To say I have flawlessly adjusted to the work culture in Kerala since my first assignment in July 2011 would be a lie. To say I have completely adjusted after five years, is also not a complete truth. That being said, there are definitely a few things that I really like about the work culture in Kerala, India.
Small talk at work is more personal than in the U.S. (maybe unless you live in a small town in the U.S.). A few small talk questions that shocked or confused me when I started working in India (and now I am used to) are:
|Jennifer facilitating college to corporates session in India.|
Initially I thought people were being too intrusive by asking these questions, especially to someone they are meeting for the first time. I felt these questions were too personal. In one small talk session I had given in India where we were talking about acceptable and unacceptable small talk topics with Americans, we were talking about how one can ask their U.S. colleagues about their hobbies, personal weekend plans, their day, etc. One person in the class interjected,
“But these are personal! I am asking that person about their self- what they personally like, what they personally have done! If you see the small talk questions we ask in India, we ask about your family members- so it’s not really about the person personally!”
I was stunned into silence. I totally understood this from their point of view at that moment! It’s so amazing how the same thing can be seen by two different people/cultures as something exactly opposite, isn’t it!?
While work is certainly important, I feel in India, people are generally more understanding and flexible about supporting you in the midst of family emergencies and responsibilities. As I teach in US Culture Training programs, I feel this is part of the ecosystem of the culture, not just an isolated cultural variable. India being a multicultural, multilingual, multi religious nation with a wide variety of observances, people seem to be more adjusting and tolerant to different lifestyles and their requirements. Based on someone’s religion or family culture various life celebrations (weddings, births, funerals of near and dear, and others) require from a few days to up to a few weeks off of work. I feel that such lengthy traditions or customs would not be easily understood or accepted in the US, especially when it requires so many days off in a row.
Additionally, in some companies, family can attend cultural events, no questions asked. Unlike the need for RSVPs in American companies, some Indian companies I have worked with find it offensive to not allow spouses and children to attend the full day cultural and holiday celebrations at work (or after work on the weekends, in fancy hotels or resorts).
If contacting someone by email or phone doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the road. I have been connected with others for business reasons by SMS (text message), pinged in Whatsapp, Facebook, Skype, LinkedIn and through a third person in some cases. While most American professionals would avoid providing or using these alternatives for normal business contacts, I think in India people are much more flexible in how they reach out to others not only by medium but by schedule, also!
And, since voice mail is not at all common, a live call is the preferred method, even if that call may interrupt another meeting in progress. Because of this, I have had to be strict on the times I take calls, because people would call me any and all times of the day and night. I have restricted the times I take business calls to 10am-6pm IST between Monday and Friday unless my client is based in the U.S., the call was scheduled previously or there is some emergency. I also do not tend to take calls during training programs and client meetings. In such cases, I reach out by using any of the methods listed above.
While dress code can also vary from industry to industry and company to company, I tend to find the dress code in general much more relaxed for women working in most companies in Kerala. I can choose to wear Western work formals or semi-casuals or Indian clothes (sari and/or salvaar kamiz). As I am working as a subcontractor for most of the companies, very few impose a dress code on me. The most common request, though, is to dress in Western work formals for training programs such as the US Cultural Awareness Training program because the people taking this program are going onsite to the US. Many women in Kerala wear Indian clothes to work, so I offer a perspective on female dress options for the U.S. corporate environment while facilitating the program. Otherwise, one of the things I really like about the dress code in the over 70 companies I have worked for in Kerala and throughout India is that the dress code tends to be a bit more relaxed (more like a U.S. casual Friday dress code) and definitely, for women (and men, too, in some cases) much more colorful, especially when we wear Indian clothes to work! I know that many miss the Indian dress code in style and color when going to work in the U.S. (and Europe, too)!
Listen to this podcast where I talk about another amazing experience I had working in Kerala, India.
Jennifer Kumar is an American expat who is living in Kochi, Kerala, India. She is also a small business owner and entrepreneur. As the Managing Director of Authentic Journeys, she has facilitated US culture and business communication training programs for over 4,500 people working in the software industry in India. Get in touch with her here.
Updated May 2018
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