Category Archives: Business in India

Three Tips for Succeeding Professionally in India

Living and working in India can be a strange mix of personal and professional, informal and formal, fascinating and frustrating.

Indian White HandshakeAs 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.

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3 Reasons Why We Need to Change Our Minds About Bihar

As I am now a regular visitor of Bihar, I hear a lot of talk about Bihar being lawless and corrupt. The picture of the past is still lingering, but people either haven’t seen the new Bihar, or are unwilling to let go of the old dusty stereotypes. For too long, Bihar has been seen as that weak little brother that everyone likes to make fun of. I find a different and promising Bihar.


1) Language and Cultural Stronghold

While Bihar has a reputation for being uneducated and backwards, I find that preserving culture and language is a priority here. Unlike some other places in India, where kids are growing up with butchered Hinglish, I’ve been shocked with modern youngsters in Bihar who are comfortable with speaking high level “shudh Hindi” in normal conversation along with studying English in school. In places like Delhi, I hear youngsters who can only speak their parent’s mother tongue half-heartedly or revert to English entirely. I can’t remember the last time in Delhi where I heard someone give me change at a store and without thinking hand me over “ek sau teis” rather than “hundred twenty three” rupees. Its refreshing to see high scale malls unashamedly flaunting billboards in pure simple Hindi, rather than adulterated ads like “Drink Karo, Enjoy Karo.” Bihar is a Hindi learner’s paradise.Another complaint of urban Indians is that highly populated cities are becoming Westernized in all the wrong ways, but I don’t find that in Patna. I find the people very connected to their traditions while also moving forward for a better Bihar.

2) Tourist Attractions

Although Bihar might not be the first place you think of when you think about the sights of India, but Bihar hosts international tourists at spots like Bodh gaya. Between 2003 and 2008, the inflow of foreign tourists to Bihar saw a near-sixfold rise from 61,000 to 346,000. (Wikipedia) Who knows what else is around the corner?

3) Developing Forward

Nitish Kumar

While the memory of Laluji still lingers on, the legacy of Bihar belongs to progress. If one plans to carry on any intelligent conversation, you cannot underestimate the importance of knowing about Nitish Kumar. He is leading the way in development and showing other states how to do it.

In 2011, Bihar was actually identified as the “least corrupt state” in a study by economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari.

Most of the people I find who criticize Bihar are A) people who have never here B) people who only know manual laborers and gypsies from Bihar who have settled elsewhere C) snobs from other states who are trying to prove their state is better. The future of Bihar is promising. The tides have turned. The old stereotypes of a rough, backwoods Bihar needs to be unraveled and forgotten.

Why I Found NBC’s “Outsourced” Irrelevant

A lot of people have asked me over the past year:

“What do you think of the show Outsourced?”
“Did Outsourced really depict India?”
“Is the work environment in India really like that”

In the beginning NBC had a lot of potential material to work with. Most Americans are curious about exotic India. A fascinating world of elephants, masalas, chaotic traffic patterns, and sarees…and almost every American has had the experience of call center frustrations. How are these two worlds compatible?

As frustrated as Americans are about calling a call center, most Indians who work in a call center are equally as frustrated. Long hours. working at night, dealing with rude ethnocentric people. There was A LOT of potential material that could have been used for the TV program.

Creative Downfall

I understand the “Office-like” concept of the show. Overstretching stereotypes to the point that everyone feels uncomfortable with the overly awkward dialogues. You laugh at the expense of the characters and ‘foot in mouth’ outbursts.

But the script writers ran out of intelligible content fast. Then the show digressed to blatant sexual humor, and overstretching some very untrue stereotypes. It simply became a trashy “America Pie” type of show.

I don’t know why, but I had a vague hope that this would be something that lightly poked fun at common stereotypes and helped people understand cultural differences.

Harmful Stereotypes Reinforced

From someone who lived and worked in India for a number of years….If anyone behaved like Charlie or Todd, you won’t survive.

Yes, we know that America is far more open with our lack of shame. But do we need to make each episode a moral debauchery of Americans?

Bachelor parties? An Australian mother and an American call center manager having a rendevous in plain sight on an balcony above a busy Indian market? Sleeping with the boss then bragging about it in the workplace? The blatant sexuality was too much. Even for American TV.  Americans already have to deal with some Indians assuming we are all morally inferior, un-spiritual, hypocrites. Why would we air a show that projected this harmful and untrue stereotype?

As in most declining TV shows, dirty humour is used as a sad replacement for clever witty interactions. Another cheap American show filled with filth to get ratings and attempt to entertain viewers with false stereotypes.

Character Flaws

Least Realistic/ Most Exaggerated Characters:

  • Charlie– The awkward American cowboy, perverted borderline sex offender. I’m met very few of them in life. And certainly none in India.
  • Tonya- Obviously she was a complete skank and too undignified to be believable. If a woman behaves like that in India without a support system, she will most likely have her ‘easy going’ attitude broken by perverts grabbers on the street, or possibly even become the victim of rape. The show portrayed her as a happy go lucky professional who seemed to bounce back from any situation. Not possible.
  • Rajeev — His character was far too articulate for someone who would typically be so closed minded and money hungry. Like an Indian Michael Scott, he was far too verbally abusive to be real.

