The US and India are such vast and populous countries that drawing comparisons of cultural differences between the US and India can put you in danger of making sweeping generalisations. A young, ambitious, educated tech entrepreneur from New Delhi may have much in common with his or her equivalent in Silicon Valley – certainly a lot more than a coconut farmer from Kerala would with a factory worker from Detroit. There are, however, enough deep-seated traits in each culture that make the comparison a useful tool for smoothing the path of business.
Here are 8 cultural differences between the US and India:
1. The caste system and status
Although discrimination on the basis of caste is illegal in India, the ancient Hindu system continues to prosper in society. Social mobility may be improving but parents still work towards securing suitable marriages for their children. Arranged marriages are normal. Marrying outside one’s caste is frowned upon, although the lines are far more blurred now in business, education and friendships. The concept of hierarchy, though, is strong in business. For example, Indians do not like to do jobs that they consider beneath them, or more suited to a lower caste, whereas, in the SA, it is completely normal to work as a waiter while studying for a PhD, or for the chief executive to socialise with the factory floor in the interests of bonding.
Both cultures enjoy what others may seem as over-inflated job titles; to an Indian, a fancy title brings status to their family. To an American, it signifies personal success.
2. Family ties
Families in India are extremely close-knit. Young people tend to stay in the family home until they marry. The constant approval of the matriarch is vital, whether it’s a job, an outfit or a new partner. Parents will exert influence over their children throughout their lives. This closeness is often reflected in business, where hierarchies are strict and nepotism rife. In the US, families tend to be much more widely dispersed. It is assumed that young people will leave home when they go to university and be financially independent when they start work. The family influence fades as young people achieve independence.
3. Goals and hierarchies
Americans tend to be highly goal-orientated, working to achieve profit as fast as possible. Usually, this is achieved by efficient teamwork and by delegating responsibility, with each individual responsible for their own decisions and actions. In India, the emphasis is more on the hierarchy. Individuals lower down the hierarchy are not empowered to make decisions and it could be argued that those further up the system are likely to make decisions with their own interests in mind. Americans tend to regard the Indian system as inefficient.
4. Respect for elders
In India, the head of the family, or company makes decisions. Older people are respected and deferred to and addressed in a formal manner if they are not family members. Indians are brought up to be dependent on the family, or group, for direction, rather than to think independently. The culture in the US is almost the opposite; individuals are expected to fend for themselves and face the consequences of their actions. Older people are not venerated because of their age, but for their achievements. Structures in business are flat and it is normal to be on first name terms with one’s superiors. Americans also question and contradict their superiors openly, within reason, while in India, this would be seen as disrespectful and rude.
Americans tend to be impatient. Life is lived in the fast lane, full of conveniences. Deadlines in business are tight and are expected to be met. People will work long hours to achieve this and there is little tolerance for delay. In India, life moves at a slower pace, despite the apparently frantic buzz of the big cities. Time is viewed more as circular than linear and relationships are more important than deadlines. Workers in a team may not even be aware of a deadline on a project, as this is considered the responsibility of their supervisor.
Misunderstandings regarding time and deadlines can be overcome; Americans can be very clear about deadlines and communicate their priorities better. Indians can learn to understand different priorities and to respect the American need for rigid schedules.
6. Business relationships
To Indians, relationship building is important. Having an established relationship helps to put the other person in context and smooths the path to clearer communication. In the US, business is much more task-focused. Small talk is considered a waste of time, which Indians may find rude. Failure to understand cultural differences between the US and India creates a risk of misunderstanding; Indians may find Americans dismissive, or curt, while Americans consider Indian colleagues to be time-wasters or poor communicators.
Indian culture is steeped in religion and Indians are used to being introspective. Openly bringing one’s beliefs and spiritual values into a business context is not uncommon. Many Americans are religious (although far fewer as a percentage of the population than in India) but bringing one’s faith to the workplace would be seen as imposing it on others. Americans, very generally speaking, tend to be more materialistic than spiritual.
Indians have a strong sense of face and will use indirect communication to preserve this. Saying an outright ‘no’ to someone is considered rude, as it causes them to lose face; there’s a tendency to say whatever the other person may want to hear. Criticising an individual in front of their co-workers is taboo and will certainly cause them to lose face. Feedback should be delivered in private instead. In the US culture, the concept is different. Speech is much more direct and in high-pressure work environments, shouting at subordinates is not unheard of. Conflict is seen as constructive. Feedback is direct and critical, while in India, negative feedback needs to be delivered more as constructive criticism.
WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.
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