Tag Archives: cross culture

10 Tips for doing business in India

At Party - Copy   I am about to travel to India later this month, and it occurred to me to share some tips on doing business in and with that country.

1. Business is conducted at a slow pace. Be prepared for a good deal of discussion, followed by a long wait for final decision
2. A handshake signals an agreement; but business contracts will be scrutinized and this can take weeks or months.
3. A direct ‘No’ is never possible; Indians will say many things that sound like ‘Yes’ but aren’t!
4. Phrase questions carefully, i.e. “Where does this road lead?” not “Does this road go to Mombai?” Indian responses can be ambiguous or they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear so as not to upset you.
5. Always budget for “commissions”; you will be expected to pay for any introductions or favours. These payments are the oil that greases the wheel.
6. Indians are often seen as the best negotiators; they’ll drive a hard bargain, and then drive it some more! Negotiating teams are led by management and supported by technical experts. High-level management make the decisions but they may not be represented on the team. Try to make contacts at the highest levels and provide incentives for middle managers and assistants to help make your case.
7. Relationships are important, along with good contacts for business. Building trust is vital.
8. A win/win approach is aimed at, though compromise is acceptable, but trust makes everyone flexible.
9. Don’t expect people to use their initiative and make things happen; strong fatalism and predestiny play a large part in people’s thinking
10. Don’t give criticism as Indians easily take offence; be sensitive to, and respectful of, the concept of Face. Harmony is extremely important.

Above all, remember that Indians are proud. They have their own way of doing things, and that may not be the same as yours. Stand alongside them rather than head to head and you’ll go much further.

I shall be posting more tips of this ind on http://www.phillipkhan-panni.com

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Is there a sub-text?

Chinese words

Chinese words

Elsewhere, someone has written a blog on the following quote from George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I am in the middle of such an example myself.

I wrote in a Facebook forum asking for help with a problem a friend was having. One person replied asking me to call him on his mobile number. But another person wrote saying it was not the only option. Just that. He did not specify what the alternative might be.

Concerned not to offend the first person, I wrote privately to the second person, asking what other options there might be. He chided me for writing privately about a matter I had already put out in the open. That set me back on my heels, so I paused to reflect on the crossed wires.

Why were we at odds over this? Perhaps it was a cultural difference. Perhaps it was my Oriental background that prompted me to consider the possibility of giving offence by going after some alternative, having just had one offer of help.  I also considered the possibility of person no.2 wanting to dismiss the offer of person no.1.

Let me clarify that I would have had no problem in accepting a specific alternative offer. The problem, in my mind, was in seeking, publicly, an alternative to the first offer — appearing to look over the shoulder of the first person for something better, by asking, openly, for some other option.

It may seem a tiny distinction, and person no.2 went on to write that ”Sometimes it’s worth considering that what is said can be a simple statement of all that is to be said, without subtext.” So my attempt at sparing the feelings of one helper has got me into trouble with a second one.

In the areas of diplomacy and negotiations, isn’t the subtext often the more important communication? Shouldn’t you consider that your “simple statement of all that is to be said” may unwittingly carry some more important subtext?

It happens all the time in cross-cultural communication.

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When West meets East

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the Twain shall meet”

Of course the twain do meet in today’s small world – but research since the 1980s has illuminated huge differences between western thinking on the one hand and the way people think in the Far East and Middle East.

The burgeoning economies of the Arab world have attracted increasing numbers of westerners to holiday and even work in places that were once obscure names on the neglected pages of the world atlas. The area around central London’s Marble Arch has acquired an Arab look, with many a shop sign in the curly right-to-left Arabic script, and late night café customers sit at pavement tables with their hubble bubble hookahs.  Such a change is not universally popular.

In the late ’60s, the poet-writer, Dom Moraes, revisited India, the land of his birth, and found that he was a stranger.  Speaking no word of any Indian language, he was in the hands of his manservant, and had to learn how to manage the master-servant relationship.  For example he could not bypass his man and deal directly with lower caste subcontractors, such as the sweeper: the hierarchy had to be maintained.  He learned, but did not understand, that his man would fiercely protect him from exploitation by vendors, but considered it his right to swindle his master on the daily food shopping.  He noticed that servants would not make eye contact with their masters, nor do any of the things that build a personal relationship.  In short, he became acutely aware that East is East and very different from the West.

Of course, the East has long been part of the British scene, with curry now the most popular dish in restaurants and take-outs.  Yet, amazingly for a nation that only recently relinquished a vast empire, and which has adopted a sizeable number of Indian words into the language, Britain remains largely ignorant of Eastern ways.  In London, the Sikhs in Southall, the Bengalis in Brick Lane and the Hindus in Harrow have clustered together like the Arabs of Marble Arch, in a sort of reverse colonisation, forming communities that are distinct from the host community.

