Traveling in India – Business Etiquette and Culture
India is a land of cultural diversity. It is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and is a complicated mixture of old and new traditions from the West and East. The vivacity of its large cities, the variety of people, the mêlée of sounds, the richness of colors and smells, and the unpredictable nature of day-to-day life – all defines India. If you are planning to do business with or in India, it is important to try and understand the astonishing richness of this vibrant culture.
Given India’s complexity, it is important to avoid generic conclusions on how to do business here. Regionalism, industry, and people are all factors to be taken into account when doing business in India. One’s behavior, etiquette, and approach may need to be modified, depending on whom you are working with.
Making business appointments in India
English is the business language of India. However, India’s constitution designates both English and Hindi (written in the Devanagari script) as the official languages of India. Further, there are 22 recognized regional languages spoken in the country.
English is spoken by all middle class Indians and many less-skilled workers have basic speaking skills. The time format in India is expressed in the British manner: day, month, year; so August 15, 2009 is written as 15 August 2009 or 15/08/09. The business calendar year is from April to March, and there are multiple holidays throughout the year that vary from region and religion.
E-mail is the preferred and easiest method for setting up meeting appointments with contacts in India. Indian names are comprised of the given name and family name, similar to the Western style. There are, however, implications of class and religion with Indian names. It is common for “Mr.” or “Ms.” to be used in initial communications but once contact has been established, the formality decreases.
In any initial communication, be sure to provide a clear overview of who you are, your role, and a brief description of your organization. It is also prudent to detail what you would like to discuss in a meeting when you visit any company’s office – among other reasons, it is appreciated given the long travel times in India’s cities. If you are setting up a lunch or dinner meeting, it is advisable to check if the guest is vegetarian or prefers Indian or Western food.
It is very normal for meetings to start a few minutes late or have some interruptions, and should not be considered a sign of disrespect. To the foreigner, Indian culture can come across as having a slower and more informal pace, including when it comes to business. Many Indians believe that schedules are required to be flexible in order to accommodate different people’s timetables. It is advisable to keep a margin in your schedules for unexpected delays, such as meetings running late or traffic. Furthermore, if you are visiting government officials, be prepared to be kept waiting. Also note that Muslim businessmen may take small breaks during meetings for their prayers.
In India, unlike some East Asian countries, you can be straightforward about what you want to achieve from the meeting or business engagement. The issue of “losing face” does not arise, and Indian businessmen appreciate being clear and forthright. It is important to be very specific in what you are looking for, and have specific tender documents detailing your orders. Establish a clear timeline and monitor deliverables.
Greetings in India
The traditional Indian greeting is the “Namaste”, which you do with hands pressed together, palms touching, and fingers pointed upwards, in front of the chest with a slight nod or bow of the head. In a business setting, it is customary to shake a male colleague’s hand; shaking hands with women is less common and it is better to wait for a woman’s initiative in a handshake out of respect. In the absence of a handshake, you can do a Namaste. It is very common for people, especially those younger than you, to call you “Sir” or “Madam” out of respect.
Many foreigners are perplexed by the common non-verbal signal that many Indians do of shaking their head from side to side. It appears to be a combination of a verbal yes and no. In India, this gesture is a visual way to communicate to someone that they understand what you are saying or that they agree with you.
Major religions and holidays in India
India is composed of a multitude of religions coexisting (though not always peacefully) side by side. The dominant religion is Hinduism, but significant numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Jews, and Christians also live in the country. In India, religion is a key aspect of life, and must be respected in order to maintain successful business relationships. Despite the elimination of the traditional caste system that derives from Hinduism, casteist attitudes still remain and aspects of the system still influence the hierarchical structure of business practices in India today.
Holidays in India come in all shapes and sizes, and vary in terms of religion and region. It is important to check online – if there are any conflicts – before scheduling appointments. The three largest national holidays in India are:
- Republic Day – January 26
- Independence Day – August 15
- Gandhi Jayanti – October 2 (Gandhi’s birthday)
Below is a list of government approved holidays for 2017:
- January 26: Republic Day
- February 24: Maha Shivaratri
- March 13: Holi
- April 4: Ram Navami
- April 9: Mahavir Jayanti
- April 14: Good Friday
- May 10: Buddha Purmima
- June 26: Eid-ul-Fitr
- August 15: Independence Day
- September 2: Eid-ul-Zuha
- September 30: Dussehra
- October 1: Muharram
- October 2: Mahatma Gandhi’s Birthday
- October 19: Diwali
- November 4: Guru Nanak’s Birthday
- December 2: Eid-e-Milad
- December 25: Christmas Day
Please note that a number of these holidays occur on the weekend, including: Mahavir Jayanti, Eid-ul-Zuha, Dussehra, Muharram, Guru Nanak’s birthday, and Eid-e-Milad.
