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Living & Working In India – A Westerner’s View

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This is a guest post by Petter Olsson. He moved to India, more specifically to Bangalore,  around a year back. The post below chronicles his experience as a westerner coming to India to work & stay and his view of things.

Walking down the street one beautiful sunny morning in Yelahanka New Town, I was approached by an older gentleman. “What is your religion?” he asked with a big smile on his face. We then went through the motions – where are you from, why did you come here, and how do you like it. Then, I started telling him about our decision to come to India. I told him that my wife and I chose India because it offered everything we were looking for – warmth, enthusiasm, opportunity, and a sense of community. The more I talked, the bigger his smile became.

As our conversation came to a close, the man looked me straight into the eyes, shook my hand, and said “Thank You, Thank You for choosing India”. I can, without reservation, say that after living on three continents and in four different countries, India is the only place I have ever lived where complete strangers (or anyone for that matter) displays such pride when learning that an immigrant has chosen India as their new home.

Cows in India[Picture Source: Flickr]

Yes means Maybe, Maybe means No

Despite living and working in four different countries, India offers its own unique sense of culture and professional environment. One thing a westerner will learn very quickly in India is that people will try to please you by saying yes. Although I have occasionally heard no, generally any question is met with a “Yes” or “Maybe”, especially if you are in the senior position. But these statements do not necessarily mean that whatever you asked 1) has, 2) is 3) or ever will happen.

I recall getting into the car with a new driver and asking him to take me home. “Yes Sir”, he said as he drove off. I then started to work on my iPhone, completely oblivious to the outside world. After some time, I looked up and realized we were driving in the opposite direction of my home. In the West, this could be misconstrued as irresponsible or even incompetent, but in India, the driver was simply being polite and not asking too many questions.

Of course, this politeness can create some serious issues in a business environment where goals are set and expected to be met. Co-workers need to be very clear about what can and cannot be accomplished, and over what time frame. They say that successful businessmen don’t take “no” for an answer. Well, here in India, don’t take “yes” either.

My wife and I have found that the best approach is simply not to ask “yes” or “no” questions. If you want something done, ask what their timeline is. If you need something, ask how can we make this happen. Then follow up regularly. In India, regular follow-ups are not a sign of distrust, but a necessary part of business life. This cultural difference can make it difficult for Westerners to adjust, but I have found that a blend of Indian optimism and Western goal orientation creates an almost unbeatable atmosphere that seems to make the impossible possible.

Indian Standard Time

It is hard, in words, to explain how laid back the Indian work environment is, or Indian society in general. Here, things take their own time, and it is rare to find someone running around in a state of stress. Compare this to the typical Western company, where people will start tapping their fingers if a meeting is a few minutes late. Sometimes it can even feel as if nothing is happening, but then, it always seems to work out in the end. Generally, business meetings happen at scheduled times. But if someone says “I’ll get back to you in a few hours”, that could be anywhere from 2 hours to a week. While in most of the West, “Winter is Coming” is a reality for not just for the House of Stark, here in India there is (most of the time) always tomorrow.

It ain’t over ‘till it’s over

“Nothing is final until you are dead, and even then I’m sure God negotiates.” – Angelica Huston, Ever After, 1998.

This must be doubly true in India. I have found, literally, everything is negotiable in India – from tomatoes to tomorrow’s TV installation. Even prices that have been pre-negotiated are indefinite until the deal is done. For a Westerner, this can appear dishonest, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is simply a different way of doing business. To illustrate this, let’s review a recent conversation I had while signing up for a charity benefit:

Me: “Hi, I would like to sign-up for the 5k.”

Charity Representative: “Yes Sir. Which one is that?”

Me: “You know, the 5k run you have been advertising for Multiple sclerosis.”

Rep: “Do you mean the Snap Marathon, Sir?”

Me: “Haha, no, I am not able to run a marathon I think. I would like to run the 5k.”

Rep: “I see Sir, do you mean this one? (Showing me a poster). This is the Snap Marathon, Sir.”

