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. 

Love, Honor, and Smell: How Scent is Viewed in Other Cultures

When you think of the five senses, how would you rank them, superior to inferior?

You might instinctively say that sight is the superior sense. Next, you’d probably go with hearing or touch, followed by taste or smell.

This ranking makes objective sense to you somehow, but it’s likely that social and cultural prejudice of certain senses comes into play.

Language & the Lower Order

Last week we talked about how scientists once perceived smell as of a “lower order” than all other senses. This was because, at the time, rationality was in vogue, and scent was linked with emotion.

This scientific attitude toward our senses led to less research into scent. Even our language followed suit.

Think about it.

  • When someone is impressive, we might call them a visionary.
  • When someone is athletic, we might call them dexterous.
  • When someone is a curator, we might say they have good taste.
  • When someone is musically talented, you might say they have a good ear.

But you never compliment someone’s nose or smelling abilities, and the terms for nose in our vocabulary are often derogatory (schnoz, snout, snooty, snotty, etc.).

There is no positive equivalency for the sense of smell as there are for our other four senses.

Cross-Cultural Views on Scent

The thing is, other world cultures do appreciate the power of scent. Some even hold it in the highest regard, above all others.

One example is the Onge of the Andaman Islands. This tribe defines everything primarily by smell.

For instance, seasons are named after a particular scent, largely depending on what types of flowers or fruits blossom. Their calendar is literally run by the nose.

They also personally identify according to scent. If talking about oneself, one touches the tip of his nose, which means “me” or “my odor.”

The scent-centered culture appears expresses their focus on the nose in their language.

Consider the Onge greeting:

“Konyune onorange-tanka?”

This is the English equivalent of “How are you?” But it literally means, “How is your nose?”

Greeting & Scent

The Onge are not the only ones to hold scent in such esteem.

In Algeria, the nose – called “nif” – is synonymous with honor.

In India, greeting someone by smelling them on the head is equivalent to a hug or a kiss in the West.

Moreover, one ancient text in India reads:

“I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love.”

So, it appears that, in some cultures, the link between scent and emotion makes the sense of smell even more powerful than all others.

Next week, we’ll continue this talk about culture and scent preferences.