Living & Working In India – A Westerner’s View
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.
[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.
|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.|