Having to adapt to a new style of working while not treading on anyone’s toes can be a challenging experience, especially when navigating a new culture. If you’re new to working with Indian colleagues, there are a few ways in which you can anticipate what to expect and adapt your working style accordingly. This can help get things done effectively and without coming across as being culturally insensitive. With time, you’ll realize that working with Indians is a joy, as they’re not only hardworking but also competitive and problem-solvers.
Part of integrating into a new work environment involves understanding your colleagues' unique cultural nuances and habits. When working with your Indian colleagues, being aware of these habits will help you effectively.
You will soon realize that your Indian colleagues are likely to say “yes” easily for starters. The desire to please makes it difficult for us to refuse or reject something. As a result, you’ll likely hear “yes” a lot more frequently than “no.”
Another unique habit of Indians is how they address a senior colleague, “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Most non-Indians would likely prefer the use of first names, even when speaking to superiors. But in India, hierarchy, and respect for seniors, both at home and in office, takes precedence. So despite repeatedly telling your Indian colleagues not to call you “Sir” or “Ma’am, don’t expect them to address you by name right away.
Over time, you may realize that the phrase “It'll be done by tomorrow" pops up quite often. For instance, if you were to ask about the progress on a project, you will usually hear that it will be completed by the next day. But in actuality, you might only see something by the following week.
You will also find that Indians do not believe in being discreet, especially those at a junior level. Salaries and individual ratings are often discussed and freely shared. You may find that in a team of 12 junior colleagues, everybody is well aware of each individual's salary and ratings.
When it comes to meetings, it's common to talk in circles without making a decision. It typically starts with, "In my opinion…" and meanders from there. In a cross-company or cross-country meeting, you will find many Japanese, Chinese and Korean colleagues who remain silent and wait for their turn. But Indians can cut other speakers off without waiting for their turn to speak.
While Indian food has its uniqueness, many Indians follow unique diet patterns. Don’t get surprised if your Indian colleagues say, "I am a vegetarian on Tuesdays and Thursdays." That is something very unique to Indian culture. If you are taking somebody out for lunch or dinner, make it a point to find out their diet for that specific day. Depending on specific days of the week or specific festival periods, Indians may turn vegetarian.
Governments also work differently in India, and this is not easily understandable to non-Indians. Let's say in Singapore, a government official takes seven days to give you an appointment. The same could take anywhere between 24 hours to six months in India, depending on various factors. As a result, Indians would give you timelines that may sound absurd to someone from a developed country.
The word 'jugaad' means finding a shortcut or more manageable way, is applied very frequently in India. Most Indians are very proud of jugaad, and it is practiced most frequently among junior-level staff as it makes them very efficient in executing their work. However, it also means they might resort to practices that are not allowed or appreciated by the parent organisation. But as time goes by, most understand that taking shortcuts is not sustainable, and instead, process-orientation should be prioritised.
It is quite common for those who have not worked in India or with Indians to feel that India has a uniform national and work culture. However, this is quite far from the truth. Be it the East, North, or South; every region has a very different work culture.
Many also assume that anybody who is from India is good with numbers. While it is true that India has much higher numeracy than literacy rate, not everybody is good with numbers, so do not be too quick to jump to conclusions. English language proficiency is also commonly misconstrued. Non-Indians may think that every Indian is good with English, be it spoken, written, or both, but that is not consistently true. For instance, while I started writing English at six, I only started speaking the language at 16. So the standard of my written and spoken English are very different.
Lastly, while most people worldwide are seen to work hard for their company, you will find that individuals work for their managers in India. So this means that if something goes wrong, Indians would rather quit than point fingers at their manager. Hence, you will see very few cases of Indian whistleblowers.
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Dr. Somnath Datta