Avoiding Cultural Misunderstandings

India is the world’s second-fastest growing economy. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, India’s consumer market is expected to quadruple over the next twenty years. For U.S. small businesses, India holds the promise of tremendous opportunity. As the number of U.S. companies doing business in India increases, the number of Indian policy holders is expected to rise as well.

In today’s global economy, it is especially important to be aware of cultural differences. These differences should be taken into account during conference calls, when conversing by email and when meeting in person. Lack of cultural sensitivity can lead to misunderstandings and less efficient business dealings. This article offers a few tips to take into consideration when working with Indian clients.

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Home to nearly 1.2 billion people, India is comprised of 29 states. Each state has an official language (and script) for the most part, along with different dressing styles and cuisines. The central government recognizes Hindi as the official language. In recent years, the names of several Indian cities have changed: Bombay is Mumbai and Madras is Chennai. Many people refer to the cities by the former names, however.

Basic Etiquette

  • People from India address individuals by their last name. However, always address a person using the appropriate formal title (Mr., Mrs., or Miss or professional title), unless asked by the person to refer to his or her first name.
  • Indian meeting etiquette requires a handshake greeting. Indian females prefer to greet people by a ‘Namaste’, a gesture where the palms are brought together at the chest with a slight bow of the head. Using Namaste is a sign of understanding Indian customs.
  • Never pass anything – money or a gift – to an Indian with your left hand as it may be taken as an offense. Indian people avoid using their left hand for auspicious reasons.
  • Family responsibilities take precedence over business in India.

Business Etiquette

  • Business cards should be exchanged at the first meeting. It is a sign of respect to have the business card translated into Hindi on one side.
  • When entering a meeting, always approach and greet the most senior figure first. From a young age, Indians are taught to respect elders.
  • Do not be confrontational or forceful; express criticism and disagreements diplomatically.
  • Use of the word “no” is avoided in discussions, as it is considered rude. The phrases “we’ll see,” “I will try,” or “possibly” indicate “no.”
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