Posts tagged Cross-Cultural
“What is seekh kebab?” I asked while preparing some information for a training, completely surrounded by Indians of various backgrounds who all gave their answers.
“It is just a meat kebab.”
“I think it is minced meat.” “What is minced meat?” “Umm…it’s like lamb I think. Just look it up on Wikipedia.”
As an outsider, it was unbelievable that there was not a common knowledge surrounding something so cultural as food. Shouldn’t every Indian know what seekh kebab is? (Turns out it is actually native Pakistani food.)
The idea of “common knowledge” turns out to be not so common in a country made up of 28 unique states and 17 languages on their currency notes. People grow up with different food, different movies, different cultures all together which makes it difficult to find the strands of the ties that bond.
I was reflecting on this while having an evening with someone who grew up roughly 1,000 miles away from my hometown. I was overwhelmed at the similar culture that we were pulling from while reflecting on our growing up years. We watched the same TV serials, ate at the same chain restaurants, saw the same movies, heard the same music, and on and on it went. When it comes to trivia about American culture, we were pulling from the same knowledge pool, even though it would take a four hour plane ride to reach each other’s home.
Part of this is due to the mass industrialization and “McDonaldization” that exists in the US. National brands have virtually taken over all the marketable space available so that every grocery store aisle has the same thing in California or New York.
Not so in India. Here, the regional continues to dominate, despite our best efforts to force it all into one country. A newcomer to India has to spend time learning that not every Indian wears a turban and there is more to Indian cuisine than Butter Chicken. (The majority of Indian restaurants outside of India are run by Punjabis.) There is not one India, but many Indias and to expect every Indian to know what seekh kebab is is like asking an Italian to explain what wife-carrying is (ask a Finn).
So what are the things that bind Indians together? Cricket is the ubiquitous answer, yet still one of the best ones. Traditional values, joint families, arranged marriages, and the like are often cited as well but these things are changing. Probably the best example that I saw was at our annual company meet. During a certain activity, one person began singing, “Hum Honge Kaamyaab…” and the entire room of Indians from many different backgrounds all began singing “We shall overcome” in Hindi. There are certain things that always cross cultures, even Indian ones.
In the world of western business, there are certain words which every manager tries to distance him/herself from: hierarchy, politics, favourtism, traditionalist, etc. These “dirty words” carry a lot of baggage for us, but perhaps none as much as nepotism. We would like to believe we dropped all the evils of nepotism sometime around the Enlightenment of the 17th century. Surely nothing is as undemocratic or unmodern as giving an important post to a family member.
Any reference to nepotism becomes a scandal. Recently, in Bavaria, a German state which prohibits politicians from employing spouses and children, 2 politicians resigned amid nepotism charges and 79 more have been named in reports. Even in the US, which is supposed to be the international symbol for meritocracy, there was a report filed citing nine Congressmen for giving special jobs to family members during campaigns.
Living in India gives you a new perspective on most things of course. You begin to see how hierarchy can also have a softer side, and how traditionalism can preserve things that need to be remembered. But what about nepotism? Family rules in politics where 29% of members of parliament are “hereditary” members, meaning they inherited their position from their parent. In fact, 100% of MPs under the age of 30 got their positions from their parents. In business, Air India has a pending inquiry has a pending inquiry against its executive director of operations for giving pilot licenses to family members without meeting the requirements.
In Indian business, it is harder to separate family from the equation. When a relative is looking for a job, it is your duty to scout around your workplace and see if there are any suitable posts. Why wouldn’t you want to entrust key parts of your business to those whom you know the best? Why bring in a stranger when I can find someone with more vested interest in our success? It is estimated in India that 40% of new hires come from employee referrals and a good portion of those are family members.
In India, people take great pride in the success of the Tatas, Ambanis, and Birlas, who have managed to run their businesses in the midst of family. The Tatas are famous for not only incorporating their family into their business, but then also treating members like family once they join. All foreigners coming into India should be aware of the gold standard that most Indians will use to evaluate your organization.
So while nepotism might still be a dirty word in the world of business, family should definitely be a word you embrace to succeed as you work in India.
