Business in India is conducted mainly in English, but a nod to cultural etiquette is vital for building relationships.
It’s all very well heading to Heathrow with your visa for a business trip to India, but how do you make sure you don’t get off on the wrong foot the moment you leave Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport?
The good news is that while Hindi is the official language, the Indian business world conducts its affairs mainly in English, according to international translation agency Kwintessential.
But that first handshake could leave you vulnerable. “When doing business in India, meeting etiquette requires a handshake,” says its etiquette guide. “However, Indians themselves use the namaste. This is where the palms are brought together at chest level with a slight bow of the head. Using the namaste is a sign of your understanding of Indian etiquette.”
Men shake hands with men but not with women, says eDiplomat. “Western women may offer their hand to a westernised Indian man, but not normally to others. Traditional Indian women may shake hands with foreign women but not usually with men.”
Understanding the nuances of etiquette may not be so important when it comes to winning government contracts. According to UKTI: “India is a price-competitive market. Government contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder who meets the technical specifications. Consumers often prefer lower prices to quality or durability.”
But when it comes to winning work based on personal relationships, rather than simply price, you need to play by the – often unwritten – rules. “Indians only deal favourably with those they know and trust – even at the expense of lucrative deals,” adds Kwintessential.
Five tips for doing business in India:
- Be punctual
Greet the senior people first and expect to start with some small talk.
- Be patient
It can take a long time to complete negotiations, which will, at some point, involve the top team in a business as decision-making migrates upwards. It stands to reason that pressure tactics and hard sales techniques are not appreciated.
- Take tea
Bad news for those who like a strong black coffee at meetings, adds eDiplomat. “You may be offered a sugary, milky tea, coffee or a soft drink. Don’t refuse.” And don’t be fooled into thinking you can down the drink and get it over with. “Your glass or cup may be refilled as soon as it is emptied,” it adds.
- Don't be too direct
One benefit of being a Brit doing business in a Commonwealth country is that the indirect approach is preferred. As in the UK, “no” – which is considered impolite – is replaced with “I will try”, or “let me consider and come back to you”.
- Check the (local) calendar
With seven major religions and many minor ones, plus six main ethnic groups, India enjoys countless holidays which change depending on the year, says UKTI. Arriving in India expecting to arrange business meetings during one of these festivals will probably leave you coming home empty handed.