India & Its Culture Overview

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In October, a group of Indian journalists will be visiting the ECDC. This Communication Guide is prepared at the request of the International Relations Section to provide a guidance document for ECDC colleagues who will participate in this visit. Indian culture is well-known for being extremely diverse, a good illustration of this diversity is the rough estimate that there are around 1500 languages spoken in the country. Every state has their own dominant languages, preferred cuisine, traditions, festivals, music, and major religions. Due to this intricacy, Indian culture can be a challenge for many people from other backgrounds. When communicating with others, interpreting and accepting information is influenced by our own cultural experience. Thus when vastly different cultures come into contact the chance of misunderstandings and causing offense to the other party increases. It is cultural sensitivity i.e. knowledge and experience of other cultures that help to ease the friction that can be caused in communication. While it is not possible to offer a comprehensive guide to the richly diverse Indian culture in a few pages, here are a few tips for interacting with Indians. What should be kept in mind is the fact that people might belong to a certain culture but have varying traits and communication styles based on their own experiences, e.g. being educated abroad, belonging to a different generation, and socio-economic background.

Country Overview

History: As one of the world’s oldest civilisations, India has been a site of various invasions and rulers. The country experienced its Golden Age during the 4th-6th centuries which saw the flourishing of its science, art, and cultural areas. In the 19th century, India became a major territory of Great Britain, and many Indians fought in both World Wars as part of the British Indian army. In 1947 India gained independence, however, internal tensions brought about the dividing of the country into present-day India and Pakistan. Three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan, one of the results being East Pakistan becoming the country of Bangladesh. Today, territorial disputes still exist between Pakistan and India. While the country faces many problems in different sectors, overpopulation, poverty, environmental degradation, it is alongside China one of the fastest growing economies in the world, thanks to economic reforms that brought about the liberalisation of the economy at the end of the 20th century. Amidst ongoing reforms to ensure its status as a global political and economic power, there are many predictions that the 21st century could see the ushering in of another golden age for India.

General Etiquette ‘Indian Business Culture and Business Etiquette,’ Asialink Business, accessed 24 Sept. 2018. https://asialinkbusiness.com.au/india/conducting-business-in-india/indian-business-culture-and-business-etiquette.] Punctuality: Time is perceived less stringently in India in comparison to many western countries. Meetings may often start later, yet when this occurs is unpredictable so one should still be punctual. If attending a social event it is normal to arrive up to half an hour late. Personal Space: In public areas, the average personal space in India is less than in many western countries. People that are queueing in line are usually standing quite close together, leaving a lot of personal space might result in someone cutting in front of you. Physical Contact: In India, men and women will generally avoid physical contact with each other in public, and greet by placing the palms of their hands together, pointing upwards and saying Namaste. However, physical contact between male friends is commonplace. In the urban and international business world, handshaking is a popular greeting.

Appropriate Clothing: Indians dress modestly. Conservative clothing that covers your legs and shoulders is advised, and in some religious temples women are not allowed in wearing trousers and should wear a shawl over their head. However, in certain areas and situations, such as in the popular beach resort Goa and urban night-life, there are younger people that dress in a more revealing manner. In a business setting, conservative business dress, and for women, a pants-suit is appropriate. Formal Indian dress might include the traditional saree that is a draped flowing outfit, and the kurta/kurta which is a long loose-fitting shirt worn by men or women over different styles of trousers.

Addressing Someone: In India, there is a strong sense of respect for one’s elders, thus, when addressing someone older and if you are not sure if they have a professional title, use Mr/ Mrs and their family name. Alternatively, sir/ma’am is a common polite term of address.

Hospitality: ‘The guest is God’ is an Indian saying that neatly captures the treatment of their guests. Being hospitable is an important value for Indians. They will go out of their way and above their means to help a foreigner travelling in India – as they are often viewed as being a guest in India – inviting them for meals, to meet their families, or to take part in festivals.

Dining: When taking Indians out for a meal it is important to make sure there are vegetarian options available, as many Indians are vegetarian or have a mostly vegetarian diet, which in India means not eating meat and eggs. The most common types of meat that is eaten are chicken, goat, or mutton. Traditionally, the host would pay for the meal in a restaurant. In India, it is common for one to start eating before everyone has been served, and in many restaurants food might arrive at different times for the same table. In a home, the host will commonly serve food first to the guests of honour, or to male members of the family. Indians most-often eat with their hands, commonly scooping up food with different types of flat-bread.