My wife’s SMS said, “Call as soon as you can” – never a great sign. I soon learned that my young son had fallen and cut his forehead and was off to the hospital. As my wife didn’t have a car, she asked our friendly “Uncle and Auntie” that we have known for over two years to help.
My neighbor drove my wife and son to the hospital where they quickly saw a doctor. Uncle waited at the hospital and purchased all the medicine needed for the quick patch up. He then drove them back home safely, recalling stories of his own children’s falls and scraps to make sure my wife didn’t feel guilty.
When I finally reached home, my son was already happily in bed and I was overwhelmed with a strong feeling of gratitude. I had to satisfy my uncontrollable American urge to go and immediately say “thank you” for the generous act. We appreciate it when people do nice things for us, but we also like to quickly acknowledge them.
I tried to chose my words carefully: “I am very thankful that you were here to take care of my son.” To which, my neighbor replied, “Never say ‘thank you’. Why else are we here besides doing these things?”
Perhaps it is dharma, or perhaps the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, but somewhere in the Indian mindset, there is a strong feeling that one should not say “Thank you” for doing something which is expected to be done. To say “Thanks” trivializes something like this to a simple transaction between strangers. To not say “Thanks” shows that there is a deeper relationship of assumed obligation that we will take care of each other regardless. To live in an Indian family is to live in a massive invisible safety net which sometimes requires you to adjust a bit for others, and also requires others to adjust for you without flinching.
Another friend living in India describes this cultural tension for him as adopting a “long-term view of reciprocity”. We from individualist cultures don’t like the idea of an ongoing “debt” to someone and prefer to live without these long-term obligations. I would even tell my parents “thank you” for doing the same for my child. However, being in India has opened my eyes to the beauty that exists when friends and family are willing to engage in such a deep relationship that the phrase “Thank you” loses the luster that we ascribe to it.
Thanks, India. Or rather, as I rephrased my response to neighbor, “It makes me so happy to know that my family is living in a place with such wonderful people all around us.”
While watching the opening days of the Olympics, there seemed to be a different feel to these London games. More of a camaraderie, more of a spirit of athletes competing together instead of nations trying to assert their authority and dominance over each other.
At first I thought this could be due to my experiences living in India as an expat increasing my awareness of the global village. While it might be true, I then zeroed in on something different that was pulling me towards this feeling of harmony and friendly competition…the fist pump.
Not just the fist pump, but all sorts of mannerisms that have become associated with success in athletics. The high five, the hug, the tears, the elated screams. As an American, these are the ways that I expect athletes that I connect with to celebrate and act. The difference in this Olympics for me was that everyone was doing it – the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, etc.
So many of these cultures value keeping a straight face in the light of pressure and not showing these kinds of emotions in a public venue. To other cultures who are more expressive at these events, these athletes come across as cold, robotic, and emotionless. Conversely, those countries who are more stoic view the expressive athletes as arrogant, flamboyant show-offs. This puts up a mutual wall between us and them and makes each one want to beat the others.
At these London games, you see more images like the one at the top. More and more athletes are adopting similar behaviors and mannerisms. A strange effect of this convergence is that when I watch Sun Yang beat my country’s best and then celebrate like this, I don’t feel so far away from him. When I see him high five and hug his competitors as though they are old friends, I’m suddenly less concerned that we missed out on the gold.
One skill that we teach in our training programs is the ability to build rapport with foreign clients and colleagues. One of the main principles of building rapport is that people enjoy being around others who are similar to them. When you can talk intelligently about the same topics, dress similarly, and perhaps even learn some of the same body language and mannerisms, you build an invisible connection with the other person that makes them more comfortable around you.
So whether it is Olympians competing on a global stage, a remote manager visiting his team, or a young salesman making his first international trip, pay attention to your mannerisms and body language. It may earn you more rapport and connection than you thought.
For more information on our training courses, including how to build rapport with clients, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When does a child become an adult? Each culture across the world has marked one’s coming of age uniquely. Be it a graduation, a particular age, a driver’s license, a new home, a marriage, or even having a child, we all find our own moment to grow up.