Islam in India and Eid ul-Fitr
Islam is India’s second-most practiced religion after Hinduism. More than 14.2 percent of the country’s population (over 172 million as per the 2011 census) identify themselves as Muslims; India’s Muslim population is the world’s third largest behind Indonesia and Pakistan. Eid ul-Fitr (Eid) is a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Eid means “festivity” in Arabic, while Fitr means “to break fast.” Celebrated on the first day of Shawwal, Eid ul-Fitr lasts for three days of celebration.
In India, the night before Eid is called Chand Raat, which means “night of the moon.” People often visit shops and malls with their families for last minute Eid shopping. Women often paint their hands with traditional “henna”, and wear colorful bangles.
During Eid, the traditional greeting is “Eid Mubarak”, and frequently includes a formal embrace. Gifts are given – new clothes are traditional – and it is also common for children to be given small amounts of money (Eidi) by their elders. It is common for children to “salam” parents and adult relatives. After the Eid prayers, it is common for families to visit graveyards and pray for the salvation of departed family members.
Known as the Festival of Lights, this national holiday typically occurs between the end of September and end of November. It is common for people to light small clay lamps filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil within an individual. During Diwali, many people wear new clothes and share sweets and other snacks with each other. Some Indian businesses may start their financial year by opening new accounting books on the first day of Diwali for good luck in the following year.
In Hinduism, Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom, Ayodhya, after defeating the demon king, Ravana, the ruler of Lanka, in the epic story of Ramayana. It also celebrates the slaying of the demon king, Narakasura, by Lord Krishna. Both stories signify the victory of good over evil. In some ways, with all its noise and firecrackers and color, it is not dissimilar to the Indian version of the Chinese New Year. It also takes place when India is cooling down after its long hot summer and monsoonal seasons.
Among all of these celebrations should be noted “the notion of Karma”. That everything happens for a reason – is a significant aspect of the culture and decision making process of many Indians. Indians have a strong sense of community, and define group orientation through a hierarchical structure. Given the country’s large population, there is a noticeable lack of privacy and a smaller concept of personal space, where several generations of families may still be found living together under one roof. Given this, interpersonal relationships are critical in business practices.
Making conversation in India
It is not uncommon for Indians to ask questions, which can be seen as overly personal or intrusive. Discussing one’s family and personal life is normal among Indians, and enquiring about the other person’s family is seen as a sign of friendliness and interest.
There are many topics of conversation that Indians find engaging such as politics, cricket, films, and of late, India’s economic reforms and growth. Bollywood, India’s film industry, produces the largest number of films annually (around 800-1,000) in the world. There are more than 13,000 movie theaters in the country, and many Indians also keep abreast of the latest movies through TV or live streaming as the smartphone penetration in the country deepens. Like cricket players, film stars are considered national icons, and are the subject of a lot of social discussion and gossip.
In general, Indians are very tolerant and accepting of religious and cultural differences given the country’s vast diversity. Given that religious practices and rituals play a major role in Indian life, a genuine inquiry into a certain religious practice will normally be met with an enthusiastic response. India’s relationship with its neighboring country, Pakistan, has historically never been a very amiable one. Some educated Indians view this as a failure on the part of politicians on both sides. However, many Indians can be very biased, emotional, and one-sided when discussing Pakistan. In general, it is advisable to avoid discussing Pakistan-India issues.
In addition, it is hard to not notice the large rich-poor divide that exists in India. It is common to find wealthy, extravagant homes next to sprawling slums. Some Indians may be sensitive and defensive about the poverty as they are very proud of the economic growth the country has witnessed in recent decades.
Hierarchy in Indian social relations
Indians are accustomed to old British customs of hierarchy, and there is a higher degree of formality between colleagues than in the West; for example, it is normal to use “sir” when talking upwards. It is recommended to use last names upon meeting someone for the first time and mention any higher academic or other titles.
The influences of Hinduism and the ancient tradition of the caste system have created a culture that emphasizes established hierarchical relationships. Indians are quite conscious and aware of social order and their status relative to other people, whether they are family, friends, or strangers. All relationships involve hierarchies. For example, teachers are called gurus and are viewed as the source of all knowledge. The patriarch, usually the father, is considered the head of the family. The boss is seen as the source of ultimate responsibility in business. Every relationship has a well-defined hierarchy that must be observed for the social order to be maintained.
Business attire in India
For men, the normal business attire is a button-down shirt, trousers, and a jacket or tie depending on the formality of the meeting or industry (in the banking and professional sectors, suits are more prevalent). Also, given that India has a warm climate, a full-sleeved shirt with a tie is acceptable. In the IT sector, however, the dress code is much more casual. It is common to find employees wearing T-shirts and jeans with sneakers. But in most offices, men will wear at least a shirt and jacket, foregoing the tie in summer months. However, the long cotton pajama bottoms and kurta are also very common – and very comfortable. Western executives should wear light summer suits – a silk and light wool mix is best – and cotton, not silk shirts (cotton absorbs, silk does not).
