Global Business: India Communication Style
- Never accept the word “yes” by itself for an answer; listen to what the person says next.
- Don’t confuse the Indian head wobble, tilting the head to one side and then to the other, for the “no” gesture; it actually means I’m listening or even “yes.”
Try to listen for the various ways Indians say “no” by:
- Not responding at all.
- Avoiding the question/changing the subject.
- Postponing the response: Can I get back to you?
- Repeating your question.
- Turning the question back on the speaker.
- Hesitating before they answer.
- Giving a qualified or conditional “yes”.
Listen for how Indians say they’re behind schedule:
- Repeatedly bringing up the subject of the schedule/deadline.
- Saying that the schedule is inconvenient or ambitious.
- Asking if the deadline is still good for you.
- Asking if all parts of the work need to be done by the deadline.
- Mentioning that part of the project is taking longer than expected.
- Mentioning that some parts of the project are on schedule.
- Asking if members of another team are busy or observing that they don’t seem to be.
- Mentioning how much overtime they are working/how late they are working each day.
- Mentioning that some people are coming in on the weekends.
- Pointing out how another team was recently given more time to finish their project.
Listen for how Indians say that something is not possible/they’re not available by:
- Answering with any kind of qualifier: That might be possible. We’ll try our best.
- Postponing the answer: Let me ask my team. Can I get back to you on that?
- Not answering/responding with a question: Do you think that’s possible?
- Making references to how busy they are.
- Initially agreeing to the request and then bringing it up/asking about it again later.
Listen for how Indians ask for help by:
- Repeatedly mentioning how busy they are.
- Mentioning that something is taking longer than expected.
- Implying that a deadline might be missed (hoping you will then ask why).
- Mentioning that something was more complicated/more involved than they thought.
- Talking about another team that recently needed and received help.
- Talking about a time in the past when they received help in a very similar situation.
Listen for how Indians express negative feedback/criticism of your suggestion/proposal by:
- Avoiding any response/dodging the question.
- Repeating your suggestion.
- A loud silence.
- Suggesting an alternative (without commenting on your idea).
- Asking your opinion of your own idea/proposal.
- Damning with faint praise: praising a small, insignificant part of your proposal.
Encourage and coach Indians to be more direct with you, explaining that what sounds rude to them is only interpreted as direct by Westerners. After encouraging Indians to be direct, then:
- Schedule more frequent check-ins or updates to increase your chances of hearing about delays or problems sooner.
- Use a cultural middleman where possible, an Indian who is more Western and who can translate to Westerners what other Indians are really saying.
- Check for understanding: If you’re not sure you have understood something, send an e-mail describing what you think Indians told you and ask them to verify it.
- Don’t telegraph the answer you want: Be careful not to include in your statement the answer you’re looking for: That should be possible, don’t you think? You can do that, can’t you?
- Seek out one-on-one conversations; Indians can be much more frank one-on-one than in group settings such as meetings.
- If you want to know what Indians think, don’t begin by telling them what you think.
- Build rapport and establish good personal relationships with the Indians you work with.