A tribute to an intercultural classic
Whenever I meet new business partners in an India-related context across the globe, I cannot resist asking the question: Please tell me what, from your perspective, seem to be the most frequent challenges while doing business in India? – and a part of me already knows that one of the most enduring topics on the top of the charts list is going to be mentioned: The issue of not knowing when a Yes, in an Indian behavioural cultural context, is a Yes.
What I am going to describe happens to me, as an Indian, as well.
I often find myself, even while I am receiving good news, such as for example “Confirmed”, “Yes, it will be done ASAP/by tomorrow/next week”, “Consider it Done”, or, even more confidently, “Yes!! No problem!!!” initializing a process of trying to work out, among others, the following points:
- Is this a Yes about the relationship (me), or is it a Yes about the subject (it)?
- Is the Yes a Yes that will also work tomorrow? Have I provided all the necessary information? Have I made myself properly understood?
- Is it possible only under special circumstances (for example, a colleague has brought both dinner and a sleeping bag to the workplace), or doable in general? Is what I asking for an exception, or an exemption, without my having realized it?
- Would it now be a good idea to respond with: ”wow, thanks, that is good news, and what can I do to support you?”
- Is the one and only person responsible for the “Yes” communicating with me, or is a feedback loop with colleagues and/or superiors required, so that the “Yes” does not only signify an individual´s expression of goodwill? Am I communicating with the person accountable for the end result?
- Is the Yes an agreement, or is the Yes a commitment?
- Is it a Yes to the problem that needs to be fixed, or is it a Big Picture Yes about the process?
- Did I fail to notice that I was actually being told a “Yes, and….”?
Could the missing “and …” part have provided me with the additional information that the outcome would be a “No”?
When I look at my long distance communication with other Indian counterparts, have I said “Yes” often enough, in a world where a continuous necessity to adapt often seems to be the only constant? Just recently, a conference hotel where I had booked a large group for a team event and made the prerequisite down payment informed me that my booking had been cancelled six weeks prior to the event, because I had neglected to “confirm the reconfirmation”. It would have been really essential to emphasize at periodic intervals, that the Yes is a Yes is a Yes is a… – I guess you got the picture.
I am told that I often behave in a predictably Indian way whenever I am confronted with a deadline and someone writes that “it would be really nice if you could provide this by…”. I automatically wait for a few days after the deadline before I respond with “I am happy to report that I am in the process of completing the article”. That´s a “Yes” as well, only a bit more on the elastic side. But then, I am also reacting to a request that I could too easily interpret as negotiable.
This only really works if I speculate successfully that the other side, knowing that I am an Indian, has calculated an invisible additional buffer. In the short term, I have gained additional time. In the long term, I have just helped cement a cultural stereotype, which is not really helpful.
Have I covered all the aspects? Probably not. A “Yes” is, and, as it seems, continues to be in many cases, a point of departure rather than a point of arrival.
When I ask around for good practice recommendations, one of the responses is “Prepare for a Plan B if turns out that it wasn´t a Yes after all”, which does not contribute to an atmosphere of eye-level cooperation, predictability and trust.
Some experts would encourage you to “Learn to Love Ambiguity”, or “Minimize your expectations at the beginning of working together, so that you gain room for pleasant surprises”. It´s not a great long term setting, if your time is mostly occupied with interim damage control. Others may encourage you to spend a lot of time ensuring micro-feedback loops, so that you can celebrate micro-targets. For example, you get the “Yes” confirmed as “Yes, it´s still a Yes” by sending the Indian colleague a friendly reminder every 41 minutes or so : In this scenario , I would feel sorry for both you and the Indian colleague, as both of you might eventually be too exhausted to even appreciate a positive outcome.
I personally benefit from understanding that “Yes” can be the beginning, and is not necessarily the end of a process when we start working together. I try my best to make my counterparts aware of their co-ownership towards achieving a joint result, ensuring that my motivations and requirements are well understood in advance. I invite their participation not only for the end result, but also for the steps leading there, such as creating a realistic time line where things are possible not only as exceptions, but as a rule. In this way, we ideally move together from a simple agreement to the task, towards the far more co-responsible commitment to the process. I invest in time getting to know my counterparts and understanding the environment they work out of, in turn letting them understand where my thoughts and requirements are coming from.
It seems that we often have the tendency in India to start with a huge bandwidth of options, such as the ones described earlier, and then progressively shrink it, while our understanding of the person and the process grows.
If this happens to you, you could gain a practiced eye enabling you to recognize what goes into a “Yes” process – making it easier to repeat success stories and cut off non-efficient processes, with greater confidence and rapidity. You establish a functioning communication culture together with your Indian partners, with a good understanding not only of what you said, but also of what you actually meant, and vice versa. You build a good working relationship, the outcome of which will be the “Yes.” As an Indian friend once summed up:
“When my trust grows, my sentences grow shorter”.
After having spent some time together exploring the “Yes”, some of you may ask “and what about the ‘No’”?
Now, that´s another interesting story…
About our guest author: Sujata Banerjee has been working in the field of cross-cultural management since 1992. She was born in South Germany, has consistently maintained home bases in Germany and India, and benefited from work experience in both countries. Her main areas are: Intercultural workshops, expatriate and reintegration cycle coachings as well as corporate strategy in internationalization processes.
We are looking forward to dive deeper into this discussion with the “Serviceplan International Roadshow: INDIA INSIGHTS” on Tuesday, November 22nd 2016 at the House of Communication Munich. Are you interested in participating in the event? Please contact the dedicated event team via email. The number of participants is limited.