May 28, 2008 / 5:35 AM / 10 years ago

Doing business in India? Go to school first

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - When foreigners complain to her that Indians are liars, Ranjini Manian often tells them what’s actually upsetting them is a simple clash of cultures.

The accusation is common among expatriates stumped by the Indian way of doing business and one that Manian tries to counter with the help of Global Adjustments, one of a few firms offering cross-cultural services in the world’s third biggest economy.

“Foreigners can’t understand why Indians don’t say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ clearly,” Manian, the firm’s CEO, told Reuters.

“We tell them Indians have a hard time using the word ‘no’. There is this tendency to want to save face, (but) a polite ‘I’ll try my best’ is not good enough.”

Manian, 47, founded Global Adjustments in 1995, soon after helping the wife of a U.S. diplomat adjust to life with a baby in India. Now her Chennai-based firm mostly caters to clients from multinational firms such as Nokia.

Multinational corporations are rushing in to take advantage of India’s startling economic growth, bringing in armies of expatriates and their families.

For newcomers, the contrasts of India can be unnerving.

“They are likely to find a BMW next to a bullock cart,” says Manian. “And they have been given a scary picture of all the diseases in India.”

Security in the country, with its billion-plus inhabitants, is also a cause for concern for many foreigners. And having heard that Indians tend to be conservative, some women cover themselves “head-to-toe” in the summer heat.

“They end up having heatstroke and getting sick in the first week,” says Manian. And men sometimes come across as insensitive when shaking hands with gusto with Indian women, she added.


At Global Adjustments, expatriates are introduced to India’s diversity and traditions, taught to avoid faux pas and adapt to workplace situations through simulations and role-play.

Manian advises her clients to watch out for warning signs that could jeopardise their business -- if their Indian counterpart avoids the topic or asks another question, chances are he won’t be able to meet a deadline.

Deals can also fall through if foreigners do not take time to build a “relationship of trust”, something that Indians tend to take for granted, she said.

Manian recalls how a joint venture between an American and an Indian industrialist was scrapped because the foreigner was too eager to finalise the deal and this was taken as an insult.

Visits to Indian homes and places of worship are also part of the course, which costs more than 40,000 rupees ($,1000), depending on its duration and number of participants.

Food tends to be a stumbling block for many clients.

“They see anything red and think it’s super spicy,” says Manian, describing the predicament of some American clients from Texas, who had arrived in India without ever having sampled the country’s cuisine.

The course also teaches clients to eat with their hands -- although not everyone relishes the task. “They have a hard time dealing with touching their food,” she said.

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