10 years ago I visited India for the first time. After an IT adventure of 4 years in Brazil I crossed oceans and countries to land in India. What a change. From soccer to cricket and from carnival, with flamboyant dancers, to religious festivals, like Diwali and Holi. And… from a country with 200 million people to the second world nation with a population of about 1.3 billion people. Besides many differences, they have a common history by winning the Miss Universe elections twice.
Doel van mijn reis: Indiase programmeurs vinden voor mijn iPurpose of my trip: finding Indian programmers for my internet projects. Through Google I came into contact with an IT company in Indore. I was invited, packed my bags and took the plane. India, here I come!
A different world
I landed in Indore, a city with over 2 million inhabitants, in central India. The colors, the different smells, the busy traffic and the friendly people overwhelmed me. After a good night and a (far too) spicy Indian breakfast I took a rickshaw. With the address on a bill I asked the driver if he knew the address. “Yes, yes”. Great, the first driver was already a hit. After 100 meters he stopped and started talking to the people on the road. They were pointing in different directions. Maybe he couldn’t read my handwriting properly? After 10 stops and 45 minutes later we reached the destination. Wait, did I just see my hotel a little further up the street? Anyway, I had reached my destination.
“Yes, yes, no problem”.
After a warm welcome and some talk about small talk, which of course are sacred animals in India, the business conversation started. I needed developers and asked if they had the necessary knowledge. “Yes, yes, no problem”. Wow, how good. I talked about a tight deadline for a project and asked if they could meet it. “Yes, no problem.” I asked for confirmation and got an “Ok”. How funny they shake their heads. It was a movement between “yes” and “no”. The rickshaw driver and the people in the hotel did the same. Special. We made the deal and I went home with an offshore team of 5 Indian developers. The world is so small.
Journey just started
Coming home I thought I had finished the journey, but soon I knew that the real journey had just begun. I found out that not all the developers had the knowledge I had asked for. How is that possible? And why didn’t they meet the deadlines? I specifically asked for it and they confirmed with ‘Yes, no problem’. Fortunately, with hard work, tight communication, lots of cups of Chai Tea and lots of masala dosas (the Indian Coca-Cola and pizzas), we limited the ‘damage’. After some searches on Google I discovered that it’s a common “problem” that Indian people can’t say “no”. It is deeply ingrained in their culture.
Loss of face
Not to say “no” is a cultural tradition not to lose face. Saying no is considered rude. Usually it is twisted around the hot mash not to have to say “no”. From an early age, Indians learn not to say “no” to an important person. Who is more important to a company than a customer? That probably explains the mutual misunderstandings and the “yes, yes, no problem” I have often heard.
What a contrast with our Dutch directness. We say it straightforward, whether it’s feedback to a manager or a simple ‘no’ when someone asks you for a favor. The contrast is even greater because of my impatience and talkativeness. In recent years I have learned to count to 10 before I answer (verbally or non-verbally), but this is still number one on my list of personal improvements.
Good to know those cultural differences. It can be a threshold in communication with Indian or other Oriental people, if you are not aware of it. And at first I wasn’t aware of it either. Next time it’s better to immerse yourself in the culture and traditions of the country before getting on a plane. Now I understood the uncomfortable situation of the Indian developers, they just didn’t want to be rude to me.
Try reversing the question
Is there a solution to avoid misunderstandings about a “yes”? Yes, actually a very simple one, ask open questions. Don’t ask if the other person has understood you correctly, but ask if he or she can tell in his or her own words what they have understood. By the way, this question is also best asked to people from your own country or culture. You cannot look into their heads to see whether they have really understood you. The chance of misunderstandings may be smaller because you are then in the same context, but still. And if you ask a closed question, try to avoid a simple “no”. Every time you would normally say “no”, try to turn the question upside down so that a “yes” can easily be given as an answer, that will also help.
The journey continues
I have been working with Indian developers for 10 years now and every day I am still learning. Mutual understanding is the key to success. I need to immerse myself in their culture and they need to be open to my culture. Only then do you become aware of the cultural differences and together you can try to make this gap as small as possible. If you work together for a longer period of time then the communication automatically becomes more open and less hierarchical. It is a journey of trial and error that still surprises and amazes me. That makes it exciting, challenging and varied, regularly holding up a mirror to me how “strange” our culture really is. I make eager use of this valuable experience in the assignments I get to do for fantastic clients and the role I have at Cloud9 Offshore.