No, sir. You can’t come in here.
I left some papers at my office inside one of those huge IT buildings and wanted to pick them up on a Saturday. I didn’t have a parking permit, since I usually came on a two-wheeler, but I knew the parking lot would be nearly empty and I only needed about 10 minutes to go in and out.
As I pulled in, I came to the place where you wave an electronic card to lift the gate. I pulled up, showed my ID card and asked the security guard if he would let me go through.
No, sir. You can’t come in here.
“Please, sir” I said, closing one eye and cocking my head to the side. “Just 10 minutes.”
No, sir. He seemed like he had been through this before.
“Ok, then please let me park here by the entrance; I’ll go in quickly and come back.”
No, sir. Visitor parking is outside.
By “outside” he was referring to the 6 meter wide service lane that was supposed to accommodate two lanes of traffic. I pulled around, found a place to park and started to walk inside.
Sir! Sir! Hello! Sir! Hello! I tried to ignore the calls as I was walking to the office, but I knew they were after me.
Sir, you cannot wear shorts inside the office.
I had never heard of this rule before since I had only come before on working days. Suddenly I thought through the very real possibility that I might have to walk back to my car, drive home, change into pants, drive back, hope to find another parking space on the alley, and go through this all again.
“Sir, please. I didn’t know about this. This is my first time. Please, it will only be 10 minutes and I’ll come right out.”
As luck would have it, all the security guards were congregating outside for their daily meeting. And with them was the head man. He noticed the commotion and came over.
“Hi sir. I’m so sorry. I just came to the office to collect some papers. I will just go up and come right down. I didn’t know about the shorts. Next time, I will wear trousers. Your people have already given me a lot of hassle. You can send someone with me.”
He gave me the slightest of smiles with a head wobble and got on his walkie-talkie. He cleared me to go up, only if I entered by the back entrance and had a guard go with me. As I walked out of the building I traded a friendly wave and smile with the guard and the head man.
Turning the No into a Yes
In India, no is not always no. Rules are guidelines, but are flexible depending on the relationship and circumstance. One of the best skills you can pick up in India is knowing how to squeeze a no into a yes and when it’s appropriate to do so.
No’s that could possibly be Yes’s
You may not get the exact outcome you are looking for, but it is extremely rare for any of these situations to be a final and comprehensive no.
- Any business deal
- Any financial negotiation
- Someone telling you that you can’t bring a laptop or a pen drive into a building
- A waiter telling you there is no room in the restaurant
- A shop owner saying there is no more stock
- Your team member saying he can’t cancel a family vacation he booked six months ago but just told you about today
- Your finance accountant denying a reimbursement
- A client saying they can’t pay your invoice for another six months
- The babu denying your application in person
- Your plumber saying he doesn’t know a carpenter to recommend
- A government official telling you the Minister you need to see isn’t in the office today
- About 1,000 other circumstances
No’s that should stay no’s
- Discounts on published fixed prices. You can ask, but respect the owner if he tells you there is no discount.
- Anything an immigration, customs, tax, or police officer tells you that is in compliance with the law. If someone is trying to enforce a real law, you should obey it.
- When you might be putting someone’s job in jeopardy. We used to have a cake every time a training batch finished at an office. Once, the students tried to take the cake up to the training room, but the security guard said they could only eat it in the cafeteria. The students tried to argue with him, but later gave in. Afterwards, we talked about how that security guard had likely been explicitly told to not allow any food into the rooms. Had he let us go through with it, he would have risked being fired.
- Refunds. One of the cardinal rules of Indian business is to never, ever give cash back to a customer or client once it has been handed over. I don’t know why, but this is one no that will always remain a no.
If you want to try to turn a no into a yes, you have three options.
1. PowerPlay Up
This is where you take on a dominant posture. You are in charge, powerful, and cannot be bothered with whatever silly rules are in front of you. Your body language helps a lot here. If you walk into an office like you are the managing director, the security guard isn’t going to force you to open your bag for him.
Another variation on this is to call in a favor. Keep the name and number of someone very high-ranking nearby and call them when you need to change your situation. If you don’t know anyone, you can ask for a manager, but it is a less powerful position to not know any names.
2. PowerPlay Down
To be quite honest, I am really bad at the PowerPlay Up. I seem to be not so convincing when it comes to being seen as powerful and threatening. So, I usually opt for the PowerPlay Down.
This is where you put yourself at the mercy of the other person. Some may call it ‘ego massaging’ (a good skill to have here), but it is anything you can do to show tremendous respect to the person you want to make an exception for you. You treat them as being very kind and benevolent, and recognize that they are the only one who has the power to circumvent this barrier, if only they would chose to bestow their kindness on you.
This can happen in a lot of ways. In short-term situations, using extremely apologetic language and lots of ‘sirs’ and titles can help. You wouldn’t be the first person to use the ‘clueless foreigner’ approach, which is often justified. You body language should be more meek something a little more dignified than groveling.
If you are in a longer-term situation such as trying to get a permit or a business deal, lots of tea will help. Gifts and favors are also useful as long as you are comfortable with your definition of what a ‘bribe’ is.
3. Try again next time
Who knows? A lot can change in a day or two: the weather, a nice bonus, the quality of food at the canteen. Many times, your ‘no’ was just a result of the wrong mix of circumstances and if you try again, you’ll get a better response.
Being able to turn a no into a yes will serve you well throughout your India experience and beyond. You can see possibility where others shy away. And, one of my favorite outcomes is that anyone that does bend the rules for you (like my security guard) becomes a friend for life, and you get an instant fortune in relational capital.
Any good stories to share about how you turned a no into a yes?
Image credit: lucky_dog on Flickr