Karl, a large man from Canada, was visiting an office in India for the first time. He was led around by Maneesha, a smartly-dressed, super-punctual woman who made sure Karl was at all of his meetings on time. Towards the end of the first day, she took Karl to meet a group of brand-new freshers who were going through some technical training. Karl joked about looking like a huge white monster, and promised not to be too scary.
Karl walked along behind the trainees and stopped behind Sangeetha. He noticed a few mistakes in a sentence she was typing and asked her in a friendly tone to “just fix it quickly”. She stared straight ahead at her screen. Karl said, “No, it’s easy, just erase that word and add a period.” Sangeetha’s eyes grew even bigger than before; she asked to be excused, and hurried to the bathroom.
Megan had just arrived for a one-year internship in India. She was put in a small group of desks with three younger single guys. Her first week went well, and she enjoyed working with her colleagues. On Friday, one of the guys mentioned at lunch that they were going out to a bar that night. Megan said, “Sounds like fun, can I come? I don’t have anything to do.”
The guys looked at each other and nervously agreed. Later in the day, one of them said he was not feeling well and might go home for the night, and the other two slowly dropped out as well, leaving Megan without any plans, and wondering what happened.
Nothing is higher on the list of ‘I-don’t-want-to-look-like-a-fool-in-a-new-country’ than knowing how to interact with women and men, specifically the opposite gender. It can seem extremely simple when done right, but extremely devastating when done poorly. In this article, we’ll explore how gender affects relationships in the workplace for an outsider in India.
For the businessman traveling to India:
If you are used to traveling in Asia, you know that you tend to get treated a little more like a king than you are used to. India is no different, but nothing off the charts. Foreign businessmen have been coming here for ages. Most people will assume that you are quite wealthy and have a good amount of authority behind you.
Interacting with Indian Men
There are two main types of Indian men.
Type A is the seriously spiritual man. We shall call him ‘Uncle’. He is strictly vegetarian, perhaps a little older, wears traditional markings on his forehead, and is a little nationalistic. He is good-humored, but doesn’t participate in crude jokes. In his spare time, he attends Indian music concerts or religious discussions. He welcomes you as an outsider to India, but is not worried about trying to impress you.
Type B sees you as the perfect opportunity to engage in any kind of vice available. We shall call him ‘Bhai’ [meaning younger brother]. He will invite you to go out for a drink, smoke, swear, eat red meat, or anything else he is not technically supposed to do. He is also nationalistic, but might complain openly about India and hopes to get a job in Europe or North America.
These are two ends of the spectrum. Most men fall between the two, but some fit the generalization very well.
If your Indian colleague is more like Uncle, treat him with a lot of respect. Enjoy coffee with him and engage in lots of small talk. If you bring a gift, make it elegant and classy. Ask about his extended family, especially parents and children. Don’t order meat at a restaurant if you can help it.
If your Indian colleague is more like Bhai, he is looking to have a good time. He will probably be eager to ask you lots of questions and hang out very late into the evening. It will seem like he has no family responsibilities while you are in town. Bhai tends to be more sentimental than Uncle, and will treasure any gift from you as well as the time you spend together outside the office.
Regardless of the type of Indian man, cricket and family are your two go-to small talk topics, which should provide enough conversation for a few hours.
Interacting with Indian Women
While men still dominate the business world, it is very common to interact with a lot of women, even in senior positions.
Once again, there are two extremes when it comes to professional Indian women. The first is like Maneesha, the fully corporatized woman who dresses in professional saris, looks you in the eye, shakes your hand firmly, and speaks in impeccable English. She is often the most aware of the power-balance of the office and knows all the drama and backstories, but never mentions them in public.
With her, you should be very polite and proper. Shake her hand firmly and do not treat her differently than a man, except by acknowledging that she is likely juggling seven different worlds under that cool, collected smile. (See Indias by Gender.)
The other end of the spectrum is like Sangeetha. She is small, inconceivably quiet, and incredibly submissive. She does not make eye contact, occasionally smiles, and generally avoids you at all costs. Yet, you may stumble upon her giggling uncontrollably with her friends about something you will never understand.
Don’t force a handshake with her; but if you do, be prepared for the definition of a ‘dead fish’. In fact, your best method is not to force anything. Just speak slowly and politely. Some women on this end of the spectrum gradually become more like Maneesha, but others work for a few years, get married, and leave their jobs.
If you are interacting with women outside of the office (wives or mothers), your best bet is to be extremely polite, hungry, and complimentary.
For the businesswoman traveling to India:
Due to the large number of foreigners coming through India, and the increasing prominence of Indian women in the workplace, India is not as difficult as it used to be for a foreign woman. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. You will likely need to work harder to establish a position of authority since it won’t be given to you outright.
Interacting with Indian men
If you are interacting a lot with ‘Uncle’, your relationship will likely be very professional and to-the-point. He may or may not hold some sexist views on women in the workforce, but either way, your best bet is to be straightforward and hardworking. There are very few examples of a male-female mentor relationship; if you have a senior man you are reporting to, don’t expect him to get very involved.
Things are more difficult with ‘Bhai’. He might openly goof off and laugh at things that he will never let you in on. You will not be invited to any after-hours events where a lot of the real bonding happens. With him, you should be confident and businesslike. Trying to join in with the joking and teasing will do no good, as he’ll either get the wrong impression or feel insulted that you are making fun of him. (#Thinskinned) Definitely stay away from any romantic or sexual jokes; they will only feed into stereotypes you are hoping to break.
Interacting with Indian Women
The biggest thing you might notice about interacting with other women is the lack of ‘fraternizing’. Since working women have so much pressure on them inside the home, they usually do not have time to just hang out with colleagues. Their lunch conversations might revolve entirely around children, husbands, parents, and in-laws. It is not that you won’t be able to make friends with other women at the office, it’s just that it is usually difficult and more complex than it seems.
So should you shake a woman’s hand? Like most things in India, it depends. The best thing you can do is don’t be uninformed when interacting with India. Gaining some confidence in interacting with women and men will set you up for a great trip to India, and prevent some big slip-ups. Feel free to share more advice or stories below.
Image credit: Saad Akhtar on Flickr