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Business etiquette

The Indian context offers some interesting and noteworthy distinctions from its European and North American counterparts that go beyond the relationship-based way of doing business.

Hierarchies of power and personal/social status are very important within Indian culture and, as such, deference should always be shown to more senior colleagues, addressing them by their title and surname, as opposed to their first name. For women, the title Ms is gaining popularity, as professional women seek to move away from an identity based on their marital status.

In support of the protection of hierarchical social status, dignity, and social prestige, the Indian communication style is largely indirect, with direct answers very much representing the exception rather than the rule. Care should therefore be taken by expats to ensure that they have properly understood the meaning and implications of a verbal interaction, to ask open-ended questions, to seek clarification if necessary, and to familiarise themselves with the styles and forms of indirect communication prior to starting work in India.

When meeting and greeting people in India, it is usual practice to shake hands, but extreme care should be taken not to touch another person with the left hand, which is seen as dirty and therefore offensive. Thus, whereas handshakes in other countries with a familiar colleague or business partner may also include the light touching of the right upper arm with the left hand, such an approach would be entirely inappropriate in India. Avoid unconsciously causing offence in this way.

Women in India are often subject to casual and sometimes extreme forms of sexual harassment, particularly in public areas, in what has been termed ‘Eve-teasing’. However, the business world has been keen to distance itself from such behaviours and to make the workplace a safe environment for women employees. To this end, men are expected to await an initiation of handshake contact from an Indian female colleague/business partner, and to politely nod their head in deferential recognition of a woman’s presence, should she choose not to initiate such physical contact. Western women can participate in handshaking in the Western manner and can initiate handshaking contact with Indian women in a business context. In light of the prevalence of sexual harassment, expat women employees are advised to wear trouser suits as opposed to skirt suits to work.

A business card should be proffered after the initial greeting. It should be offered with the right hand, and presented so that the recipient can read it immediately with the text facing the recipient. Any professional titles or degrees obtained should be included on the business card, as should reference to membership of any professional bodies.

Meeting etiquette

Appointments for meetings are usually requested by formal letter, well in advance. Advance notice is normally one to two months and meetings should be confirmed a week in advance, with an additional confirmation again on the morning of the scheduled meeting, as last-minute cancellations are common. If a scheduled meeting represents the first time that a new client/business partner has been met, then it is likely that no business will be discussed at all, as Indian cultural and business norms are founded on personal relationships and mutual trust and respect. When a new business relationship has proceeded to the stage where business discussions can take place, it is advised that a detailed agenda and supporting documentation are supplied at the time of booking the meeting, to allow participants to gain an understanding of the objectives and content of the proposed meeting. The initiator of a meeting is expected to provide a written post-meeting overview of what was discussed, and what actions have been agreed going forward.   

Indians are known to be tough business negotiators, but the cultural norm of an indirect communication style means that overtly aggressive negotiation tactics will be poorly received. The relationship-oriented nature of business means that business meetings may begin with questions about the health and well-being of family members and it is expected that such familial, rapport-building information about colleagues, business partners, and potential new clients will be requested and noted for future reference. Decision-making is usually a slow process and public disagreements with the negotiating team, or the loss of temper, should be avoided at all costs. Concessions of price and terms are expected within business negotiation, but it should be anticipated that these will be offered on a quid pro quo basis. Final decisions are always made by the person with the most seniority and successful negotiations are usually celebrated with a meal for all those involved in the process.

If food or drink is offered during the context of a business meeting, care should be taken not to refuse such hospitality, as offence will almost certainly be caused. If expats are hosting a business meeting and offering refreshments, it should be assumed that Indian colleagues are vegetarian, non-smokers, and teetotal, unless evidence to the contrary is specifically obtained prior to the meeting.

Non-verbal communication

  • There are some significant differences in non-verbal communication norms between India and the West that expats should be aware of:
  • Making prolonged eye contact during verbal interactions is not the norm in India.
  • Pointing with fingers is considered offensive, so pointing should be done with the chin, whole hand, or thumb instead. Chin pointing should not be used when signalling superiors.
  • Clicking/snapping of the fingers is another gesture that is considered to be rude and should be avoided.
  • Same sex platonic touching is considered to be socially acceptable, but public displays of affection between opposite sexes is strongly frowned upon.
  • Culturally appropriate personal space for Indians is greater than for Westerners, and care should be taken to ensure a distance of at least an arm’s length in all face-to-face interactions.
  • Indians will shake their heads to indicate that they are listening and have heard what has been said; it is not a sign of disagreement.
  • A hand wave (as in a Western ‘hello’ greeting) means ‘no’ or ‘go away’ in India.
  • Touching or pulling the ears is taken to be a sign of sincerity in India, because the ears are considered a sacred part of the body.

Social events with business colleagues

Socialising outside of work is expected behaviour in India. Therefore, expats should be aware of the various social customs that attend social events, particularly those hosted at a colleague’s own home. If an invitation is received to a social event hosted in a domestic environment, it is not necessary to take a gift, although Indians are aware of Western customs in this respect so will not refuse gifts offered. If you wish to take flowers, ensure that you do not offer white flowers, as white is the funereal colour in India and thus the colour of mourning. If another type of gift is chosen, it should be wrapped in a colour considered to be lucky — yellow, green, or red - and gifts of alcohol or animal-derived products should be avoided. Gifts will not be opened in front of the gift-giver as this is considered rude.

As is becoming more common in the West, it is expected that guests will remove their shoes before entering an Indian home, and it is expected that guests will dress both formally and conservatively. Part of the domestic hospitality ritual in India involves the regular offering of tea or coffee, and it is considered polite to refuse the first offer in order to engage in small talk prior to availing oneself of the host’s hospitality. When dining, another expectation is that guests should wait to be told where to sit and food will be served in a way that honours the social hierarchy. Care should be taken not to eat with the left hand (including when using utensils), and diners will be expected to wash their hands both before and after a meal. Leaving a small amount of food on your plate indicates your repleteness, whilst clearing your plate of food is seen as a sign of ongoing hunger.

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