Me: “But isn’t a Marathon 42km?”

Rep: “Yes Sir, but this is India. Here, everything is negotiable.”

Just a Suggestion

I have found it much easier to adjust to Indian society than any other place I have previously moved to. In general, most people care little about how others choose to live their life. There are rules and cultural norms to adhere to, but if you change the word rule to suggestion it will make it much easier to understand living in India. The best way to illustrate this is through Indian traffic. Like many Commonwealth nations, Indians drive on the left. This is the rule. However, if, say, you have to drive on the right for a few hundred meters, or even on the roadside, because it is closer that way, then you do it.

This is generally what makes driving (especially in places like Bangalore) a surreal experience for most Westerners. Obviously, this can and does cause problems, but I have seen an astonishingly low number of accidents so far compared to places like Los Angeles. For me, it is an amazing relief to realize that if you do not fit into the rules, people will in general not blame you for doing something else. Indians do not place people in neat little boxes.

Leap of Faith

My wife and I took a leap of faith when moving to India. Although we had visited here before, we had no long term connection to South Asia and have no Indian relatives. We are still learning, every day, about this fascinating and diverse country.

However, I would not say we are “adjusting”. India and its people are so diverse, so flexible, that in many ways it feels like India adjusts to you. My wife and I often talk about what an exciting time this is for India. There are so many opportunities here, and so much enthusiasm for innovation and progress.

We are so happy to be along for the ride.

clip_image002 Author bio:Petter is a father, husband, and a fitness aficionado with a passion for using technology to improve our lives. Petter is currently serving as a Technical Project Manager at Aerospike Inc. in Bangalore.

 

"Living & Working In India - A Westerner’s View", 5 out of 5 based on 3 ratings.
  1. Amber says

    Hi Petter,
    your article, according to me, is a 100% correct depiction of how we indians are. I help expats find housing in Bangalore and i keep telling them 70% of what you wrote here. After coming across your article yesterday, i actually sent the link to 4 of my clients who just moved in and trying to settle down.
    I would like to use your article and host it on our blog so that it can act as an introduction to anyone who is moving to Bangalore.

  2. heather says

    Thank you for writing. I would like to move to india. I am single, 37, a woman. I have an indian guru, who has passed, but has left me a love of india. not sure if I’m crazy or not… but this american work schedule is absolutely crazy. I have resources, but i don’t want to work the rest of my life away…

    h

  3. Mohit says

    Hi Petter,

    I want to thank you for putting a BIG smile on my face. It’s been a trying week and I needed this. Thank you.

    As someone who constantly seeks out the West’s advice for what’s cool and what’s not, or what’s right and what’s wrong, your article is a nice little reminder of how we somehow overlook the little nuances that make India such a great place to live. It doesn’t escape me for a moment that India, in its complexities, might seem overwhelming to an outside. However, you and your wife deserve a lot of credit for making an effort to blend in and embrace the little idiosyncrasies that the country has to offer. Thank you for that!

    Like the gentleman you mentioned in your article, I’d like to thank you for choosing India and also reminding an Indian that there is indeed no place like home.

    Regards,
    Mohit Nihalani

  4. Chandru Theagarajan says

    Hi, Good to know you are having a wonderful time in India. For indians who work for some time in US and return some of the work related issues stated by you is tough to adjust to. You are right if both system goodies can combine to deliver innovative solutions. There are intelligent hardworking Indians who may not have the ability to express but they understand and deliver albeit in their own pace. Once you give the indian a view of the big picture and clarity on his part to play, they most certainly deliver. Few appreciation and kind word motivate them to the hilt. I have worked in three different cultures, I guess every where there is good and bad. Most indians will cooperate when coached to doing things in a smarter way. Enjoy your stay in this fascinating place. cheers.

  5. KM says

    I am glad that you are enjoying your stay.

    Regarding “Indians do not place people in neat little boxes.” If you read the news stories, you will see rampant gender discrimination and caste discrimination. I am glad that you are not experiencing it. But Indians do place people in boxes – all the time.

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