Archive for September, 2007
Recognising cross-cultural differences on the concept of time can remove misunderstandings and improve efficiency.
The linear versus the cyclical.
Culture specialists like to point out that traditional societies like India have a cyclical approach to time and Western societies a linear one. For corporates schooled in American ways, time is money, but for most of us Indians time is perceived as an abundant commodity, as abundant as the sunlight in India.
Indians are generally ‘time complacent’ for we have much sunlight, which has regulated our waking and working hours. Movements in nature have also influenced our attitude to time: night and day, the waning and waxing of the moon, the ebb and flow of water, birth, death and rebirth — all cyclical. Nature never ran out of itself and has been perceived as plentiful. And so too with time: It could be stretched when required.
The perception of time as stretchable is tenacious and inhabits our daily vocabulary. Rajiv, Vinay and Ajay are young IT professionals who have decided to go together to see Chak De India, the film starring Shah Rukh Khan. Rajiv has offered to pick up the other two at Vinay’s place. He says: “I’ll be picking you up at about 5pm.” The ‘about’ leaves room for manoeuvring. Vinay and Ajay would be glad if Rajiv showed up by 5.15 pm. They could still make it to the film. We in India frequently use the present continuous when we converse and when we write. It is common to hear: “I’m having a headache,” “I’m having guests at home” and even “I’m having a wife”. Time is not fragmented.
Gita is working on a project report that needs to be sent to Hans, her counterpart in Germany, as early as possible. She is confident of completing it and informs Hans that she will be sending it across “by the week-end”. Hans is not reassured. He says: “I need you to send me the project report this Friday by 4pm, please. Can you do that?”
Western countries are more ‘time conscious’ than ‘time complacent’ for they have a lot less of that precious commodity called sunlight. Clocks are brought forward and then set back in spring and autumn to make the most of the daylight hours for work. Long winters and falling leaves; a dormant nature in winter is depressing for many for it symbolises the passage of time, decay and loss. This perception has reinforced the Western view of time as fleeting and the need, therefore, to pin it down and appropriate it. How is this done?
Time in the West is linear; it has a start and a finish. It is to be apportioned, used carefully, controlled and accounted for. It is commonly believed that what gets measured gets done. At the workplace this translates into time-bound processes, plans, agendas and deadlines to be followed as closely as possible. Abiding by these implies being professional, even respectful of each other. Businesses are encouraged to be task-focused and do a lot less multitasking than we do in India.
The Taste of Time
Octavio Paz, Mexican diplomat and writer, made a very valuable contribution to cross-cultural understanding in his book In Light of India. He draws an analogy between perceptions of time and practices relating to food and eating habits in Eastern cultures like India and European cultures. He says the three, four or five course Western meal denotes a linear approach to time, with one dish at a time following the other in a clear sequence; different flavours traditionally do not intermingle. The sweet is distinct from the sour. Not so in Eastern cooking.
The circular Indian thali plate and meal epitomises cyclical time. It is served ‘in its entirety’ with all flavours in a happy mélange, the free intermingling of flavours a negation as it were of sequential time. Paz refers to this as the “timelessness of the thali”.
Becoming time efficient
Given this divergent view of time, how can we in India work effectively with our western counterparts? This is a Global Adjustments checklist we share with our course participants:
Follow schedules and plans as closely as possible and respect deadlines. Inform in advance if any modifications are introduced or delays expected.
Ensure you stay focused on the task at meetings and avoid interruptions.
Respond promptly to your telephone calls and e-mails or when information is required, even if it is to ask for more time.
Be punctual and do not make people wait — start earlier to achieve this.
Don’t expect to develop relationships, for this takes time. Be more task-oriented.
The importance of time in the West has thrown up a lot of rich expressions and proverbs that say it all. The American “time is money”, the very British “a stitch in time saves nine”, the poetic “time and tide wait for no man” or the succinct “buying time” all denote one thing — time is precious, don’t waste it.
Whether it is temporary housing or permanent – ready to move in condition is the operative word
Instant hits: Spacious rooms with good lighting, and modular kitchens appeal to expatriates. Geography is history as they say these days! A substantial number of expatriates are in Chennai from Sweden to Korea, from Finland to Japan, from the U.S. to Thailand. Our last count of nationalities came to 72! They are here for different purposes from setting up businesses to managing companies. And the first step in all this is to find a great home or an office to set up. What kind of real estate attracts the expatriates and what do they look for? In this article let us look at apartments and independent houses that they rent as homes.
What are they looking for?
Whether it is temporary housing or permanent, whether a plug and play business centre or a long-term office – ready to move in condition is the operative word. Gone are the days when we could say to brokers “you find the tenant – after that I will make my investment.”
To you it is a secondary investment; to the expatriate it is his home for the next two to three years. It has to call out to him and say, “Come, live here.” Two key areas in dwelling decisions are bathrooms and kitchens.
What appeals to an expatriate in bathrooms?
Spaciousness – an open feeling and airiness with an exhaust fan to bring in the fresh air. They would also expect bright lights in the bathrooms. A bathroom is just like any other room that makes a home for them, as against the Indian functional bathroom.
Add a touch of the outdoors (fresh flowers and potted plants) by bringing in nature indoors.
Bathrooms with shower cubicles. The cultural difference in cleanliness between India and the West is wet vs dry. Expats usually want a dry bathroom, so they will want the bath area clearly divided and protected in order not to splash water as they shower. If there is no shower cubicle, a shower curtain will help.
