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. 

Conformity in Culture: The Colored Pens Study

Say, you’re given a bin of pens.

Most of them are black and a few are blue. Your favorite color to write with is blue.

Which pen would you choose?

This study was conducted by Japanese researcher Toshio Yamagishi and his research team with participants from Japan and the US.

The study involved a default scenario, an initial scenario, a final scenario, and a purchase scenario.

  • Default scenario – participants simply told to choose a pen
  • Initial scenario – participants told they were the first person to choose a pen
  • Final scenario – participants told they were the last person to choose a pen
  • Purchase scenario – participants told they were buying a pen

Considering previous research on the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, one might think the Japanese would always choose the majority color, due to their preference for conformity, while the American would always choose the minority color, due to their preference to stand out.

The results, however, were a bit more complex.

Preference for Uniqueness

Although the Japanese did choose the majority color and the Americans the minority color in the default scenario, the results between the two cultures were similar in the other three scenarios: the Americans and the Japanese were just as likely to choose either the majority or minority color.

These last three results indicate that both cultures prefer uniqueness in equal measure.

The results also show that each culture, in being the first to choose, is cognizant of other peoples’ desire for uniqueness and, therefore, may be reluctant to offend those who have yet to choose their colored pen.

But when the social situation becomes ambiguous, as in the default scenario, why do the Japanese assume the majority pen, when the results show that they prefer the unique pen just as much as their American counterparts?

This is where the preference for harmony comes in.

Do Not Offend

The default scenario reveals that the Japanese don’t necessarily prefer to conform; after all, they were just as likely to choose unique over conformity in the other three scenarios.

Rather, the Japanese prefer harmony over disharmony.

Yamagishi and his team concluded that the disparity was in the ambiguity: the desire not to offend is stronger in the Japanese than in the Americans, particularly in ambiguous social situations.

And why not offend?

One theory posed by Yamagishi is centered around interpersonal relationships.

Japan is a “closed society” regarding groups and relationships. By this, we mean that it’s considerably more closed to outsiders; if you’re not part of the in-group, you’re not welcome. In this way, it’s harder to replace lost relationships when you’ve offended someone.

The US, on the other hand, is an “open society.” It’s much easier to replace a lost relationship if one has caused offense.

This is why the Japanese avoid offending in ambiguous situations, which may come at the cost of their preferences on occasion. Group loyalty over self-loyalty, as we talked about last week.

The ambiguity of whether your choice of a unique pen may or may not offend someone is balanced against the cost of social rejection.

The result is this strategic and nuanced adaptation under differing scenarios.

How does this apply to the type of management style a culture prefers?

We’ll talk more about that next week.

What Makes a ‘Face’: Losing Face, East vs. West

When you hear the term “losing face,” more often than not, you associate it with Eastern cultures. But people of every culture have “face” that they can either lose or save.

Basically, “face” is pride, esteem, and reputation, which is interpreted and determined in different ways, depending on the culture in which you live. Face is, in short, the idea that you must behave or achieve in a certain manner to preserve your image. What makes up your “face” and how to “save” it depends on what your culture values.

Face: East

Tradition is greatly emphasized in Eastern cultures, and face can be had by birth (i.e. if you were born into a family of status or wealth).

Last week, we talked about how collectivist societies tend to value group harmony over individualism. Personal ambition or success is much less important than improving the whole.

This prevents individualist characteristics from being fostered from youth. For instance, I’ve been told by Chinese students that they receive lower marks or fails on essays or exams if they contradict the teacher’s opinion or the culturally accepted sentiment on any given topic, no matter how well argued. For this reason and for similar standards set during primary socialization, you find fewer who will “rock the boat,” so to speak, in collectivist countries than you might in their capitalist counterparts.

Individualism is considered much more radical in places like China. It is not embraced, and those who are unconventional and break the mold are thought to be aggressive. Due to the fact that harmony is of the utmost importance to collectivist cultures, anyone considered disharmonious would lose face under this set of cultural values.

Face: West

Western cultural values lie in individualism and independence. They’re also geared toward innovation and so embrace change more readily over tradition.

And in the West, you must earn your face. It isn’t given to you. Even if you’re born into a wealthy family or a family of status, more often than not, you must prove yourself to establish a face.

To make your face, you must make yourself. And to do so in an individualist culture, you must stand out from the crowd. You can do this through professional/personal success or achievement, status, wealth, etc. And once you obtain a certain level of recognition, whether in your town or nationwide, whether in your company or your industry, you must reassert your voice regularly to maintain face.

What can make a Western person of stature lose face?

Disgrace can. Disgrace paramount to much of what is going on in America right now, with sexual assault and harassment scandals knocking down titans of entertainment, politics, and industry. This is just one of the things that can make a Westerner lose face.

Can Face Be Restored?

Face can be restored only through drastic measures in collectivist cultures. In the East, once one’s reputation has been damaged, it’s nearly impossible to recover. As put by sociologist Marcel Mauss, in such cultures, “to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit.” It’s better to avoid such face-destroying conflict, altogether.

In Western cultures, if face is lost, it can be more readily restored. In fact, many cheer comebacks, and the restoration of a good reputation might even be considered inspirational by some.

Whether face is restored or not, the loss of it cuts deep in any culture.

Next week, we’ll continue contrasting Eastern and the Western values by discussing the differences in social power structures and business culture. Stay tuned.