Some cultures use special ceremonies to mark this transition. As an intern with Global Adjustments, I recently had the pleasure of attending the Hindu coming of age ceremony called an Upanayanam. Many Hindu boys have this “Sacred Thread Ceremony” to mark their transition from boys to men at just eight years old. Undeniably an Upanayanam has some distinctly Hindu traditions. For example, in the middle of the ceremony the boy shares a final carefree meal with his best friend; afterwards he must be conscious of what he is consuming each time he sits down to eat and make sure to give back as much as he takes. This concept is harmonious with the Hindu idea of overcoming one’s ego in order to be conscious of society as a whole.
However, I was also surprised to find rituals in the Upanayanam which seemed very similar to coming of age ceremonies of other cultures. Much like a Jewish boy’s Bar Mitzvah, the Upanayanam centers on the transition into becoming a serious student where education becomes paramount. Each ceremony requires the boys to recite scripture from their holy books, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Jewish Torah, respectively. Paralleling the ancient Chinese “Cap” Ceremony, a Hindu boy has his entire head shaved sparing a tuft at the back, whereas the Chinese youth’s hair is tied in a bun and capped in the same place. Both arrangements of hair represent the transition from youth to scholar.
Adulthood itself seems to be an ambiguous moving target. These same Indian boys who have become an adult at eight might later anxiously await their strands of grey hair to come in which brings with it respect and legitimacy in the business world. Many young Indian girls are excited to grow up quickly, but also bemoan the time when they switch from being called didi or akka (older sister) to being called auntie by small children.
Observing the Upanayanam, I began to consider my own transition into adulthood. For me, graduating high school and going to university was a monumental coming of age moment. Taking on the responsibility of my own education and living away from home for a time made me feel like I had crossed a major threshold on the way to becoming an adult. I know there will be several markers along the path, but it is important to celebrate each one.
Cara Huskey is an intern with Global Adjustments’ Cross Cultural Training Department. For more information on our courses, including working with younger generations, contact email@example.com
When you hear of women in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, completely covered in black and prohibited to step out their home without a mahram (male blood relative – husband/brother/father), it is normal for people to make negative judgments about that culture. That’s where Global Adjustments comes in. We create Global Citizens who understand the culture of different ethnic groups, especially when it comes to doing business with them and living in their country.
A few weeks ago, we got to interact with a group from a technology solutions company sitting out of Pune, Bangalore, and Chennai, moving to Qatar. Most of them had either never been to a Gulf country or only visited. While in Qatar, they were expected to interact with people from the United Arab Emirates and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, probably one of the most misunderstood cultures in the world.
Prior to the training, we interacted and conducted surveys with people currently living in these countries to get a first-hand account of what life is like there as a foreigner. As we do with all country-specific trainings, we also had a live expert who had lived in Qatar and travelled to many Gulf countries, and knew what it was like to be an Indian there.
As expected, there were a lot of questions. One participant from Bangalore asked, “How is the night life in Qatar?” Another participant, a father of a 5 year old asked “where can I send my daughter to school?” Other people asked “How are Qataris in business negotiations?” and “What should we keep in mind about business meetings?”, and of course, the ever-present “How do I stay out of jail?”. We discussed housing, transportation, alcohol permits, dress code, government regulations, dining etiquette and medical facilities.
Preparing people for the Middle East is much more than Q & A, though. It’s more than just knowing the answers, because the questions will always be endless. We prepared them to understand which questions were the most important and to also answer the “why” behind it all. We worked to empower them with the confidence they need to represent their company and India well while working abroad. In short, we made Global Citizens out of them.
For more information about our specialized training programs focused on a particular region, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch out! An expat speaks out
by Ranjini Manian
The expat co-worker is often taken aback by the Indian twist to business communication.
James is the first Westerner to work in the Indian arm of the company. He manages a team of 10 Indians aged 25 to 40, and reports to the Managing Director of the India operations. James had heard good things about India and the MD. He had come expecting to find his new assignment interesting and challenging.
Well, he found it challenging all right, James told me ruefully. But not in the way he had hoped. Curious, I asked him what his concerns were, and got an exhaustive laundry list of problems, most of them ‘small’ in the sense of being not directly business-related, but ‘big’ for someone raised in a totally different work culture.
I divided James’ concerns into various categories. Let’s deal with them, one by one.
