First of all, I would like to say I am not an expert on India. Far from it. I have never been there; the opportunity has not arisen yet. Maybe it will come. Or I can make it happen.
My personal experience is through many people from India I was lucky to get to know. They are connections, mostly from social media. I am in regular contact with some, and some I can say are friends. It is also collaborators (sometimes doubling as friends) and people I have interacted with for professional reasons. These various people are from every part of the country: North, East, South and West. The good thing is that it allows me to, I feel, get a good grasp of the differences.
And what differences there are. I first approached India and its people from my narrow point of view, without direct experience and forging my own ideas from what I could read and what some people, usually non-Indian, would tell me about it. It is then easy to imagine that my first direct interactions were not the most successful because my expectations were not correct.
What I mostly learned from it is that you think you begin to understand something and right away you realise you need to learn some more. It would be easy to think India is very diverse because there are so many people. This is not the point. If you take China, which also has a huge population, it is a lot more homogeneous in terms of culture, language and so on. It is not just because there are a lot of people in India.
My interactions with people from India are very varied indeed. Well, I probably should begin with the similarity: with everyone I have interacted with, the communication has always been based on respect and very nice. Some interactions are very close to what I could expect from somebody from my own culture or the culture of the country I live in. It can unfortunately lull you in a false sense that it is not so different after all. In contrast, some interactions were very different from what I was used to and it takes some awareness, respect and understanding to learn how to make these interactions positive.
I found that leaving my assumptions and preferences behind is essential. For instance, I came from a rather formal culture but still sometimes, my interactions with people from India have been even more formal. After having being used to more informal cultures, it is always a surprise to be addressed by Ma'am. If it left me a bit uncomfortable to begin with, I now came to appreciate it.
I have found also a lot of diversity with more professional relationships, not all of them in line with what I would expect from customer service. I have had experiences where everything was coherent, clear, well organised. Some other relationships have been very hard-core business right from the start, which has taken me a bit aback sometimes and did not go further than a first conversation. I have had instances where I was asked to provide clients referrals, about 10 minutes after I have first met the person. Many times, the first message was about services provided and whether I want to use their services. Finally, I have found sometimes that communication was going nowhere. In one case, after months of trying to get something done (I was the customer), I just decided to give up. What I have learned from that is that you have to see how the relationship develops and not expect that it will go a certain direction based on previous experience.
Communication and relationship are a two-way process. Both parties need to be willing to understand the others’ points of view and adapt their expectations without losing who we each are in the process.
Nadege Minois works in cultural competence. She helps organisations to become more inclusive places. She is from France and now based in the UK. She has lived in 5 countries and interacted with people from all over the world.