In today’s blog, published in 2022, I want to share a podcast where Hugo Messer (Founder of multiple companies) and I discussed cultural differences between India and the West in 2016. At the time of this podcast, Hugo hosted this under the banner of Bridge Global based in Kochi, India. I appreciate Hugo for giving me the permission to share this here on the Authentic Journeys blog. Normally, I would not want to share something so “old,” however, in many ways most of the discussion points in this podcast may remain evergreen as many cultural differences may still be relevant to today’s business landscape. I have also posted the script of the podcast below the video below. I hope you enjoy our discussion.
Get in touch with Jennifer for leadership coaching and cross-cultural/expat training here.
Hugo: Okay. So today I’m talking to Jennifer Kumar, who is living in India since five years, and I believe she’s also married to an Indian husband. But I might be wrong here. She has trained a couple of people in my company Bridge, and we’re talking about cross-cultural issues today and communication because Jennifer is a culture trainer. So maybe you can give us a little introduction about yourself.
Jennifer: Great. Yes, Hugo. You’re absolutely right. And thank you for having me. I have been in India for about five years. This is actually my second time living in India. So I actually earned my master’s degree in India quite a few years ago as well before getting married. Probably about eight years in India, completely. Since I’ve been here this time I have been working on my company Authentic Journeys. And as I mentioned, yes, I’ve helped a few people in Bridge and of course, many other companies, about 30 or 40 other companies in India. So I have experience with people working in various domains, but in most of them, mostly 90% are working on some kind of distributed international team.
Hugo: Okay. And the companies you train are all based in Kerala where you are living or also across India?
Jennifer: Yes, I think about 85% in Kerala, 80% in Kochi. The others would be Bangalore and Chennai and Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Hugo: Right. Interesting. So we discussed a couple of topics before this interview. One of the things that I wanted to start off with is that over here in Europe, where I’m staying, when I talk about people, talk about outsourcing with people, they always mention communication and culture as the main challenges when offshoring work not only to India but to any country. Yeah. Yeah. So I wanted to hear your take on how Indian companies or Indian people see those challenges.
Jennifer: Yes, I would say these also would be the top two challenges when it comes to the kind of training I give. However, of course, we know these are vast subjects. Communication and culture encompass many different things. So of course I have a general kind of session for people that don’t have time to do a consultation. But I would say within the communication we’re looking at various aspects. Anything from how a meeting is managed to who speaks, how many people speak. And when we look at culture, it’s kind of intertwined. You could say many times in India, the manager talks on behalf of everybody in the team. We’re in the West or definitely in the US. It’s considered to show team spirit if everybody on the team is talking, not just the manager. So we kind of try to look for a balance between communication and culture and how to balance it between Indian team, American team. And like I said, some of the companies I work with have teams in various parts of India. So they might also have to balance those kind of differences because India has many cultures as well.
Hugo: Yeah. So the one thing you mentioned right now is that like a Western client or an American client generally would like to have everybody in a meeting speak up. And that’s a challenge that I face many times. Even in my own company in India and people that I’ve worked with before. In a room where I’m giving a presentation, it’s so challenging for me to get everybody to speak up. And I actually haven’t found any solution to that as of yet. And I think if you work distributed like remotely through video conferencing, that that makes it even tougher to do that.
Jennifer: Actually, you have a good point because there’s all different kinds of team dynamics. So there are people who have meetings like we have a one on one on a video conference, one on one on a phone versus you have ten people in the Indian offices, each of them sitting at a cubicle, different cubicle, not even in the same room, versus having everyone in the same meeting room and on a video conference. So some of these also we start talking about group discussion skills, how to transition your discussion to somebody else by using their name, like how I mentioned your name after you return the conversation to me. Also, meeting agenda is critical here to have the meeting agenda and also delineate who is talking about what and making sure that person sticks to their time limit. All of these things are, of course, a challenge. I have seen teams actually create change and make the meeting go smoother for both sides.
Hugo: What would you say is the main reason that if I’m in a team, even if there’s like three people on the Indian side, what’s the reason they don’t speak up? Because I often ask an individual in my own team like, Hey, could you speak up? And they find this challenging. They either don’t say anything or I kind of have to drag it out of them.
