Bridge Cultural Differences for Better Business in India

Opinion: When it comes to Indian-U.S. communication gaps, none looms larger than the Indian understanding of "yes."

We talk of globalization as if it were new today, but those of us with long memories may recall that it was Marshall McLuhan who coined the term "the global village," circa 1964. McLuhan was before his time, though. Only now, with broadband Internet, have we finally succeeded in making it seem as if the person halfway around the world is working next-door.

But our global village is a diverse one. The fact that we can communicate instantly, sending large files in seconds, doesnt change the fact that people have different histories, different languages, different accents, different gestures and different diets. And none of these seems to be going away. If anything, our desire to celebrate diversity tends to reinforce these differences.

/zimages/5/28571.gifStan Gibson says that continued warp-speed IT growth in India will require changes. Click here to read more.

My recent visit to India brought home the point that, if it werent for English fluency, India, with 15 national languages, would be a subcontinent still largely lost to us. Even though only 10 percent of Indians speak English—compared with 40 percent for Hindi—the role of English as a unifying language is not to be underestimated.

But Indian English is not American English. Indian accents can sometimes be difficult for Americans to understand. And there are different Indian accents. Also, Indians often use a side-to-side head gesture to signal agreement rather than disagreement.

When it comes to Indian-U.S. communication gaps, none looms larger than the Indian "yes." This is a well-documented—even by the Indians—mind-set that leads Indians to readily agree to a requirement asked for by a U.S. client, whether there is a realistic chance of achieving it.


More than one U.S. executive has told me that when Indians say "Yes," they mean "Ill make an honest effort" or "Ill try." Not, "Its 99 percent certain to happen. And Ill take personal responsibility if it doesnt."

In an interview in his office at Infosys headquarters in Bangalore, India, S. "Kris" Gopalakrishnan said, "Indians have a difficult time saying no or that youre doing it the wrong way. Indians are more hierarchical and might not say anything unless asked."

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary, director of global research for Commonwealth Business Council Technologies, in London, and author of the book "Outsourcing to India: The Offshore Advantage," put it this way: "Overpromising is the most common problem.

Theres a natural tendency to please. Indians themselves are very friendly. When it comes down to project management, there is not that hard edge that says, if youre going to fail, then youd better communicate that right away."

The Indian "yes" comes from the desire to please, not the impulse to deceive. But when Yanks are looking for an honest yea or nay and they get an unequivocal yes—which is not followed by results—they often do feel deceived. This, of course, can cause tension, which can threaten the success of a project.

What to do? Both sides are off to a good start when they are aware the problem exists. Indians can ask themselves how their "yes" will be interpreted and offer a more complete response outlining contingencies that could thwart success.

Americans can strive to separate the "yes" of the good-faith effort from the ironclad commitment. Even so, a wise project manager will factor in the need for more time spent communicating in offshore relationships.

Kobayashi-Hillary cites in his book the experience of several managers who recommend increasing estimates of project time by 10 percent due to communications overhead.

It also makes sense to establish a project management office in the client country staffed by both Indians and locals. "Become local!" was the advice to Indian outsourcers from Dominique Raviart, senior analyst with Ovum, a U.K.-based consultancy, at the recent Nasscom conference in Mumbai, India.

That makes sense. Having both local and foreign nationals working together in the same office can enable workers to build bridges and to overcome communications barriers. They may even be able to come up with an interoperable version of "yes."

Stan Gibsons e-mail address is

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