Indian business etiquette can be rather confusing to outsiders. The reasons for this are because it is such a vast and diverse country. Although the country is predominantly Hindu, it also has millions of Muslims, Christians and other religions. This means that the Hindu caste system has mixed with all kinds of other influences to create something quite alien to outsiders. I hope that this guide can help make doing business in India a bit easier for foreigners.
Due primarily to the caste system, the business world is extremely hierarchical. It is extremely important when conducting business in India that you respect the strict social hierarchy and framework in place. Certain tasks can only be carried out by certain people. This can result in manual labour such as moving a desk, taking a long time, as only a low caste person can carry this out, but you must respect this custom. The hierarchy and various other customs are respected even at the expense of lucrative deals sometimes.
Indians are extremely formal in their meeting and greeting. If you address someone by their first name it is viewed as a sign of disrespect. Always address someone by their last name, or by their academic title such as professor. This is especially true when meeting for the first time. If they ask you to call them by their first name after this, then by all means do. But, it is better to be safe than sorry. Indians themselves may use a handshake, where they bring their hands together and bow, but this would not be expected of a foreigner.
Business cards are treated formally as well. So when you receive, or give one you should be sure that you do it with your right hand. The Indians view the left hand as unclean. Be sure that you put the card away in a special holder as well, or else it will be seen as a sign of disrespect. It would also be a good idea to have one side of your business card translated into Hindi, just to show understanding and respect.
This does not actually mean wear a black suit all the time. India can be an extremely hot and humid place, so the locals dress for the weather. Formal wear for a man is a light jacket, a shirt and a pant. Women would wear a blazer over trousers. But full suits are rarely worn as the weather does not permit it.
Indians place a lot of importance in building relationships with people that they are doing business with. In fact, you may find it hard to do business with Indians unless they think you are trustworthy and honourable. You must demonstrate strong business skills and the correct personality traits.
When you are talking to Indians there are several things that you simply must not do. Cross your arms, or put your hands on your hips. These are viewed as signs of snobbery. It is also important not to touch anyone with your feet or point towards something, as these are seen as signs of disrespect.
Meetings and Negotiations
It is important to remember the hierarchical nature of Indian society and that decisions are usually made by the CEO. This can mean that negotiations are extremely slow as a CEO or owner is not always available for every meeting. As stated before they also will wish to build a rapport with you before a final decision is made. But it is important to always keep your cool and not try and use high pressure tactics which Indians will view as disrespectful and never get you anywhere. They will probably not say ‘no’ to you as Indians so not like using this term. Instead they will say ‘I will try’ or ‘we’ll see’. If you hear these, it is a good sign you are being told no. So remember to keep your cool.
It is also important to always address the most senior executive in a meeting before anyone else. You can then try to get to know one another using small talk, but it is not a good idea to talk about topics such as poverty or politics. Sports and business are usually the best options for small talk in order to build a rapport with senior executives.
While some of these customs can seem somewhat out-dated and perhaps even wrong to foreigners, they are important to Indians. Therefore, if you want to do business in India, or perhaps even work there, unless you follow some of these social conventions, you are unlikely to get far.