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 Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.