You know that feeling you get when your inbox gets to zero?
You feel like you really accomplished something. Like you are on top of your game. Like you really earned your money today.
In India, that feeling can be deceptive.
You can have an empty inbox, but never do any actual business. You can reply to all your messages and SMSs, but never reach any of your targets. You can send a hundred emails a day, but never be any closer to your goal.
The problem might lie in choosing the wrong forms of business communication in India.
When it comes to communicating with India, there is one Golden Rule you must always remember:
Pick up the phone
When working in India, I struggled with hiding behind written forms of communication like emails and SMS. When asked why a certain project was not moving along, or why there seemed to be an internal clash of interests, my manager quickly became very tired of my “I emailed, but they didn’t respond” answers.
“Pick up the phone” is not a command to only use telecommunications, but a better mindset to have when communicating with India. When you are tempted to rely on your usual emails, remember that it is much simpler and dramatically more effective to be in direct contact.
The average Indian’s communication comfort zone is probably more on the indirect side than yours. This means they are relying on your facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, just as much as the words. When you always opt for emails and instant messages, your Indian colleagues might feel like they are trying to put together a puzzle without all the pieces.
The Golden Rule means that you use media-rich formats more often. Face-to-face meetings are usually better than phone calls. Video conferences are usually better than emails. Phone calls are usually better than text messages.
Following the Golden Rule will increase your productivity immensely. As I slowly applied this lesson, I would take twenty minutes to type out a long email, look over it, and then realize that a five-minute phone call was a much better solution.
8 More Tips for Choosing the Right Type of Communication:
1. Sequencing Matters
Don’t consider communication in India a one-time event. Especially if you are communicating very important or sensitive information, think of your communication more like a campaign.
Here is a sequence for delivering some very sensitive information like a corporate restructuring:
- Individual in-person meetings with key stakeholders
- Follow up phone call with key stakeholders
- Small group meetings of major stakeholders
- Follow up email summarizing the meeting
- Official email sent to all major stakeholders explaining the restructuring
Something less sensitive like a change in office hours might be better done in a large meeting first, and then an announcement over email.
The key here is that you should never send any surprising news over email. By the time it reaches people’s inbox, they should be fully prepared for any information they are receiving.
2. Use email as documentation
Given the Golden Rule, you might think email has a very small role in communication. Its main and best-used role is to document a conversation. Indians as a whole aren’t naturally great at documenting things. Have your conversation on the phone, and then follow it up with an email to make sure there is a record of communication.
3. Keep humor out of written communication
I like using understatement and sarcasm to be funny much more than I should. This backfired a lot in the office. Sometimes it would be months later when I would learn that someone was still harboring ill feelings towards me for something they had misread in my email when I was trying to be funny.
Written communication is not the place for humor in cross-cultural settings unless all the recipients know you and your style extremely well.
4. Keep highly sensitive information out of written communication
If you are dealing with confidential numbers, giving unflattering commentary on a co-worker, or writing anything that someone else might possibly misinterpret, pick up the phone. Things get shared very easily, and things get taken out of context very easily.
5. Keep emotions out of written communication
This one is universal, but it applies not only when you know you are being emotional, but also when someone else thinks you are being emotional. Remember that Indians are using every clue they can to try to pick up on your real message, not just what the words say. If they feel you have the slightest tone of annoyance, frustration, or bitterness, they will notice it, and it will impact your relationship.
6. Pay attention to hierarchy
One of the most noticeable differences between India and other countries is the amazing number of people who appear on cc for any given email. This is the primary way managers stay on top of what their team members are doing. I have heard some of them say, “cc me on every email that you send”.
“Reply all” is sometimes considered inappropriate in Western countries because you don’t want to clog people’s mailboxes. In India, I had to change my email settings so that it was the default response.
Be careful of hierarchy also in conference and video calls. It is meaningless to have a call with more than two layers of hierarchy unless you are just delivering a message that needs no response.
7. Establish a relationship with a face-to-face
If you are just starting out with a new Indian team, do everything you can to meet them face-to-face as soon as possible. This will set a strong foundation for a good relationship from the start. Your ability to lead and be trusted is dependent on the relationship, which is dependent on their ability to identify with you. A face-to-face meeting is the best way to establish this.
8. Communicate urgent things over the phone
Do not rely on email in emergencies. If something has risen to high priority, the primary form of communication should be over the phone. Indians will nearly always answer their phone, even if they are on a holiday. However, they will also expect you to be available over the phone, and ready to respond to emergencies.
Choosing the right type of communication might seem like a small matter, but people who know how to get things done in India don’t overlook it. If you really want to be productive and accomplish your main task (which isn’t just clearing out your inbox), then follow the Golden Rule. Give it a shot today and watch it work instantly.
Photo Credit: AIDSVaccine on Flickr