Jennifer: Right. So this is tricky because sometimes it depends on the individual. It depends on the team dynamics, too. I’ve often seen that they feel that one person is the head honcho or the manager. They feel, even if they’re asked by, say, you as a client to speak up or you as a Western manager to speak up, they’re actually stepping on the toes of the other people or the other person who’s in a higher status than them.
Jennifer: This is what I’ve seen. So then it just comes to the team dynamics, maybe kind of assuring that the Indian manager, again, maybe puts a person on the agenda or even give has to kind of coach both of them to let both of them talk because now you’re changing the dynamics there. So it’s a little tough for people to kind of hand over that power or if they’re sensing it as handing over their power, it can be a little bit confusing. And the other person who’s now talking is thinking, oh, I’m taking the power away, or should I even speak? So it’s kind of tipping the scale. Sometimes a very uncomfortable balance for both sides.
Hugo: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. You have to adapt. Okay. But I hear you say a couple of times, the main thing is to have clear rules and create a structured agenda so that everybody knows what he’s supposed to talk about right then. So. That’s right.
Jennifer: Yeah. So if I can elaborate on that. So when I bring this up in training, people say, well, does that mean I have to prepare in advance for what I have to say? And I say sometimes it does, because if this is your first time really speaking up in a meeting, you might want to take 5 minutes before the meeting just to kind of gather your thoughts. First of all, you’re transitioning from one meeting to the other meeting. If you’re not used to that, that context change, you just should take a minute to get in the right mindset. You’re moving into a new topic and discussion. And now just to frame your mind, okay, I’m going to talk about this, this and this and try not to go off topic too much as possible. So once the people get a chance to do it, they see results. But yes, with any personal or professional development, it takes a little time to make that change.
Hugo: Yeah, that’s another thing I was I was thinking about in preparation for this this talk we were having in some cases. Sometimes I just think, you know, you could as well just skip all the cultural trainings and just don’t bother about anything and just invest time in the personal relationship that you have with the other person. Because I’ve also learned that if you get a new colleague in the same culture in your office, it takes time to get adjusted to each other. And if somebody is far away in another culture that I don’t know, it takes more time. But if I’m aware that I need to invest that time and I invest in making sure that we are aligned and we can work together, then with that, you can actually overcome any cultural difference.
Jennifer: I would actually agree with that, Hugo. I mean, I think, too, from our Western standpoint, we tend to have small teams. And if you’re lucky when you offshore to India, you could have a small team. Now and Indian small team and Western small team are two totally different things. Small team in the US is like three people. A small team in India could be 25 or 50, which is considered huge in the West.
Hugo: That’s right.
Jennifer: So 25 to 50 people managing that many people can be a challenge to get to know each person individually. But again, it depends on the manager. Maybe some managers can do it. But I know people who have come to India who have started or have taken over projects in India from the West, who now acquire teams of 100 or 200, maybe even 300 people.
Jennifer: I mean, then it’s definitely another story. And it might seem something might change as well. Yeah.
Jennifer: Yeah. So there’s so many different scenarios. But yes, ideally if we have a small team on both sides, I think your idea would be the ideal solution to that that problem.
Hugo: Yeah. My own solution was to just move to India for one year and that actually helped a lot. But I’m not sure if it’s feasible for everybody, but that works.
Jennifer: Yes. I mean, obviously, for people who have the resources to do that, that would be ideal because you get the context. And that’s actually what we suggest, the executives or the professionals here in India who do have a chance to actually go to the US or Europe just to get that context. Even if it’s for one month or two months, they’ve seen some of these concepts in action, like what does it mean to be on time? That’s a totally different concept. But if they go to the US and actually see it and see people reacting nervously with things, start getting anxious. I know that you have a lot of articles of empathy, so you would probably understand where I’m coming from with that topic.
Hugo: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That’s yeah. If you’re empathic, I think that’s one of the key points to bridge any cultural gap. I mean, if you have if you’re really data-oriented and you don’t have an interest into understanding other people, then it’s going to be very challenging to work across cultures. But so I always vote for having at least some people with a little bit of empathy within the team so that those people can sort of mold the team together. Make them work together.
Jennifer: Yes, definitely.
