Building a rapport with the western world
Getting over the unease when we step out of our comfort zone
Overseas projects, out-of-country kickoff meetings, responsibilities that transcend national boundaries — the new Indian manager is going places. Professionally, we Indians can be confident about being able to hold our own against any other nationality with our language skills and technical expertise. But many of us, when we step outside our comfort zones, experience a sense of unease. We find that things we take for granted in our own environments are simply not present in the new one. We discover that there’s a whole new set of rules for the game, but there’s no one to give us the rule book.
Over the years, numerous Indian managers, exposed to a Western work-cum-social milieu have, at our workshops, asked questions on ‘Being Upworldly Mobile’ — on topics that most business establishments and B-schools don’t seem to spend time on. I share here a list of FAQs and the responses we have to offer. I have mentioned the US as a case study, but most advice works for other Western nations too:
In India, relationship building at work and socially is very important — I know Americans are transaction-oriented and not people-oriented — what are some tips for good relationship building?
Take interest in their interests. Learn a sport they all rave about, a holiday that is coming up and how they celebrate it. Read their newspapers and watch their TV shows. Talk about what they’re currently talking about. An interesting conversationalist helps build relationships.
Also, it helps if you can run errands together or share tasks in and out of work. Car-pooling is a good relationship-builder, sharing the chore of grocery shopping could also lead to bonding.
Most of all cultivate a sense of humour and be able to laugh at yourself. Americans like light banter and humour.
Finally, make the effort to be knowledgeable about India to explain via facts and figures in bite sized pieces. Americans like to learn from those who are succinct.
Three things that I can do in the US that will make me a success:
Don’t promise or say “yes” for something unless you are absolutely sure you can do it!
Be proactive about raising questions or issues if you see likely challenges or delays at work
Observe how they behave and communicate and adapt to succeed.
What is the etiquette to be followed at the coffee station or in the use of the microwave?
Queuing is sacrosanct.
Leaving the microwave as clean as you found it is good etiquette.
Not eating pungent Indian food would be wise in a common microwave area
Water cooler conversations are usually light and non-substantial but are important to build rapport and to participate is good etiquette. Examples would be your plan for the weekend, or a film you ‘caught’ recently. Unlike the frequent extended breaks we seem to take in India, in the West breaks are infrequent, short bursts and filled with small talk for rapport building.
What happens if I spill coffee and the house staff are not available to clean up the mess? What is the right thing to do then?
People in the US do it themselves. Take paper towels and mop it up yourself.
If you can’t find a cleaning aid, apologise to people close by and ask how you should clean up.
I had a Bulgarian intern who replaced a saucer for a guest when she noticed a bit of a coffee spilt on it. The guest greatly appreciated her attentiveness though it was not her job. Whatever you do, don’t just hope no one saw you or that someone else will deal with it. It might be considered callous, and brand “all Indians” as messy!
When invited to someone’s house in India, we never go empty handed. Is it the same in the US? What would be appropriate gifts?
This courtesy works in most countries. Wine, chocolates, flowers, something small from India — maybe silk scarves or ties. Or, even the ubiquitous carved Indian elephant would be a nice touch. Arrive on time, give the neatly wrapped gift after you enter the home, to the hostess.
When making small talk is it correct to ask about family? What can I talk about and what should I avoid?
Be friendly but don’t attempt to talk intimately about family. For small talk, it is better to stick to the subjects of food, sport, weather, vacation travel. Family can be a topic only if they bring it up first, although you can offer a little bit of information about your family to start of. If they reciprocate with information about theirs, then show interest in their family too.
Avoid talking about wars and sensitive subjects between India and their country, like outsourcing bans by President Obama or race issues.
How come they leave work at 5:30 sharp? We never do that.
They work hard and play hard. They make a clear distinction between efficiency and time spent. Unlike us, they don’t let personal time interfere with professional time. So they come to work and leave exactly on time. Theirs is a culture that works to live. We in India, on the contrary, might be veering towards living to work; we take several breaks, are relaxed about finishing, have no problem mixing the professional and personal. So we are ready to stretch our time too. But do we stretch efficiency, is the question to ask ourselves. In India, a good employee is often one who is willing to work late, while in the West it would be the person who meets deadlines.
Are there any cultural tips for building a team in the US?
Competition is healthy and inter-team rivalry is considered good. So playing one group against the other builds motivation. Incentive schemes work well too, so plan some, and watch your team perform!
Ranjini Manian is Founder CEO of Global Adjustments, a relocation and cross-cultural services company. She can be contacted at email@example.com
This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 21, 2012 - Link to online text
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