Perspectives on Engaging with India

India, like the U.S., China, and other similar countries that incorporate a large land mass, contains within it a very diverse population. Thus what applies in some situations my not apply in others and ‘generalizations’ are always risky. As in all international and multicultural interactions, observation and flexibility are key. So take the following observations for what they are – general observations that may provide some guidance or preliminary insight, but are certainly not hard and fast rules.

  1. There are significant language distinctions around the country. Both Hindi and English are official ‘national languages’ but states also can name local languages as official languages and there are currently 22 of these including Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Kannada, Telegu etc… English is spoken by those who have had an ‘international education’ but is not as widespread as one might think in daily interactions. Most shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc… will often just speak a local language. Hindi is quite prominent in the north, and Tamil in the south. It is worth asking what the predominant local language(s) are where you are visiting or working and whether translation may be helpful to accomplishing your goals.
  1. Expect a fair amount of bureaucracy and it can be unexpected. For example, I was asked to write a formal letter requesting a meeting months after we had been discussing it.
  1. ‘Jugaad’ – is a colloquial Hindu word that can mean an innovative fix or a simple work-around. It can be seen as a positive (agility and flexibility in dealing with challenging situations) or by some as a negative (there may not be a ‘routine’ or ‘standard’ way to do something). Some also compare it to the Western concept of ‘hacking’ – do what needs to be done, without regard to what is conventionally supposed to be possible. The concept has also begun to attract attention in management circles for example the book Jugaad Innovation.
  1. Always allow extra time, and expect anything to ‘run late’ or take longer than you anticipated. Even the Indians joke that there is clock time and there is Indian time.
  1. Getting to know people (especially over the age of 30) can be challenging. People often stay within their own circles of family and friends. Having someone introduce you (or ‘vouch’ for you) can be very helpful.
  1. Although distinctions (inequality) among groups of people exist in all countries, it can be very pronounced in India.
  1. There appears to be an incredible amount of energy among young people, such as an extensive network of social entrepreneurs. Finding partners like these can provide incredible resources. (Let’s Recycle)

Ravi Venkatesan, Former Chairman of Microsoft India and author of a recent book on doing business in India has some good advice: “You need [a] passion [for India], and you need to stay for five to seven years. If you stay for two or three years, you’re part of a revolving door, and you won’t get anywhere…You need [to be] willing to ask forgiveness, not permission, and the tenacity to deal with situations never dealt with before…You need to embrace chaos and uncertainty… Basically, there are two types of expats in India, those who dive into the chaos and those who put the biggest wall they can create between themselves and the environment. You want [to be] the first type.”  More here.



Bonnie Koenig /September 4, 2014