The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
- George Bernard Shaw -
in a previous article about the importance of cultural compatibility in outsourcing it’s been highlighted that the top locations for outsourcing deals are either Asian (Confucian Asia/Southern Asia) or Latin American countries, while the majority of opportunities originate in the United States: this week our focus is on the on the main cultural differences between India and America and on the favourite management styles in each cluster, for culture clashes are some of the most common challenges companies face in outsourcing/off-shoring scenarios.
Different types of business priorities (Doing/Task oriented vs Being/Relationship oriented cultures):
While for members of Western cultures the development of personal relationships with their stakeholders is often a consequence of successful business dealings conducted together, for members of Eastern societies personal relationships are the foundation upon which long-lasting and mutually rewarding business relationships are built (see also article on business connections in China for further clarifications on this point. Note that while China and India are different environments, as being cultures they also share some common traits):
- Anglo-American societies are DOING cultures: goal-oriented, they prioritize activities and outcomes over relationships, people tend to keep busy. Completing a task is a way to show one's professionalism and to prove commitment to the team. Their members value productivity, efficiency, high-performance and competitiveness. People strive to achieve goals, for social status is associated with from personal accomplishments. Rewards tend to be based on merit.
- Southern Asian societies are BEING cultures: relationship-oriented, the need to maintain the collective well-being and to respect tradition is prioritized over tasks and outcomes. Trust and affiliation are important. Their members tend to value cooperation, social harmony and group consensus. The development of supportive social relationships is considered a priority.
Language and communication:
Even though India has one of the largest English-speaking populations in the world (88% of respondents living in urban areas are English speakers, according to a 2019 survey shared by Statista; further data on Language and Mother Tongue in India are available here), speaking a common language does not necessarily guarantee mutual understanding between parties who do not share the same cultural references and/or the same behavioural codes.
- In Anglo-American societies the communication is low-context: mostly verbal, direct, and easily understandable by both insiders and outsider. Written communication is common and relied on, contracts tend to be long and detailed, further interpretation and analysis of a message is not required. Emphasis is placed on rules and procedures, decisions are made after evaluation of facts and data. In low-context cultures relationships are of a transactional and somewhat utilitarian nature: as long as both parties find convenience in a certain agreement, the deal is on.
- In India the communication is high-context: mostly indirect and implicit, it requires a certain familiarity with the context to be fully understood by outsiders. Reliance on written communication is (relatively) low, people prefer to do business with someone they know, respect, and trust. Relationships are built over time.
Note: while for Western standards explicit communication is not rude, Indian stakeholders might struggle to openly say “No” for fear to offend their counterparts. Since attempts to push for direct answers are likely to be counter-productive, it is advisable to rephrase the question instead (e.g., “When would it be a good time to call you?” instead of “Would you be available for a phone call next week to discuss the proposal?”)
In India, business transactions must not be rushed: not only India is high-context, but it’s also an ancient, polychronic society that doesn’t react to time the same way most Western countries generally do.
While monochronic time is almost a tangible, fixed concept that can be “killed” and “wasted”, polychronic time is a fluid, flexible one that adapts to people’s needs and to ever-changing circumstances. Polychronic societies emphasize the importance of relationships (eg, being slightly late for an meeting is more acceptable than disrupting an ongoing conversation), that tend to be built gradually, to require extensive amount of interaction, and to last long.
Monochronic time, on the other hand, is based on task compartmentalization and getting things done/moving forward is considered a priority. When people in monochronic societies don’t have time for someone, "time becomes a room which some people are allowed to enter, while others are excluded" (E.T. Hall).
For monochrons, time that cannot be measured (intended as time that has not been used to achieve certain tasks within a given time-frame) is unproductive and a root cause for inefficiencies, hence the requirement for careful scheduling and advanced planning.
The importance of corporate hierarchy:
The Indian society is hierarchical and status-conscious: power is centralized, decisions are made at the highest level of the organization (middle-management does rarely have decision-making autonomy), the communication (vertical/downwards) between different levels is limited and not necessarily “open” (e.g., negative feedback is never offered to a superior). Subordinates are not empowered and expect to be given directions, the notion of “face saving” - common across Asian societies - can affect relationships and business dealings.
The American society, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of autonomy and personal accountability. Authority and power are usually decentralized, it is common for junior (in terms of either age or rank) employees to question and challenge their superiors, to openly discuss challenges, to share their opinions and experiences.
It can be concluded that the most common misunderstandings between these two cultural groups revolve around priorities, communication, expectations, delivery methods.
The Indian business environment is complex and characterised by a strong cultural identity, a long history, extraordinary ethnic diversity:
Western organizations looking to succeed in India must consider that, even though the Indian workforce is young, multi-lingual and multi-cultural, business interactions are influenced by ancient traditions and strong communal values that emphasize the importance of personal relationships over the pragmatic “get down to business” approach that’s most common in Anglo-American societies.
- Chhokar, J.S. (1998). "Leadership and Culture in India: The GLOBE Research Project 1."
- Gudykunst, W. B., & Kim, Y. Y. (1984). "Communicating with strangers: An approach to intercultural communication". New York: Random House
- Hall, E. T. (1959). “The Silent Language”. New York: Doubleday
- Hall, E.T. (1966). "The Hidden Dimension", New York, NY: Doubleday
- Hall, E. T. (1976). "Beyond culture". New York, NY: Doubleday
- Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind". New York: McGraw-Hill
- House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (2004). "Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies". CA: Thousand Oaks
- Kluckhohn, F. and Strodtbeck, F. (1961). "Variations in value orientation". New York: Harper Collins
- The Globe Project, Online: https://globeproject.com/
- Vivekananda, Swami (2006). "The Indispensable Vivekananda: An Anthology for Our Times". New Delhi: Permanent Black
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