TALKING THE TALK
James had been assured that Indians were well versed in English and communication would not be a problem. This was true for the most part. Yet, there were some hurdles which he found very difficult to cross — telephones, for instance. What about telephones? I asked. “Well”, replied James, “when I call someone on his phone, he picks it up and says ‘Tell me’ instead of the ‘Hello’ that I’m expecting to hear. That throws me off track completely! When I finally get going, and ask him for information, he gives it to me, but keeps interrupting himself to say ‘Hello’ every now and then, or else repeats what he has said. I find that terribly distracting.”
“While your team member is talking, what do you do?” I asked James. “I listen in polite silence of course,” he replied, puzzled that I needed to ask.
“That’s why he keeps saying ‘hello’ or repeating himself,” I explained with a smile. “During conversations, telephonic or face-to-face, we Indians expect our listeners to acknowledge that they have heard and understood by making typical sounds such as ‘hmmm’, ‘ah’ and so on. When we don’t hear those sounds, we wonder whether the other person is still there, or if she has grasped what we are saying.”
“Oh, now I get it,” said James. “And I also have this problem that people keep breaking into the local language when they’re talking to me in English.” “Yes, that can be quite distracting,” I agreed. “But we Indians are at least bi-lingual if not tri-lingual, and we’re used to interspersing our conversation in one language with words from another.”
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL
James found communication via e-mail quite a problem too. He kept getting long e-mail chains from his team, with terse messages in the latest mail asking him to read through the trail and respond to some point or the other. He had to go through reams of material and pick out the point that needed his attention.
And then there was the issue of copying people on e-mails. James’ mailbox was clogged with e-mails from one team member to another which had no relevance to him, but which he had been copied on. He found this quite annoying.
After listening to James, I wished that I had the power to ensure that basic telephone and e-mail etiquette is made a compulsory subject at the school and college level!
WHO’S THE BOSS?
Protocol was another issue which James found difficult to understand in India. For one, his team addressed him as Mr James, which he found odd. They called him by his first name, but prefixed Mr to it. “Why do Indians do that?” James asked. I explained that we use Mr as a term of respect, and we don’t give the same importance to the first and last names as the West. But I understood his irritation, and thought it was a Watch Out! point to share with readers.
Though there seemed to be a fixed pecking order, James found that people often jumped the line. When someone felt that a matter needed quick attention, they would simply contact a senior person, even in another country, by-passing direct superiors. He found this habit hard to tolerate.
“In India, decision-making is hierarchical, we are conditioned to think that if we go to the top, we’ll get the job done, and fast,” I told James.
Finally, the problem of time management: James found his colleagues an intelligent, hard-working lot. Perhaps too hard working! They worked long at the office, much beyond office hours. When he asked for reports of work done, he got it in minute detail — down to the last nano-second. While he expected brevity and quality, they gave him quantity, eager to please him or prove to him that they were working hard.
“Why don’t they realise I don’t want a minute-by-minute account, I just want to know how they’re progressing in their task? By giving me such reports, they’re wasting their own time and mine,” said James. “Put it down to our education system which focuses on writing copious pages rather than distilling knowledge in bullets,” I said, flagging it as another Watch Out! point.
James’ laundry list made me realise that although our people have come a long way on the road to doing business in a globally acceptable style, there are still many kinks we need to be aware of and iron out. So, new Indian managers, let’s get our act together.
PS: James was smart enough to realise he couldn’t change the work ethics much, because the problem started at the higher levels. He figured out that the best way of handling the situation was to get himself some training in Indian work culture!
The writer is Founder CEO of Global Adjustments, a relocation and cross-cultural services company, and can be contacted at email@example.com
This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated 6th of February 2012 – Online Text
Craig Storti, world famous Guru in the field of intercultural communications and cross-cultural adaptation and the author of several standard works, including Culture Matters, a cross-cultural workbook used by the U.S. Government in over 90 countries, appreciates Ranjini’s work with the following email:
Just finished Upworldly Mobile. An excellent blend of very practical advice and yet touching on much bigger themes. I imagine that not just Indian readers but many others will find it very helpful. I was especially pleased to see you using “We And They.” It’s one of my favorite cross-cultural literary references, and I too used it as the frontispiece years ago for my book: The Art of Crossing Cultures.
I had forgotten that you were going to reference yours truly in this book and was delighted to see what good use you made of some of my thoughts.
All the best