To the manner drawn

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 October, 2008, 12:00am

When Jane Henderson settled into her farmhouse outside New Delhi, the British housewife soon learned about concept of time in India. Her cook and gardener were never punctual and handymen seemed to have a complete disregard for the clock.

So when Henderson, 42, seethed at a plumber's late arrival to unblock a drain, a compatriot recommended that she take a cultural familiarisation course with one of the companies working to ease foreigners into the peculiarities of life in India.

'Indians have a different notion of time. It's not linear,' says Henderson, whose husband manages a British electronics firm. 'Time is cyclical, never-ending. So while I'm getting worked up that an hour has come and gone, for the plumber, that time hasn't 'gone', it goes and comes around again, so why get worked up?'

An estimated 60,000 foreigners now work in India. Although the country's booming economy has attracted new global brands, the country retains traditional social mores that can confuse new arrivals, says Ruchika Srivastava, a cross-cultural trainer at New Delhi-based Global Adjustments.

'When [expatriates] see the 'new India' - shopping malls and brands such as Reebok, Nike, Louis Vuitton and Marks & Spencer - they feel at home,' she says. 'Then they come across strange Indian behaviour and they feel disconnected.'

Such behaviour may range from chronic tardiness and failure to meet deadlines, to extreme deference and taking long periods of time off work for family commitments.

The misunderstandings flow in both directions. Some foreigners can commit cultural faux pas such as shaking hands with female colleagues, or getting down to business immediately without any pleasantries.

Other newcomers fail to ask about their contacts' families, exhibit a workplace aggression that is lauded in the west or criticise someone in a group without realising that loss of face is the ultimate humiliation.

When Bangalore-based software giant Wipro found that such cultural misunderstandings were affecting revenue and production, it launched cultural training courses to sensitise its 5,000 foreign employees to Indian methods of working.

A number of expatriates have seen the value of such training. 'It's not just useful, it should be compulsory,' says Bernard Bahout, the head of French aluminium and steel parts company Hutchinson in New Delhi.

His wife, Claude, agrees. 'The cultural gap is so wide between France and India that you cannot hope to understand anything without help,' she says.

'Ruchika opened our eyes. We understood why things happen in a certain way. We have spent years in China and found the Chinese much easier to understand.'

Chinese expatriates in India can face as much of a culture shock as westerners, says Global Adjustments chief executive Ranjini Manian.

'The Chinese are more process-oriented and disciplined than Indians. They find India anarchic,' she says. 'People from cultures that are formal, rigid and direct find India harder to deal with, so Germans have a tougher time than Italians.'

Direct speaking can mortify Indians. Many foreigners make the mistake of telling someone whose work is not up to standard something along the lines of: 'I pay you 500 rupees to clean this office and so you'd better do it.'

Such a characterisation of work as a purely commercial transaction can be deeply insulting to Indians, many of whom wouldn't dream of speaking in these terms even to their servants.

Manian, who has lived abroad and speaks fluent French and Japanese, highlights how cultural misunderstandings can arise at workshops. At a recent session, she asked a Dane what made him feel respected. He replied, 'I feel respected if you listen to me and then give me your honest opinion.'

The Indian in the group, however, was appalled and told the Dane: 'My idea of respect is for me to listen to you and then agree with you.'

That is because Indians 'are deferential towards people in authority and may not be forthright in the presence of a senior person,' says K. Venkataraman, a director of Bangalore-based Cognizant Technologies, which also runs cultural assimilation courses for its foreign staff. 'It's a mistake to interpret [Indian employees'] silence as acceptance in a discussion,' he says.

Such deference can obscure the realities of deadlines and targets in India. The biggest complaint of expatriates is locals' inability to say 'no' when they know they can't deliver.

'We tell foreigners that people will tell them what they think they want to hear,' says Srivastava. 'So if an Indian boss wants a presentation ready by next Friday and hears his team say, 'We can do it, we'll try' or 'I think I can do it', his antennae will go up on hearing the 'we'll try'.'

But the foreigner will mistakenly assume that the Friday deadline will be met, when they should instead follow up to see that the team is on track.

Indians and westerners also work differently to deadlines.

Bhagavan Krishnaswami, who heads Wipro's culture training, says Indians are polychronic. They see time as cyclical, punctuality as unimportant and interruptions as acceptable with tasks and deadlines. Westerners, however, tend to be monochronic, do one thing at a time in an orderly way and won't tolerate interruptions or lateness.

'If an Indian has 60 days to do something, he'll be thinking of what he has to deliver at the end of 60 days,' Krishnaswami says. 'A westerner will break up those 60 days and see what he has to complete by 10 days, then 20 days and 30 days.'

Indian attitudes to leave for family commitments often differ from those in the west, with funeral rites taking up to 10 days as opposed to two in Britain or the US. Given the importance of family in India, Venkataraman says he also has to prepare foreigners for personal questions about their marriages and children that might seem intrusive.

With the benefit of cultural sensitivity courses, expatriates such as Henderson are learning to adapt to life in India. She fumes less when calling her plumber because she has learned to micromanage him with regular reminders that the appointment is urgent.

Manian says her business is booming, but wishes more foreign companies operating in India would realise the need to understand the complexities of its culture. 'I wish more people built bridges before burning them,' she says.


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