Connecting With Indians in the Training Room

Posted On: October 31, 2014

US Trainer in India shares experiences

How can an expat in India learn the fine art of connecting with Indians in the training room?


The American guest speaker had filled the room in Kochi, India with curious and keen listeners. The opening of the speech, meant to enliven the group, was a joke not only particular to Americans, but particular to a certain part of the US.  

And, with that opening most of the listeners already disconnected. 

That experience taught me a powerful lesson. While all presentation guides suggest to use humor to relax a crowd, it has to be contextually appropriate humor. And, when entering another, unfamiliar culture where most of the people do not speak your language or your version of your language, it’s better not to tell these jokes. Rather than pep up the crowd, such openers will confuse the crowd and create seats with bodies, not seats with participants.  

I may not be the best at telling jokes in the US or in India, but I try my best to share something that I think the crowd can relate to whether it’s stories or jokes, regional songs or movie references. Since my training programs deal with Indians adjusting to US culture, I often tell stories of my Indian friends in the US, and their experiences with US ways. One of the most important elements of relationship building with anyone, Indians or Americans, is to find areas of common ground. Even if you as the American in India do not really know about the culture, find something you like and talk about it with Indians. If you like Indian food, there you go. Indians love to talk about food. Be ready to be asked anytime, especially after lunch, “Have you had your food?” They will love it if you tell them you like Indian food. They will like it even more if you tell them a particular regional dish you like, as Indian food varies so vastly from region to region. If you do not know about the dishes, eat lunch with your Indian counterparts and find out that way! No better way than getting in there and getting your hands dirty, literally! 

Teaching or Facilitating in India 
Teaching or facilitating in India has similarities to the US, but also many differences. While the article gives more tips on these differences, it’s only once most of us Westerners actually experience them in the actual situations we understand these differences. Even then, it can take time to fully appreciate. After that, then comes the creative task of adjusting ourselves to the Indian cultural realities and changing our methodologies, approaches and communication styles to be more successful. 

Learning in India
How participants in training programs learn in India is also different. Since I have also studied my Master’s degree in India (the only foreigner in my class of Indians), I have experienced this first hand, as well. 

Americans prefer to learn as individuals, thinking and mulling over things. Americans may participate in group discussions to share their personal experience applying the material, and may not always talk from the conceptual point of view. Americans are also more open to talking about their opinion, without worrying if it differs from their teacher, facilitator, boss, or senior. 

Indians prefer to learn in a group. If you deliver your training in English, they will discuss the activities in their regional language in most cases, especially if the group is homogeneous. Indians prefer group discussions and do not really feel that comfortable to share personal opinions. Most Indians do not want to stand out and appear different. This means that in some of the more traditional groups, when the teacher or facilitator asks for feedback, the group may ask for the opinion of the facilitator and base their discussion on whatever the facilitator says. This may not be their own opinion. They may stick more to the concepts than discussing opinions.  

As I am there training Indians to interact successfully with Americans, I handle this situation differently. While I do prefer to have group discussions and group work in Indian training sessions, if a participant asks me a question, I do not answer it directly. In most cases, I answer their question with a question. I do not want them to answer based on my answer. I force them to think. To force thinking, a rule in my sessions is that no two people can answer the question with the same answer. This is also typical in Indian classes. One person will answer the question saying X, so when the teacher asks the other students for their answer, they also respond with X, with little or no variation. In my sessions, the participants must answer either with a totally different answer, a build answer (giving more specifics from the previous answer), or if they are unable to answer at this moment, I tell them I will come back to them later after everyone else has answered. This forces the participant to listen to everyone’s ideas and hopefully think of something else in the meantime. In most cases, when I return to that participant he or she has something very insightful to add.

How to Address and Be Addressed
In the article, the author suggests to know the company hierarchy and also how to greet that person should he or she enter the room. I agree wit this suggestion. To add to it, I would also suggest that the trainer or facilitator accept that in many cases, the participants may stand when the trainer enters the room. In many of the traditional parts of India, people stand up when ‘seniors,’ ‘important people,’ or ‘teachers’ enter the room. In many cases, I would suggest if you are sitting when the ‘head honcho’ or other important people enter the room to stand as well.

In addition to the non-verbal behavior, it’s important to know how to call someone. Many Indian managers accept Westerners or Americans to call them by their first name as they know the cultural differences. In some cases, it may make sense to refer to the person by Dr. if they have a Ph.D. or Mr./Ms. especially in written communication. In Kerala, I often refer to principals and other important people outside of MNCs (Multi-national Corporations) as Sir or Ma’am. As a foreign trainer, you may also be referred to as Sir or Ma’am, or in some cases by the regional language translation for “elder brother” or “elder sister,” especially if training in the social services sector. 

To sum up, understanding some basics of interactions in another culture can seem like common sense, but often differ widely based on the culture. Knowing a little and practicing it can go a long way in creating good vibrations. 

As a side note: The photo in this article is of actual participants in Authentic Journeys training during a group discussion activity. 

Jennifer Kumar, author of this article is an American who lived in India for almost 10 years. One of her jobs in India was running Authentic Journeys, providing cross cultural training to those working on virtual teams, which she continues to do from Salt Lake City, Utah. 

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