Living and working in India can be a strange mix of personal and professional, informal and formal, fascinating and frustrating.
As a Westerner, one of the biggest struggles I had was figuring out how to navigate personal and professional life while remaining in the appropriate frame of mind for the moment or context I was in. What are the unspoken rules of professional life in India? Where are the invisible lines of work vs play, colleague vs friend, or manager vs peer?
Here are three tips which I’ve learned through my own mistakes in my personal and professional life:
1) Know your place in the Hierarchy
Have you been hired as a contractor for 6 months to do training? Are you an employee of a large company sent for a long term project? Are you a manager of people? No matter what your place, it is essential to find out who is “above” and “below” you as far as the corporate hierarchy is concerned. If you’re a Westerner like me, you probably cringe that I’ve just written “above” and “below” in this way. Western companies are great at pretending that we are all equal and that people should feel open to knock on the CEO’s door at any time. In Indian companies, this hierarchy is simply acknowledged and consistently reinforced according to who has more power. This hierarchy is not written anywhere on paper, and others are unlikely to give you an organizational chart. This is discovered through observing others, asking indirect questions from other staff, and finding out who you are able to go to and ask direct questions to when you are confused.
One of the most important ways you can immediately implement this is by learning who to address as “Sir” and “Maam.” These are basic manners in the office place, and you may be surprised to know that even someone just a year older than you, or someone in a slightly different position than you could be cause to call them “Sir.”
Also learning to interpret age is important (don’t be fooled by a thick mustache on a 23 year old). Even though the person who picks up the garbage or the person who brings chai might be 60 years old, it is not appropriate to call them “sir” or “maam” in an office context, but it could be nice to express gratitude and respect for them as a person by adding “ji” to the end of their name. This is another example of acknowledging hierarchy in an appropriate manner. There are endless rules of hierarchy and where people’ s place social status puts them in how they relate to you, and how you relate to them.
You have even more responsibility if you are a boss or manager to respect the hierarchy. You must realize the power that your words have. People may just bend over backwards even at your slightest suggestion. You are not seen as an “equal” but as a superior. Even though you may relinquish this power and attempt to implement a flat structure, your employees have it hard wired in them to put you in your proper place in the hierarchy.
2) Don’t take cues from other foreigners
I made this mistake of taking cues from a male boss who was about 10 years older than me, a clear authority figure in the office. I was in a role where I was just an employee of the company, around average age of the other employees and an unmarried female. How I addressed other employees and colleagues needed to be different than my boss. I made the mistake of picking the wrong role model given my age, gender and position in the office. He had figured out behaviors that worked for him, but would not work for me.
I also made the mistake of mimicking the dressing style of my friends who were not in the workforce, when I should have been watching what other working women of my age and marital status were wearing instead. I showed up to work in everything varied from ripped jeans to a saree. In India, what you wear speaks volumes about who you are, where you come from, and what you do. This is infinitely more difficult for women than men. I made the common mistake by dressing either too casual or too “wife-like.” Selecting the right amount of jewelry, applying the right kind of makeup (if any at all), wearing the appropriate length and style of clothing, with appropriate texture and fabrics is all a matter of great delicacy. If you work for a larger company in a metropolitan area, they may have clear guidelines on what to wear, then you don’t have to wonder like I did.
3) Learn where you fall on the personal scale of society
The biggest factors your place on the societal scale, are your age and marital status.
Age – If you are a young person, you may think you automatically deserve respect based on your merit or achievements. The fact of the matter is, older people always know best in Indian society, regardless of either of these. Indians know that no matter how old you are, there is always someone in the family older than you, who will have the final say. You are always a youngster in someone’s eyes. Seeing oneself in the context of your family (including ancestors), your caste or religious group is an integral part of the Indian mindset. Even if you don’t belong to an Indian family, figuring out who deserves respect because of their age alone, is an imperative part of successfully understanding where you fit on the personal hierarchy.
Marital Status – Simply put, being married equates being an adult. Married life is one of the ancient philosophical ideas of Hindu Stages of Life and is still very much in practice today. For example, even if you’re 45 and unmarried, people may not know where exactly to place you in society. This is a invisible social system, yet highly important and envelops all parts of life.
Other qualities which you may be judged on while ranking on the personal hierarchy scale:
- what kind of a career you have
- what kind of careers your parents and siblings have
- your basic ability to speak politely to elders
- your physical appearance (height, weight, tone of skin, good looks)
- how nicely you dress/ quality of your jewelry and accessories
Becoming friends with a few key people that you naturally connect with in the office is a helpful both personally and professionally. Getting to know an Indian family in the home environment by attending festivals and family events will help you understand important aspects of personal life which affect each professional outside the walls of the workplace. You will gain insight on new parts of Indian life which help you understand why people do what they do. This is not only important for your professional life, but your overall survival in the country.
Ways to master this:
Find an informal mentor of your age and gender. Find ways to learn their lifestyle and kind of copy them until you’re enculturated enough to have confidence in your own ability to make culturally accurate judgements. By spending time with various types of people outside the office will help you understand more of where you fall on the social scale and therefore, the professional scale.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but find a trusted friend to make them with. Find that special friend to whom you can ask questions. without being judged.
Other applications: The workplace, is not the only time I’ve run into troubles with these three challenges. These rules also apply in organizations like religious clubs or social societies.