In recent years, the dress code for women in Indian business settings has undergone a significant transformation. Earlier, most women would wear traditional Indian clothes such as the salwar kameez (long tunic and loose pants) or simple saris to the office. Now, women often wear pant-suits or blouse and skirts, even though saris and salwar kameez are considered acceptable as business attire. Jeans with a T-shirt or short-sleeved shirt are acceptable as casual wear in informal situations for both men and women.
It is acceptable to dress casual if invited to a social gathering. However, if a foreigner wears an Indian costume (kurta-pajama for men, and sari or salwar kameez for women), it is appreciated and often seen as a gesture of friendship or keenness to understand the Indian culture. If invited to a formal event such as a wedding, formal attire is recommended.
Negotiating a deal
There are as many salesmen as buyers in India; the average Indian businessman has a lot of experience “wheeling and dealing” so it’s important to be patient during the negotiating process. Decision making is a slow process and final decisions are typically reached by the person with the most authority. Delays are frequent and to be expected, especially when dealing with the government.
It is common for foreigners to be invited for dinner or a meal at the home of an Indian business contact. Indians take great pride and joy in hosting guests, especially those from abroad, and serving home-cooked traditional meals. If you are invited to an Indian home for dinner, it is highly recommended to take some kind of gift, such as a box of sweets or flowers. If your host has children, carrying a small gift for the child is also appreciated.
If you are visiting an Indian during a festival, it is customary to carry a box of sweets, known as “mithai.”
In many Indian homes, people remove their shoes before entering. Observing this custom is particularly important, so if you notice your host without shoes, you should remove yours as well. However, if the host insists you keep your shoes on, this is acceptable.
If you are attending a wedding and giving money as a gift, note that the Indian custom is to add an extra rupee for good luck (101, 501, 1001, and so on). The adding of one is considered auspicious, and your gift would be more appreciated if it is in these denominations.
Drinking alcohol is culturally not accepted in some parts of India, and many Indians do not drink at home. However, if your host drinks and keeps drinks at home, then drinking is not a problem. India has long domiciled originally British spirits such as gin and whiskey; domestic brands, while variable, can be good. A good bottle from duty free as a gift will always be acceptable, if you are familiar with the preferences of your contact.
Eating and drinking are intrinsic aspects of Indian culture, and there is great variety based on local customs and religions. It is common practice for hosts to offer beverages such as tea, coffee, or soft-drinks with some light snacks or refreshments to a guest, even in business meeting settings. If you ask for or are offered water, it is acceptable to ask if the water is filtered or from a bottle. Most Indians use only filtered water, and will understand your need to clarify this before drinking.
If you are doing several meetings in a day or are feeling full, it is okay to decline the first offer for food and drink. It is customary (though not mandatory) to refuse the first offer, but to accept the second or third. It would be considered a breach of etiquette not to accept something small to eat or drink at all. Even if you don’t want to have the refreshments or snacks, it is advisable to accept them, and leave them untouched or slightly consumed, rather than outright refuse them.
For a large number of Indian Hindus, eating meat is a religious taboo. While planning a meal for your Indian guests (or placing an order in a restaurant), it is recommended to ask if they are vegetarians or non-vegetarians. Much Indian food is eaten with the fingers, and it is customary to eat with the right hand only.
In terms of drinking, it is better to ask your guest “What would you like to drink?” rather than “Can I get you a beer?”. Even guests who drink will not drink alcohol on certain occasions such as religious festivals or if there is an older, highly respected relative present. Therefore, it is prudent to have fruit juices, soft-drinks, and bottled water available. Fresh lime sodas are a mainstay of Indian rehydration, and come in two versions – sweet and salty.
In India, excessive tipping is not common, but a certain amount of tip is expected. In most restaurants, 10 percent is a sufficient tip. You can, however, give an additional tip by leaving the change to show your appreciation. For taxis or auto-rickshaws (three-wheelers), many simply round up to the nearest whole amount.
All foreigners visiting India need a visa. When applying for a visa, you may need a letter from your Indian contact explaining the purpose of the meeting. It is important to visit your doctor before your trip to check which vaccinations or boosters you require; it is common for visitors to take anti-malaria drugs that begin typically one week prior to travel.
It is advisable if you negotiate a rate with a taxi driver, to confirm the amount before getting into the car and to check your change thoroughly. However, cab aggregators with dynamic fare-pricing such as Uber, Ola, Meru, and others also function across several Indian metro cities.
Since the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, the city has taken many steps to regain security and safety. These attacks are similar to those that have taken place in European cities in recent years, and indicate that all modern metropolises are at risk; when visiting India, visitors should take the same precautions they would in any large city. Women should generally not be unaccompanied, and it is best to be escorted by friends or your host wherever possible – it is a crowded and unfamiliar country and the best you can do to ease your way is advisable. However, most Indians are friendly and curious, and daytime excursions if dressed modestly and in company will not create any issues. In fact, they will add to your enjoyment of a country perhaps best described as having all the colors under the sun. Some may be unpleasant, but many are brilliant.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in August 2013 and has been updated.
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