Thursday, February 23, 2012

An Expat experience

Watch out! An expat speaks out....Ranjini Manian The expat co-worker is often taken aback by the Indian twist to business communication
The other day I happened to meet a young American sent by a multinational on an assignment to India. Let's call him James.
James is the first Westerner to work in the Indian arm of the company. He manages a team of 10 Indians aged 25 to 40, and reports to the Managing Director of the India operations. James had heard good things about India and the MD. He had come expecting to find his new assignment interesting and challenging.
Well, he found it challenging all right, James told me ruefully. But not in the way he had hoped. Curious, I asked him what his concerns were, and got an exhaustive laundry list of problems, most of them 'small' in the sense of being not directly business-related, but 'big' for someone raised in a totally different work culture.
I divided James' concerns into various categories. Let's deal with them, one by one.
Talking the talk
James had been assured that Indians were well versed in English and communication would not be a problem. This was true for the most part. Yet, there were some hurdles which he found very difficult to cross - telephones, for instance. What about telephones? I asked. "Well", replied James, "when I call someone on his phone, he picks it up and says 'Tell me' instead of the 'Hello' that I'm expecting to hear. That throws me off track completely! When I finally get going, and ask him for information, he gives it to me, but keeps interrupting himself to say 'Hello' every now and then, or else repeats what he has said. I find that terribly distracting."
"While your team member is talking, what do you do?" I asked James. "I listen in polite silence of course," he replied, puzzled that I needed to ask.
"That's why he keeps saying 'hello' or repeating himself," I explained with a smile. "During conversations, telephonic or face-to-face, we Indians expect our listeners to acknowledge that they have heard and understood by making typical sounds such as 'hmmm', 'ah' and so on. When we don't hear those sounds, we wonder whether the other person is still there, or if she has grasped what we are saying."
"Oh, now I get it," said James. "And I also have this problem that people keep breaking into the local language when they're talking to me in English." "Yes, that can be quite distracting," I agreed. "But we Indians are at least bi-lingual if not tri-lingual, and we're used to interspersing our conversation in one language with words from another."
Following the trail
James found communication via e-mail quite a problem too. He kept getting long e-mail chains from his team, with terse messages in the latest mail asking him to read through the trail and respond to some point or the other. He had to go through reams of material and pick out the point that needed his attention.
And then there was the issue of copying people on e-mails. James' mailbox was clogged with e-mails from one team member to another which had no relevance to him, but which he had been copied on. He found this quite annoying.
After listening to James, I wished that I had the power to ensure that basic telephone and e-mail etiquette is made a compulsory subject at the school and college level!
Who's the boss?
Protocol was another issue which James found difficult to understand in India. For one, his team addressed him as Mr James, which he found odd. They called him by his first name, but prefixed Mr to it. "Why do Indians do that?" James asked. I explained that we use Mr as a term of respect, and we don't give the same importance to the first and last names as the West. But I understood his irritation, and thought it was a Watch Out! point to share with readers.
Though there seemed to be a fixed pecking order, James found that people often jumped the line. When someone felt that a matter needed quick attention, they would simply contact a senior person, even in another country, by-passing direct superiors. He found this habit hard to tolerate.
"In India, decision-making is hierarchical, we are conditioned to think that if we go to the top, we'll get the job done, and fast," I told James.
Clock work
Finally, the problem of time management: James found his colleagues an intelligent, hard-working lot. Perhaps too hard working! They worked long at the office, much beyond office hours. When he asked for reports of work done, he got it in minute detail - down to the last nano-second. While he expected brevity and quality, they gave him quantity, eager to please him or prove to him that they were working hard.
"Why don't they realise I don't want a minute-by-minute account, I just want to know how they're progressing in their task? By giving me such reports, they're wasting their own time and mine," said James. "Put it down to our education system which focuses on writing copious pages rather than distilling knowledge in bullets," I said, flagging it as another Watch Out! point.
James' laundry list made me realise that although our people have come a long way on the road to doing business in a globally acceptable style, there are still many kinks we need to be aware of and iron out. So, new Indian managers, let's get our act together.
PS: James was smart enough to realise he couldn't change the work ethics much, because the problem started at the higher levels. He figured out that the best way of handling the situation was to get himself some training in Indian work culture!
The writer is Founder CEO of Global Adjustments, a relocation and cross-cultural services company, and can be contacted at

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