Bathtubs in master bedrooms are a luxury they value, so why not put them in? Add a shower over the tub, and give it a shower curtain or a fibre glass separator, this would act as a two-in-one area for showering or bathing. Most expats look for bathtubs in the bathrooms more as a place to unwind at the end of the day with a warm bath for relaxing.
Bathroom fittings such as basins/countertops and WCs are best in cream or white. This again gives the room a sense of spaciousness and airiness.
Showers and taps in steel are preferred. They really don’t mind if it is jaguar or metro or more. Shiny, new, functional and steel is all they ask. The force of the water in the shower should be good.
Storage space is something that expats look forward to in the bathrooms. From a medical cabinet to a towel rack and toiletry storage are a must for most expats – so do keep an allowance of space for these.
A fan in the bathroom is an additional comfort. The functional Indian bathrooms come with an exhaust fan, while most expats look forward to having a fan in the bathroom as the room is another place of retreat!
Concealed geysers for hot water and full-length mirrors are also required. One of our Canadian clients exited early from his apartment as he claimed the bathroom mirror was the size of his “handkerchief” and was not enough for all 6 feet of him!
Kitchens – What do they look for here other than food? Most expatriates prefer to do their own cooking even though India offers them chefs par excellence. They rarely have live-in help – so going into the kitchen is a common occurrence.
They also spend family time in a kitchen back home and the “home is where the hearth is” philosophy comes from here perhaps.
Modular kitchens are very appealing and an instant hit with expatriates.
A geyser in the kitchen is mandatory for expats – they simply cannot fathom why a landlord who spends millions of rupees does not provide hot and cold running water when they cook. So please make this small investment.
A mixer tap for hot and cold water will go well in the washbasins whether in the bathrooms or kitchens.
A 4-burner hob with a chimney would be ideal. And many of them prefer a stand-alone stove to a counter top. So please leave enough room with a cut-out in your marble or granite kitchen counter so they don’t have to end up cutting it later on. In our experience, we have lost at least a hundred potential properties that expats would have rented because home owners did not make this provision and did not have an open enough mind to let them cut the counter themselves. In some cases, the expatriate finds the counter tops a little low. Most Indian counters are built to a height of 80 cms but the expatriate likes it at 85 cms.
More next time…
Strategies to make meetings more fruitful.
If it’s a meeting, set out the GAP.
The other day I was in a meeting with people I had met many times before. During my previous meetings with them, I noticed a few things that worked and a few that did not. This time, I decided to take notes so that I could share them with you this week; as managers we all need to apply this learning to our work life so often.
GAP is a terrific formula to conduct successful meetings. An American NRI told me about it and I will share it with you today. My immediate question when someone asks for a meeting now is: “What’s the GAP?” Setting the GAP, together with marking a clear start and end time is a superb tool for productive meetings.
G – The Goal. When you call a meeting, clearly define the goal or purpose of the meeting. Long inconclusive meetings that reach nowhere leave you feeling rather wasted. All the time you are thinking of the e-mails, cell phone calls and , of course, text messages that are piling up. Is the goal to arrive at a decision, have a review of the past week or to plan a specific project? Put it down in writing so that during the meeting, planning and progress this receives top-of-mind recall.
A – The Agenda. Even if the goal is clear, it is all too easy to speak of this, that and the other and lose focus. Setting a clear, printed agenda and placing one in each attendee’s hand keeps things on track. The chairperson sho uld also see to it that off-agenda topics don’t take over meetings — he should bring people gently but firmly back to the discussion points. During a recent meeting, our COO was often heard saying “This is a process review challenges listing meeting; we will have another one for solutions.” He then drew up a new GAP for the solutions part at meeting two.
P – The Preparation. What does the person planning the meet have to come prepared with? Is there, perhaps, a report he needs to read up or do some number crunching before hand? And could one of the participants do a comparative study? Can someone else check a Web site or two for added information that would help the meeting? Should everyone be brushing up on a specific topic under discussion? For example, during a recent HR issues meeting in our team, we had everyone re-read our HR induction process manual as a reminder. We started our meeting with a show of hands of those who had read it; not when they joined, but in the week before the meeting. Public accountability is great motivation and makes us perform! It sure keeps me on my toes.
Here are three taboos in body language I observed during meetings last week. Do these or similar ones apply to you? Ask a colleague after you read this list to find out. Get conscious of it and chuck the habit early to be more effective:
Eye contact: Do you tend to look away or down mostly, avoiding the speaker’s eyes during a meeting? It shows your disinterest even if that is not your intention.
Knuckle breaking: Do you crack your finger joints unconsciously? It may show you are nervous when you are actually very relaxed and confident.
Pen clicking: Do you tend to click the back of your pen rhythmically? It may send the message that you are fidgety and unfocussed, while the truth maybe that you are super engaged.
Do the following three things, instead, to get the best out of the meeting and also to be someone with whom meeting is a pleasure:
Answer to the point. Long and verbose speech, pauses and not getting to the point soon enough make it hard for the listener’s patience and actually show that you did not do the ‘P’ or preparation part of GAP very well .
Stay on track and avoid getting entangled in too many details of a topic. For example, it is so easy to let technical details take over discussions at a meeting.
If you are 10 people in the meeting, ask yourself — are all concerned interested in this level of discussion or could you hold a one-on-one offline with one or two people which will be far more effective.
Practice active listening. How do you do this? Take notes, nod often, smile and that shows true participation.
Ask intelligent questions or make additional comments where appropriate, by making a note, excusing your interruption and then saying it briefly. An initial practice tip is to write out the point as you take notes, so you say it crispl y and clearly.
Otherwise it will be like the man who was likened to a bull’s head — he had a point here and a point there and a lot of bull in-between.