Gestures: Eat and pass objects with your right hand: When eating with your hands, only eat with your right hand, as the left hand is usually reserved for bathroom activities. Additionally, as the left hand is viewed as unclean only pass items to someone with the right hand. However, if a gift or business card is being given use both hands to pass and receive the item. Pointing and beckoning with the index finger: It is considered rude to point or beckon someone with the index finger. More commonly, the flat open hand is used instead, or a closed fist with the thumb outstretched. Shoes: These should be taken off when visiting someone’s home or entering a temple. Sometimes shoes are also removed before entering a shop. A good indicator of whether one’s shoes should be removed before entering a building is if there are a collection of shoes in front of the entrance.

Pointing your feet: Never point your feet at someone as this can be perceived as disrespectful and insulting because the feet are perceived as the most unclean part of the body. Refrain from putting your feet on any furniture or stepping over anyone. It is viewed as a sign of respect or subservience to bow and touch someone’s feet and is typically a gesture shown towards one’s elders or in a higher position in the hierarchy. In contrast to the feet, the head is perceived as the most sacred part of the body, and should not be touched. This includes refraining from patting children on the head. Wobbling your head: This is a well-known Indian gesture that can be interpreted as yes or that the individual is listening and acknowledging what you are saying. It is important to bear in mind that this gesture could be performed out of politeness, and not necessarily agreement.

Choosing a Gift: In a professional setting, gifts are not usually given at the first meeting. However, if you have established good communication before the meeting it might start with exchanging gifts – it is not seen as necessary but is considered a positive action. In some social situations, such as visiting an Indian’s home for dinner or on certain festival days, it is common to give an inexpensive gift. Expensive gifts should be avoided as it should be possible for the receiver of the gift to reciprocate your gift. Suitable options include something local from your country, flowers, or a box of sweets. To be avoided are gifts made of leather and alcohol. In India many people do not drink alcohol, however amongst the younger urban generation drinking alcohol is becoming more common. Cow leather is an inappropriate gift as the majority of Indians are Hindu, one of whose beliefs include perceiving the cow as a sacred animal and prohibits any harm being done to them.

Wrapping a Gift: Bright colours are popular colours to wrap gifts in, such as green, blue, yellow and red. Try to avoid using dull colours as these are not favourably viewed. White is usually reserved for funerals. Presenting and Receiving a Gift: Present and receive a gift with both hands. Usually, gifts are opened at a later stage to avoid embarrassment if the gift is unsuitable. However, if you are given a gift and the giver insists on you opening it, it is important to show a significant amount of appreciation.

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Business Culture: In India, as in many Asian cultures, a lot of value is placed on relationships, respecting one’s elders and hierarchy. Even in a business setting, it is normal for someone to ask a lot of personal questions as this is understood as taking an interest in someone’s life which is perceived positively. Many people would be happy to receive the same questions back. Saving face is also an important concept, this means that any situation that embarrasses someone, such as blaming them directly or saying no to them, is to be avoided. Introductions: In a business setting it is standard to greet someone with a handshake, although men and women do not commonly shake hands, thus if in this situation take your cue from the other person and respond to their manner of greeting. Typically the oldest or the individual in the most senior position should be greeted first. Address those you meet in a formal manner, with their title and surname. It is common to exchange business cards upon meeting. Education is highly valued in India, thus higher degrees can be included on business cards to earn the holder more respect.

Setting Up and Hosting Meetings: India has a strong hierarchical system, thus some decisions are usually made by those higher up in the hierarchy. Ensure that you are meeting with an authoritative figure that has the power to make the required decisions. Personal small-talk, i.e. asking questions about the other parties’ background and family is a common way to start a meeting. It is not seen as polite to immediately start with business matters. Many professional relationships have a personal base, thus, professional dealings might take some extra time in order to build this personal connection that is so valued.

Polite Cultures: As in many polite relational cultures, Indians often have an implicit communication style that is highly context related and non-confrontational. They try to avoid a direct refusal of a proposal in order to avoid the other person losing face. Instead of a direct ‘no,’ there are other phrases that are used instead for an indirect deferral of an idea. For example, ‘I will try’ or ‘we will think about it’ could be understood as a polite way to say no. It might take some time to become aware of nonverbal and indirect verbal indications of disagreement.

