Cultural challenges for expats in India

As one of the most diverse nations in the world, India can offer unique challenges for those seeking to work there. An awareness of the cultures of India can increase the chance of success for expats.

Understanding Indian Culture
India is characterised by more ethnic and religious groups than most other countries. Aside from the roughly 2000 castes, there are eight ‘major’ religions and 22 official languages. It is the second most populous country and the largest democracy in the world, with more than 1.2 billion people, 29 states and seven union territories.

Diversity of culture in India

With its unmatched diversity and a contrasting character that can both be enthralling and mystifying, expats may encounter some culture surprises. India is a vibrant multi-cultured country, which is demonstrated by its myriad historical monuments, delicious cuisines, Bollywood movies, yoga and passion for cricket.If expats are patient and give themselves some time to adapt, it’s likely they will look at the country in an entirely different light as time passes.India presents immense opportunities to open up socially. Indians are warm, hospitable people. Hospitality is encouraged from an early age and expats are often surprised to see the extent to which Indians are helpful and always ready to socialise.Traditionally Indians have been considered as family oriented, religious, impatient, corrupt, group-dependent, time-insensitive, hierarchal and status conscious. These perceptions are being challenged as Indians move from age-old joint family systems to nuclear families and assume leadership roles in global businesses.

The nature of languages in India

When interacting with locals, it is important to recognise the country’s extreme diversity in terms of society, religion and language.While the official language is Hindi, the Constitution recognises 22 other languages. English is widely spoken and it is also the main business language in India.India has an amalgamation of local languages, with most Indians fluent in more than just their mother tongue. If you come across a group conversing in the local lingo, don’t take it as an affront – they aren’t talking secretively about you. It’s just their way of connecting with people.Indian languages, unlike English, differentiate between peers and those who are older and command respect.

Potential pitfalls for expats

Do not refuse gestures of hospitality, including invitations to meals or visit to local temples or any other important cultural sites/activities. These are opportunities to build relationships and should be regarded as important as transactional business tasks.Indians express their pleasure in a different manner: with a smile or a nod of the head.Some in India can suffer from the ‘yes’ syndrome so be wary of the commitments you receive. As a hierarchical society, Indians seek to please their superiors and this extends to the workplace. Outsiders might feel that Indians over-commit and under-deliver. At the workplace you might often find them desiring power but avoiding accountability.
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Typically Indians are entrepreneurial and always on the lookout for better opportunities. The younger generation tend to be well-informed, tech-savvy and avid fans of western music. They are also accomplished in academic excellence and personal success, making them a sought-after workforce.As a polychronic culture, people tend to change priorities depending on their importance; attitude towards punctuality is relaxed. Most large global organisations require adherence to strict deadlines and fast decision-making, some struggle to cope with the idea that when doing business in India, time cannot be controlled and is not absolute.

Indian business culture

The Indian business culture focuses on relationships and trust building rather than working hard and quick, towards specific business objectives.To do business with Indian managers, it is advisable to get to know them and develop a personal relationship with them.Organisations doing business in India should recognise that the ‘new’ India’s business revolution has changed the country, opening up global business practices that were impossible to imagine a generation ago. However, ‘new’ India’s modern business sectors are developing at a faster pace compared to the rest of India, where business practices and traditions have not kept pace.While many Indians are beginning to adapt to modern/westernised values. Beneath the surface, traditional cultural values may still prevail.The Indians depend more on groups or institutions to determine what they should do and emphasis loyalty to the group/society. They are more likely to cooperate with others to avoid risks and reduce responsibilities. Their value systems appreciate duty to the group and harmony among its members while pursuing personal goals might be viewed rather negatively in India.Since Indians come from a strong collectivism and medium feminine society in which harmony and personal relationship are emphasised, they will try to use indirect ways to avoid direct and open conflict. When they face conflict, they prefer to use authority to suppress it, or settle things in private. They prefer to resolve conflict through negotiation and compromise.In a nutshell, the country welcomes all with warmth. It just takes some effort and understanding to become comfortable with the attitude and approach of the locals. After all, diversity is one of India’s most attractive qualities.Information provided by IKAN Relocation Services.For related news and features, visit our India section.Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centreAccess hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online Directory