Unfortunately, host communities often feel threatened by visible gatherings of foreigners whose customs, dress and language are different from their own.  They feel anxious about losing their jobs, their homes and even their womenfolk to the invaders.  Attitudes and values can be very different.

In southern Europe and many eastern countries, deadlines are considered to be loose indicators, not commitments.  When a friend of mine first went to live in Spain, she believed (in common with many other English people) that the word manana meant “Tomorrow”.  In time she realised that, for the Spanish, manana simply means “not today”.

An equally frustrating word, regularly used in the Middle East, is “N’sha’llah”  or “Inshallah”.  It translates as ‘God willing’ but actually means, “I take no responsibility for what might happen in the future”.  Both the Spanish and the Arabs (and the nations in between) have a relaxed attitude to time keeping and deadlines, and things get done when they get around to them.  It’s not that way in Britain.

Certain practices give offence simply because they are insensitive, and some nations are more likely to take offence than others.  However, two thoughts should guide us:

  1. We all react when someone does commonplace things differently from us, whether it be a handshake or the way they eat a steak.  We therefore need to be aware of the reflex of prejudice that is within us.
  2. We need to be sensitive towards others, and aware of our own conduct, in case it gives offence to them.

Above all, we should never cause someone to lose Face.  Not only is it discourteous, it can make an enemy for life.  Face is a concept that dominates social and business contact throughout the Far East.  Losing face is to lose dignity, and for the Chinese that is like losing their eyes, nose and mouth.  The embarrassment is actually felt in the face.  Social relations should be conducted in such a way that everybody’s face is maintained.  Paying respect to someone is called “giving face”.  Think of the English expression, “I couldn’t show my face in there” – it refers to the way we experience humiliation, and goes a long way towards helping westerners to understand the concept of face saving.

There’s more, of course, but that’s a good place to start.

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Other cultures are different. Fact.

If you are doing business with people from other cultures, you need to understand (and accept) that they are different, they behave differently, their values and norms are not the same as yours. And that’s a fact.

Some years ago, a central African country obtained a large cash injection from the EU for a project that was never implemented. A couple of years later they applied to the EU again for aid for a different project.

On that occasion, the rotating Presidency of the EU rested with a certain northern European country, who asked the Africans, “Where is the money we gave you for the last project?” No answer.

The Africans repeated their appeal for aid, but made no reference to the previous grant. In frustration, the EU President said, “We are happy to give you the aid for the new project, but if you didn’t use the last grant, show us the money and we will top it up for the new project.” No answer.

The Europeans then closed down their diplomatic mission and pulled out of the African country. They saw things in black and white and could not understand why the Africans were unable to show them the money or explain where it was.

I was reminded of that incident when I sent a sum of money to India in support of a good cause. Even allowing for variable conversion rates, the sum that arrived was 15-20% lower than I expected. I asked for a paper trail, but nothing happened, but I gather that the money had travelled through two or three banks.

Pandit Nehru once said that cash transactions in India (as in government spending) were like passing a block of ice from hand to hand: it would inevitably be smaller on arrival than when it started out.

It is, of course, easy to condemn. However, I as explained in my book, “Communicating Across Cultures”, different nations have different values and different ways of doing things. In the book I defined culture as “the way we do things around here”. And, of course, each nation has its own way of doing things, which will often be very different from your own.

Accepting that is the way to cross-cultural understanding. It’s the starting point.

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Tripping up on Trip Advisor

It’s a tricky business trying to record all the places I have visited. Trip Advisor gave me the opportunity to place pins on a map of the world for all the cities and towns I have visited in the course of a long life acquiring a cross-cultural understanding. It was quite bewildering.

The options were presented in batches of nine destinations, without any geographical connections. It would have been easier to have all Spanish towns together, then those in Italy, in India, in Australia, and so on. But for reasons of their own, Trip Advisor mixed them up randomly. Las Vegas was partnered with Tokyo and Venice, Berlin and Chicago with Hammamet. Where’s that? Glad you asked. I didn’t know either, but it’s in Tunisia.

Racing through the selections, I found myself making deals with myself. What counts as a place visited? I once spent a few hours in Nairobi airport. Another time the ship I was on docked at Madras (Chennai these days) for the best part of a day. Should they count?