Semi-Realistic/ Semi-Exaggerated

  • Aasha- You will find some confused Desi women caught in the middle of a modern and traditional world, but her Indian accent was so bad it was hard to ever believe her character. Sorry Rebecca Hazlewood. Stick to British films next time.
  • Todd– The football loving American boy that just wants to watch football and hook up with pretty women certainly exists, but don’t last long in India. Generally his open romantic relationships would have gotten him a lot of disrespect from subordinates rather than being the fun loving boss that the show depicted.
  • Manmeet– The awkward and womanizing cassanova definitely exists. Men who want to be a stud, but not sure how. Manmeet was too openly determined and eager. You will find sneakier versions of this character in real life. People who behave this week behind closed doors, but are ashamed to openly talk about it.

Most Realistic Characters/Least Exaggerated characters

  • Madhuri–The shy and naive woman is the fact that a lot of Indian woman like to put on. I found her to be one of the most loveable characters as she would occasionally let her fun side come out.
  • Gupta–His character was realistic to the point is that this is how some 14 year old boys behave in India, not 30 year old men. His charming sense of humor was the only thing that kept the show going for a few months. He was a partially embodied “Michael Scott” of the show. The man that refuses to grow up.
  • In short…

    I had hopes in the beginning….and was ashamed in the end.

    The show reinforced harmful stereotypes of Indians being bobbleheaded order takers. AND Westerns being moral bottomfeeders that slept around with every living breathing human available.
    This is not the message that our world needs today. Thankfully the American public is smarter than that, got bored with it, and the show got cancelled. One less cheap show with worthless content crowding the airwaves.

Culture Shock: from Giving to Receiving

If you’ve ever lived overseas for an extended period of time you will realize that culture shock is not a ‘slap you in the face’ one day event. It is a creeping process that grasps you like a slow growing ivy. Before you know it, you are overcome.

An American  friend of mine just shared with me that after a year in foreign culture, she is experiencing culture shock.  You will hear young travels who visit a foreign culture for 3 weeks say “It was awesome! I didn’t experience culture shock at all!”

Of course they didn’t. No one experiences TRUE culture shock without authentic friendships with national people.

One of the most powerful realization moments for me was about one year into my time in a mid size Indian city. I was working for a small IT company and had done my best to immerse myself in the culture by learning the language and spending time with Indian nationals as much as I could. My dad had come from America to visit me for a few days and we had a great time as I showed off my newly acquired language skills, how I knew the town like the back of my hand, and how well I had immersed myself into the local culture. After 2 days of impressing my dad, I dropped him off at the train station and waved goodbye until the train was out of sight, taking him to the airport 5 hours away where he would eventually catch his flight back to the US.

I took the clanky auto rickshaw down the main road and eventually back to my apartment, paid the driver 5 rupees and shuffled slowly down the dusty lane to my apartment.  All of my American colleagues were out of town for the weekend and I didn’t have any plans for the evening.

Then it hit me.  I was alone again. In an obscure town in the middle of India.  No one knew my hometown or had even heard of my state. No one knew or cared that I was the class president in high school or that my favorite food was sushi. The connection to my past and my culture was gone. All I had was the present.

I must have looked disturbed as I walked into our modest apartment complex. I tried to turn sharply and walk up the stairs avoiding any contact with my neighbors who were preparing their evening meal. One particular lady who I often spent time with paused from cooking her mattar paneer and peering through the door she inquired:
“Papa Chelegaye??!” (Did your dad leave?)
I stopped halfway up the stairs.

I stood in silence.
Then, I broke.
I burst into tears and rushed into her arms. She stood there holding me until I all of my hot tears had stained her dupatta. Her vegetables were burning on the stove, but neither of us noticed.

I looked up and saw her eyes filled with tears as well. She felt my pain. She saw that I wasn’t a perfect content super American.  I was sad. I was lonely.  I hated India that day and I missed my family. They knew I was real.
That night she fed me and made me sit and watch a movie with their family instead of sitting alone in my apartment studying. It was her chance to give back to me.

That was a major turning point in my relationship with Indian people as a whole.

I had come to India to serve and to help. I thought of myself as the Giver. I had never learned to RELY on the people surrounding me. I had moved to a deeper relationship. Into a vulnerable position.  I was no longer just the GIVER. I was also the RECEIVER.

3 Tips for overcoming culture shock:

  1. Push through that culture shock and BE PRESENT in the middle of it.  You are in the right place by acknowledging that you are experiencing sadness and discomfort.
  2. Be authentic–It is OK to tell your national friends that you are homesick.
  3. Find support–Other foreigners in your position have been through the same thing! They will most likely tell you their horror stories of times when they broke down and bounced back.

Dealing with the slow creeping culture shock is essential to your survival overseas long term. This is what it takes to really experience a culture. To fall in love with a culture, you have to hate it first.