Asking Different Types of Questions: In an indirect communication style, often it might help to ask different types of questions that do not require an outright yes or no. For example, instead of asking if a certain deadline can be met, one could ask when the task or agreement would be completed by, which allows for the other person to suggest a time period which they find feasible without them having to reject your suggested time period. General Recommendations Indians are generally open, however, there are certain sensitive political issues that one should try to avoid discussing in public, such as, territorial issues like Kashmir, Hindu – Muslim relations, the caste system, and poverty. Generally, neutral topics that can serve well for small talk includes many local aspects of the other party’s country. In India, cricket is a popular topic, and so are historical figures such as the freedom fighter Gandhi. Other options are traditions, festivals, food, music, dance, heritage landmarks, and natural phenomena, the weather, positive strategic developments of the country, and so forth.

Geert Hofstede’s National Culture Dimensions: Social psychologist, Geert Hofstede’s, theory discusses six main dimensions of national culture. Discussed below is India’s ranking according to these cultural dimensions. Again, it is important to remember that individual behavior can vary, and this information should be taken as a basic assessment of the country’s culture as a whole.

Power Distance

This dimension looks at power inequalities prevalent in Indian society and how these inequalities are perceived from the Indian societal perspective, especially the extent to which these differences are accepted by those with less power. In India’s case, it has a high score of 77 which illustrates a strong affinity for a strict hierarchical ‘top-down’ structured societal makeup. The Indian professional setting is formal and paternalistic in nature. Those in a more senior position hold a lot of power, and those below expect to continuously receive instructions from their superiors. This creates a centralized vertical power structure, with those at the top being mostly inaccessible to bottom-level employees. Those at the bottom often have fewer rights and seldom give negative feedback to those in senior positions.

Individualism

This dimension focuses on how interdependent a society is. India, in this case, scores in the middle with 48 as Indians have a tendency to have both collectivistic and individualistic characteristics. In some situations, the individual will act in favour of the greater good for the group that they belong to. Collectivistic actions are influenced by their social network’s opinions as each other’s approval is deemed important to all belonging to the network. In the professional setting, employment decisions will often be influenced by relationships. From their employees, the employer expects loyalty, while the employees expect to be given a certain sense of security or protection from the employer.

Hinduism is said to contribute to the individualistic side of Indian culture. Each person’s actions in this life are said to influence their reincarnation in the next life, awarding individual responsibility to all for the way they live.

Masculinity

Masculinity in this dimension describes the competitive drive to achieve success, certain people being emphasized as being the best in their field and which is often expressed in material gain. Contrastingly, a lower score indicates femininity which is perceived as a society that is motivated to act according to what one likes and what is perceived to be best for those around them, rather than wanting to be on top. On the one hand, India is considered to have a tendency towards masculinity with a score of 56 as displays of success in the country are very explicit. On the other hand, the multitude of gods that are part of one’s everyday life and the country’s ancient history have attached philosophies that emphasize the importance of abstinence and being humble.

Uncertainty Avoidance

This dimension analyses the way a society deals with ambiguity and the unknown and the extent to which it tries to control future outcomes. India’s low score of 40 reflects its flexibility to adjust to unexpected situations and easy acceptance of imperfections. People have a tendency to accept the role that they find themselves in without questioning the system. This patient easy-going nature leads to acceptance of a lot of rule-bending, but also an empowering and innovative optimism that anything is possible if you keep on adjusting.

Long-Term Orientation

This dimension deals with the manner in which a society is influenced by historical norms when it decides its present and future actions. Low-scoring societies do not change easily, choosing to rather maintain previous traditions. Contrastingly, high-scoring cultures pragmatically approach change as a way forward. India averages in the middle of these two tendencies with 51. Hindu philosophies perpetuate Indian approaches to life, such as the belief that there are many possible truths, and that because of karma time has a circular rather than linear quality. Thus, there is a pragmatic attitude towards punctuality and towards fixed plans, there is flexibility to change one’s plan based on unexpected events that fate has chosen to lay in one’s path.

Questions?This ECDC Intercultural Communication Guide had been prepared by Inge Mationschek, IRS trainee. Inge has a background in European politics, culture, and EU-India Relations. In case of any further questions about intercultural relations, please do not hesitate to contact Inge or the IRS.

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