When East Meets West: Understanding the Rationale Behind Indian Norms in the Workplace

You’re a Westerner working in a cross-cultural environment in India.

As a Westerner, you prefer communication that’s direct and clear.

You see ambiguity as a stumbling block in business, so you ask direct questions and expect direct answers in return.

Your Indian colleagues, on the other hand, demonstrate some indirect behaviors that you don’t understand.

The rationale behind this style of communication is a mystery to you, and the need for managerial approval in many cases rubs you the wrong way. You see it as unnecessary micromanagement.

This is a situation in which understanding the rationale behind your colleagues’ culture will forge a better business relationship.

Harmony & Many Truths

Mr. Waseem Hussain cleared up this mysterious rationale for me.

As a bicultural professional who has grown up in Switzerland with Indian parents, he knew both sides of the coin and could bridge that cross-cultural barrier between Indian and European mentalities.

In other words, he was the best zookeeper to explain the behavior of other animals in the zoo to me, the monkey.

When I posed a question about why I couldn’t receive a clear answer to a clear issue from Indian colleagues, he replied that, in some ways, it has to do with Hinduism.

As the majority of Indians believe in many gods, the cultural rationale would be that there are many truths.

Another explanation for the rationale has to do with the cultural concept of harmony.

Say, you ask an Indian colleague to meet a 5 o’clock deadline.

Whether or not it’s possible to complete the work by that point, the colleague will tell you, “Yes, no problem.”

In reality, he may have no intention of completing the work by this deadline, but by offering the positive “yes,” he is in harmony with his Western counterpart.

A “no” means disharmony and discomfort on his part.

Universal Truth & Accountability

From the Westerner’s point of view, this behavior appears as blatant dishonesty.

You expect your colleague to abide by his word, as accountability and time sensitivity are important to your culture.

Most Western cultures are largely shaped by Christianity – that is, the belief in one god. As such, the culture’s norms and values revolve around a single universal truth.

This is one obstacle for Westerners in cross-cultural business environments: universal truths do not exist there.

You must have a higher ambiguity tolerance and be willing to accept and even adapt to foreign norms and beliefs.

Your cultural rationale is not everyone’s rationale.

Reasoning and logic are shaped by culture and evolve accordingly with the history and tradition of the people.

Unless a person is counter-culture, he will likely follow the values, norms, and beliefs of his culture’s rationale.

No assumptions should be made about a culture’s behavior being silly or illogical. Refrain from judging something you don’t understand.

As an effective manager, it is your job to find the rationale behind the behavior and accept and adapt accordingly.

In this case, adopting, for a moment, the Indian culture’s worldview – its belief in many truths and emphasis on harmony – will enable you to see the reasoning behind your colleagues’ behaviors. 

How Time Orientation & Chronemics Impact Queuing & Workplace Culture

Chronemics, which we described in a past post as the study of time’s role in communication, directly correlates with time orientation, discussed last week.

Knowing that some polychronic cultures view time as cyclical and sometimes don’t even have future tenses in their language, you may have guessed that polychronic cultures are often past-oriented.

Monochronic cultures, on the other hand, are largely future-oriented.

Here are a few ways in which chronemics direct cultural behaviors.

Queuing Culture

queue

Have you ever queued up in a foreign country and been cut in front of?

If you have and immediately thought to yourself, “how rude!” then you’re probably from a monochronic culture. Monochronic cultures are often cultures of law and order.

As this article by Leon Mann, “Queue Culture: The Waiting Line as a Social System,” published in American Journal of Sociology writes:

“Cultural values of egalitarianism and orderliness are related to respect for the principle of service according to order of arrival which is embodied in the idea of a queue. The importance of time in Western culture is reflected in rules relating to ‘serving time’ to earn one’s position in line, and to the regulation of ‘time-outs.’”

Remember, monochronic cultures – like the U.S. – are also cultures where “time is money.” So, essentially, if someone cuts the line, individuals in such cultures might consider this behavior as theft of time and/or money. The offender is essentially saying their time is more valuable than that of those they’ve cut.

Polychronic cultures do not queue orderly, if at all. They crowd and scrap their way to the front of the line. In fact, cutting in line is almost a sport in such cultures.

Although even some of those who are of polychronic cultures might get upset when cut, the queueing culture (or lack thereof) is, more or less, accepted.

Actions & Their Consequences

Another way in which chronemics and time orientation impact cultural behavior is the consequences of certain actions at work.

The chart below highlights some examples:

workplace.jpg

Monochronic cultures are deadline-driven and task-oriented regarding both negotiations or projects. And, more often than not, the hierarchy within the organization is enforced.

For polychronic cultures, a deadline is just a suggestion, and negotiations don’t end until an agreement is made. Even then, the contract is amendable.

Moreover, organizations are interaction-oriented, rather than task-oriented, and the hierarchy within the organization is not as rigidly enforced if one even exists.

We’ll look at these ideas in action next week.