moreover, it's a sensible alternative to a handshake when a Western businesswoman greets an Indian man.

The comfortable standing distance between two people in India varies with the culture In general, Hindu Indians tend to stand about 3 or 3 1/2 feet apart.

While travelling in public transportation in India, never keep your purse in your back pocket, and avoid carrying a purse at all if possible.

To beckon someone, you hold your hand out, palm downward, and make a scooping motion with the fingers. Beckoning someone with the palm up and wagging one finger, as in the United States, will often be perceived as an insult.

Standing tall with your hands on your hips--the "arms akimbo" position--will be interpreted as an angry, aggressive posture.

Pointing with your finger is considered rude; Indians prefer to point with the chin.

Whistling under any circumstances is considered rude and unacceptable.

Winking will usually be perceived as either an insult or a sexual proposition.

In India, grasping the ears signifies sincerity or repentance. Since ears are considered sacred in India, pulling or boxing another person's ears is a grave insult.

 Feet are considered unclean, so never point your feet at another person. You will be expected to apologize whenever your shoes or feet touch another person.

To tip a taxi driver, simply round off the fare.

When making purchases at a store, your change is simply placed in your hand, without explanation of the amount.

Keep plenty of small change on hand, as street merchants and taxi drivers will often claim that they don't have change.

Expect a deluge of bicycles, motorcycles, and cars. When crossing the streets, you will have to be exceptionally careful and alert.

Giving money to a beggar will only result in your being pestered by dozens of them. The best policy is to avoid even making eye contact.

When walking past an Indian temple, keep your hands in your pockets. If your hand is free, a stranger may offer to shake your hand. This is a scam often used by street merchants who quickly slap a temple bracelet on your outstretched arm. You will then be expected to pay for the bracelet.

Beware of charming Indian con-men. One common scam occurs during long lineups for train tickets or similar items. For example, a man behind you engages you in friendly small talk. He then suggests that if you give him the money, he can get you a train ticket quickly, through one of his connections.        

He may insist, in the meantime, that you relax and have a cup of tea while he obtains your ticket. Needless to say, he doesn't return. Consequently, don't be naïve enough to give money to strangers in this or similar situations.

Guidelines for business dress

Men should wear a suit and tie, although the jacket may be removed during the summer.

Wearing leather (including items such as belts and purses) may be considered offensive, particularly in temples. Hindus revere cows and do not use leather products.

Businesswomen should wear conservative dresses or pantsuits.

Dresses should not reveal too much of the legs. Pants for women are also acceptable. On more formal occasions, however, if you decide to wear pants, they will have to be "dressy."

Indian women often wear a sari to special events; Western women can also wear saris. If you are considering wearing a sari, be aware that it requires practice to walk in one naturally and with confidence. Also, there is a belief among some Indians that saris often do not look flattering on Western women.

If you are a woman and decide to wear a sari, make sure that it is one appropriate for the occasion. And never boast that your sari purchase was a "bargain."

If you have Indian servants during your stay, they will probably invite you to weddings, naming ceremonies, and related events. For a Western female guest, it is appropriate to wear a sari on these occasions. Your servant hosts will interpret it as a gesture of good will and equality if you make the effort to wear an Indian costume.

Another common Indian costume that is perhaps a better option for Western women is the "Punjabi suit." It consists of loose pants and a long blouse. They are usually sold as a set, and are available in a wide variety of styles. You can also have them custom-made.

For men, most formal events in hot temperatures require a "safari suit", which consists of a short-sleeved shirt-jacket and matching pants.

In the winter, suits and ties are appropriate.

In Bombay, Calcutta , Chennai or any other coastal city during the monsoon, a shirt and tie is acceptable.

For casual wear, short-sleeved shirts and long pants are preferred for men.

Shorts are acceptable for men only when jogging; women who jog should wear track pants.

Topics of Conversation

General Guidelines

Talking about your friends and family is an important part of establishing a relationship with those involved in the negotiating process.

Conversation is considered an "art form" here; people will put a lot of time and effort into a discussion. This does not mean, however, that you should feel the need to "bare your soul."

Indians tend to be enthusiastic about discussing politics and religion. They enjoy opinionated conversations and don't necessarily want to hear only bland pleasantries from a foreign guest. Nevertheless, refrain from tackling these controversial subjects unless you are well informed.

As long as you know what you're talking about, you can air dissenting opinions freely. Otherwise, it will be in your best interests to remain silent, especially if the subject is India.

Welcome Topics of Conversation

  • Indian traditions
  • Foreign countries
  • Other people
  • Families
  • Cricket
  • Politics (if you know what you're talking about)
  • Religion (if you know what you're talking about)

Topics to Avoid

  • Personal matters
  • India's military spending
  • Poverty in India
  • The significant amount foreign aid India receives