Cultural communication tips from India to New York
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits New York this week to try to improve his nation’s fragile relationship with the US.
Relations between Delhi and Washington almost collapsed in 2013 when the Indian deputy consul general in the US was arrested, strip-searched and detained by police in New York on charges of fraud, prompting furious accusations of disrespectful bullying from India. In return US commentators seemed to be condescending by accusing India of overreaction and behaviour unbecoming of an aspirant future power.
Americans and Indians have different ways of communicating and both Barack Obama and Narendra Modi would do well to download The Diversity Dashboard by Deborah Swallow and Eilidh Milnes before they meet. Swallow and Milnes give striking examples of the different ways that people from the US and India communicate, such as the one below:
Visitors to the United States may be surprised to find that arguments seem focused on winning, with little or no effort toward maintaining harmony or recognizing or deferring to the status or sensibilities of the others involved. US Americans may appear to use phony smiles and be too animated, and the need to always express things in positive terms may be interpreted as naiveté. They also tend to speak loudly to show enthusiasm, and feel being positive and optimistic avoids needless confrontation and gets the best results in both work and life. They tend to be animated, outgoing, use facial expressions and considerable eye contact. They are uncomfortable with silences. An overriding value is to speak up and voice opinions.
John, an American, was on a conference call to Prakesh in India. He said, ‘This proposal is poorly prepared. Have it re-done by 15.00 hours tomorrow, Saturday.’ Prakesh was upset and complained about John’s rudeness to his team leader, and asked for a transfer to a department where he would report to a native Indian.
We were called into support with cultural training. We explained the difference between straight talking and indirect communication. The latter allows the possibility for saving face, shame or embarrassment for both sides. ‘Looks like this piece of work will need to be finished during the weekend,’ is a more indirect way of saying, ‘You need to work on Saturday!’ or ‘Can you work on Saturday?’ The challenge is the mismatch of words and expectations. When a direct manager listens to an indirect employee he may think the person is taking a long time to get to the point or even being deliberately awkward and obscure. The opposite is true for indirect communicators, who see straight talking as rude and aggressive.
You see, direct communicators sound authoritarian and are often perceived as insensitive. If you work for them, they do not hesitate to tell you what to do and when to do it. Meanings are explicit and on the surface. They are driven by a strong sense of ‘now’. They are often in a hurry to get the job done. They get to the bottom line quickly and don’t have much patience with those who, in their opinion, beat around the bush. They are frequently brutally honest in their interactions. They are comfortable expressing their emotions outwardly, and do so routinely. They look people in the eye and, if this is not returned, they are suspicious, lacking trust. In western cultures communication is explicit, direct and unambiguous.