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Around the World

Business Etiquette Tips: India

Author(s):

Lisa Wolters-Broder


May/June 2013, eSide Supply Management Vol. 6, No. 3

In this edition of eSide Supply Management, we're taking a trip to India, one of the most diverse countries in the world. India is a sophisticated, modern, industrial leader that is home to educated professionals and savvy consumers, as well as many primitive tribes and millions of poor people, making it one of the more complex countries for business.

Meeting Time

It's advisable to make your business appointments by letter, and at least one month or preferably two months in advance. The best time for a meeting is late morning or early afternoon. Reconfirm your meeting the week before and call again that morning, because it's common for meetings to be cancelled at the last minute. Keep your schedule flexible in case a cancellation occurs.

Always send your Indian colleagues a detailed agenda in advance. Send back-up materials and charts and other data, as well. This allows everyone to review and become comfortable with the material prior to the meeting.

Indians are impressed with punctuality, so plan to arrive on time.

Meetings will start with a great deal of getting-to-know-you talk. In fact, it is quite possible that no business will be discussed at the first meeting. Good topics of conversation include marital status, family, your educational background, where you grew up or sports. Avoid topics such as politics, religions, the caste system or the Kashmir region.

Indians are nonconfrontational communicators. It is rare for them to overtly disagree, although this is beginning to change in the managerial ranks. Decisions are reached by the person with the most authority, and decision-making is a slow process.

In negotiations, most Indians expect concessions in both price and terms. It is acceptable to expect concessions in return for those you grant. Never appear overly legalistic during negotiations. In general, Indians do not trust the legal system, and someone's word is sufficient to reach an agreement. As India is a very hierarchical society, it is best to defer to the most senior person in the room.

Business Attire

Men should wear suits and ties. During summer months, you may omit the jacket.

Women should wear conservative pantsuits or dresses. Dresses should not reveal too much of your legs.

Communication Cues

Indians do not like to express "no," either verbally or nonverbally. Rather than disappoint you, for example, by saying something isn't available, Indians will offer you the response that they think you want to hear. This behaviour should not be considered dishonest. An Indian would be considered terribly rude if he or she did not attempt to give you what you asked for. You may receive an affirmative answer that's deliberately vague about any specific details. Look for the nonverbal verbal cues, such as a reluctance to commit to an actual time for a meeting or an enthusiastic response.

Introductions, Farewells and Everything in Between
  • Titles are very important. It's best to address people directly by using their professional title or Mr., Mrs., or Miss, followed by their surname.
  • Wait to be invited before using someone's first name.
  • Business cards are usually handed out after the initial handshake and greeting.
  • Always present and receive business cards with your right hand.
Meeting Etiquette
  • Religion, education and social class all influence greetings in India.
  • This is a hierarchical culture, so greet the eldest or most senior person first.
  • When leaving a group, each person must be bid farewell individually.
  • Shaking hands is common, especially in the large cities among the more educated who are accustomed to dealing with Westerners.
  • Men may shake hands with other men and women may shake hands with other women; however, there are seldom handshakes between men and women because of religious beliefs. If you are uncertain, wait for the other person to extend a hand.
Naming Conventions

Indian names vary based upon religion, social class and region. The following are some basic guidelines to understanding the naming conventions, although you will always find exceptions to rules:

Hindus:

  • In the north, many people have both a given name and a surname.
  • In the south, surnames are less common, and people generally use the initial of their father's name in front of their own name.
  • The man's formal name is their name "s/o" (son of) and the father's name. Women use "d/o" to refer to themselves as the daughter of their father.
  • At marriage, women drop their father's name and use their first name with their husband's first name as a sort of surname.

Muslims:

  • Many Muslims do not have surnames. Instead, men add the father's name to their own name with the connector "bin." So, Abdullah bin Ahmed is Abdullah the son of Ahmad.
  • Women use the connector "binti."
  • The title Hajji (male) or Hajjah (female) before the name indicates the person has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Sikhs:

  • Sikhs all use the name Singh. It is either adopted as a surname or as a connector name to the surname.

Common cultural taboos. Lewd behavior and even simple PDA (public displays of affection) are highly frowned upon. Avoid touching people or moving/passing objects with your shoes. Winking and whistling should be avoided. Grasping the ears signifies sincerity or repentance, as ears are considered sacred. Pulling on your ears is a grave insult.

Image of banners in India.
Social Etiquette

General dining dos and don'ts:

Indians entertain in their homes, restaurants, private clubs or other public venues, depending on the occasion and circumstances:

  • Although Indians are not always punctual themselves, they expect foreigners to arrive close to the appointed time.
  • Take off your shoes before entering someone's home.
  • Dress modestly and conservatively.
  • Politely turn down the first offer of tea, coffee or snacks. You will be asked again and again. Saying no to the first invitation is part of the protocol.

There are diverse dietary restrictions in India, and these may affect the foods that are served:

  • Hindus do not eat beef, and many are vegetarians.
  • Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol.
  • Sikhs do not eat beef.
  • Lamb, chicken and fish are the most commonly served main courses for non-vegetarian meals, as they avoid the meat restrictions of the religious groups.

Table manners are somewhat formal, but this formality is tempered by the religious beliefs of the various groups:

  • Much Indian food is eaten with the fingers.
  • Wait to be told where to sit.
  • If utensils are used, they are generally a spoon and a fork.
  • Guests are often served in a particular order: the guest of honour is served first, followed by the men, and the children are served last. Women typically serve the men and eat later.
  • You may be asked to wash your hands before and after sitting down to a meal.
  • Always use your right hand to eat, whether you are using utensils or your fingers.
  • In some situations, food may be put on your plate for you, while in other situations you may be allowed to serve yourself from a communal bowl.
  • Leaving a small amount of food on your plate indicates that you are satisfied. Finishing all your food means that you are still hungry.
Gift-Giving Guidelines

Give gifts with both hands. In India, gifts are not normally opened in the presence of the giver. Gifts from your country are appreciated but they are not normally expected at the first meeting. You may give them once a business relationship develops.

Wrapping presents in green, yellow and/or red is the way to go. Avoid black or white.

To be on the safe side and avoid insulting your host's religion, stay away from any leather, alcohol, pigskin or dog-related gifts. Safe gifts include chocolates or flowers (no frangipani or white flowers, as they are for funerals).




Lisa Wolters-Broder is ISM's senior copy editor. She can be reached by email.

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