Then there were places that seemed so familiar, like Florence. Had I actually been there, when I was visiting Rome, Milan, Pisa and Livorno, or was it just that I have read so much about the place? And what about places with similar names, like Whitley Bay and Whitstable, Hove and Hayes? Both or just the one? In the interests of total honesty, where should I draw the line?

I live in Bromley in Kent, so it hardly seems fair to count Dartford, which is just up the road. But how is that different from Oxford? And then there are all those Calellas and Playas in Spain, and the multitude of tiny seaside hamlets along the coasts of Majorca and southern Portugal, where one might have stopped for a meal while on holiday. Should they count?

Where was it in Wales that I went, was it Llangollen or Llandudno? And why did Clonakilty in Ireland seem familiar? I remember being in Mullingar, but it wasn’t on the list. Nor were Brussels, Barcelona, Calcutta, Delhi, Dubai, Laval, Toronto, Geneva, Dubrovnic, Hong Kong, Brisbane and Sydney, which I had to add manually to my score.

I lost track of the places I had already scanned, and wondered if they would reappear in different combinations, like the multiple choices in personality tests, to catch me out. Or to establish a cross cultural pattern.

In the end I totalled 165 towns, but knew there were others I had forgotten, places in England and others from my early years in India, that scarcely merited inclusion on a map of international travel destinations. Oh Lord, I’ve just remembered some more in America and Europe … excuse me while I consider their merits against those already pinned on my map.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.

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Two nations, common language?

Americans have an interesting way with the English language, and their use of understatement is sometimes misunderstood.

On LinkedIn, someone asked a group if anyone had experience of training virtually. One person replied: yes, I have both coached people virtually as well as conducted webinars. Is there something in particular I can share with you?

I have been careful to reproduce the words exactly, to avoid misrepresentation.

The reply to that was: “Thanks for the offer. I have a lot of experience (myself) …”

Clearly he thought she was offering to share the training with him, muscling in on his client, so to speak. I thought so too, when first I read it. On reading it again, however, I realised that her offer to “share with you” related to the information or knowledge that she had about this training medium.

Far from wanting a share of his assignment (taking) she was offering to share her knowledge (giving).

It’s a strange expression, this “share with you”. It’s an American euphemism that can so easily be misunderstood.

On the whole I think it’s better to speak/write plainly.

However, certain words have very different meanings on both sides of the pond. “Quite” is one such example. In Britain, “quite” is a modifier, usually signifying less than total commitment, as in “I quite like it.” In the US, that same expression means “I like it a lot.”

Where did the confusion arise? Actually, right here in Britain. Consider this: “It was quite amazing!” In this case, “quite” means “very”.

Yes, two nations divided by a common language. But one of those nations is already divided internally

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Cross culture is on your doorstep

Talk about cross culture or cultural diversity and people think it’s ‘over there’. In reality, it’s very much ‘over here’. What’s more, it’s one of today’s hot topics in business – one that concerns you if you are a senior manager or business owner.

Let me start by defining ‘culture’. In simple terms it means, ‘the way we do things here’. That could apply to the norms in a region, in a country, even in a company. Just think about the way different banks do business. They are all in the same line of business, yet each bank has its own style, values, and practices, and each delivers a very different experience to customers.

Two examples of banking practices: one in Bogotá, Colombia, the other in South London. The first concerned Tom Bennett, a senior accountant with a major New York accounting firm, who travelled to Bogotá on business. He popped into a branch of the country’s largest bank to cash a cheque.

When he eventually got past the gaggle of people in front of a teller, he handed in his cheque and waited for his money. As you do. While he was there, several people elbowed their way to the same window and handed in their cheques, treating Tom as though he was in the way.

What he didn’t know was that the custom was to hand in your cheque and step back to allow others to do the same. You would be called when your money was ready. If Tom had known that he would have avoided the unpleasantness he encountered.

The second incident occurred in a South London branch of a leading bank, a few years ago. I was standing in a queue when an Oriental trader, perhaps from a restaurant, came in and went up to the Enquiries window. He asked to see the Manager and was asked to take a seat in the open plan area. Eventually a young man, obviously not the Bank Manager, came out and sat with the trader, within sight and earshot of all the other customers in the bank.

The Oriental gentleman was very uncomfortable and mumbled a question that was probably not the one he had wanted to raise, and left very quickly. He had not been offered any privacy for his conversation and I reckon he felt both embarrassed and humiliated by the expectation that he would discuss his business requirements in public.

Both incidents arose out of cultural misunderstandings.

In your business, you may have customers and staff with cultural expectations that differ from your own. That puts ‘cross culture’ firmly on your doorstep. If you’d like help with managing those differences, email me at admin@pkpcommunicators.com.


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