Hugo: Another stereotype that I wanted to hear your pick on is like, so I don’t notice this anymore after so many years of working with Indian people. But what you hear over here is people in India always say, “Yes.” Everybody says this. So how would you what’s your pickiness and how do you overcome this without getting frustrated and investing too much time in this. What’s the shortcut there?
Jennifer: Yes doesn’t always mean yes. Oh, and how we say no, but how we say yes. So a person may never get over the habit of saying, “Yes. Yes.” That has more meaning is critical so that they can go back and review. Yes. On point number one, we discussed we will be doing that by Friday. Point number two. However, I think that we have to extend that by a few days and point, 3. Yes, we’ll get that also done by Friday. So what’s it summarized at the end? Hopefully, that might be one simple solution to people who can’t change, because some people can never change their cultural upbringing in certain elements. Nobody, even me. There are certain things I even find difficult after being in India for five years. It’s just my personality. So hopefully this little tip, this little tip has helped some people to actually overcome that.
Hugo: Right. The sound got a little bit blurred. But what I’m hearing, what I heard is that you say, okay, you need to summarize the three points and just let them rephrase whether you’ve understood them correctly.
Jennifer: Yes. That’s one. Yes. Either they would rephrase or I would summarize what I’ve discussed. One of those two.
Hugo: Yes, exactly. Yeah, yeah. And but then then the risk of course is that they will still say yes while they actually mean maybe or maybe a little bit later or…
Jennifer: That that’s their “yes.” So then it’s always from the other person’s side maybe the U.S. client or the European clients always try their best to find some way different way of asking those questions, or instead of asking a question, sometimes it shouldn’t be a question, but a statement. That’s also a cultural difference.
Hugo: Yeah, exactly. Another topic that I wanted to discuss is like we’ve looked now at some sort of generic things or stereotypes in working with Indians. One thing that I’m absolutely still impressed or maybe surprised by is that I get about five or ten emails every week from people in India, sales people who send me emails that all start with the same thing, “We are the leading company in India…” Usually they start with hi I am blah blah blah. And then they start with We’re the leading company. Then comes this huge email with everything they can do within their company. And then the question, can we have the Skype call? So from a sales perspective, how how do you train teams in India to get better at this? Because there seems to be a major challenge for individual firms, but also for India as a whole, because the way they sell, at least over here, is perceived as very annoying. This is my own experience, but I’ve heard this many times and everything just goes to either spam or they delete it immediately. So how do you train teams on that?
Are you still there, Jennifer? I think I’ve lost Jennifer now. Jennifer, are you back?
Hugo: Okay. So we’re back on the podcast. We had a little interruption because of the Internet connection. We were just discussing how Indian software teams do their sales and then especially the initial stages of the sales process where they contact strangers abroad with emails that are very generic and listing all their capabilities and how Jennifer can or does help teams to get better at this from India.
Jennifer: Yes. So, yes, sometimes these e-mails can be lengthy and nobody wants to read all those words. And sometimes those words are basically what’s already written on the website, kind of word for word. What about us page and things like that. So I help them not only to summarize some of the main elements of the email, so maybe it fits in within one screen because we shouldn’t have to scroll. Nobody likes to do that. But also we have to learn how to communicate with our prospects. So it’s good to have cold emails and cold calls, but we should do a little research in advance to know exactly how we can help that company solve a problem of theirs. And we only know this based on maybe other successes our company has had. So therefore, it’s also important for the sales team to be in touch with other teams on the floor doing the actual work so that they know some of the strengths and challenges and are able to communicate that in a very summarized way, a very convincing way and a quick way, obviously, whether that’s on a call or in an email.
Jennifer, Hugo, and co-colleague Hans Gaertner facilitated a session on email writing for sales teams in India in Trivandrum in 2016 (photo below).
Hugo: Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s what a challenge also is, because it, of course, takes time to sort of investigate the person that you’re sending something to. But I think that’s actually the only way, because I as a Westerner, I prefer to get an email from somebody which contains maybe one or two lines where they say, hey, I’m I don’t know, I’m Jennifer. I find your profile and I find it very interesting that you’re doing A, B, C, and I would like to have a short discussion with you to discuss A, B, C, which is actually more enticing to me than getting a whole list of capabilities. Because what I always think is if they send me an email with this is what we can do, then you basically put the problem on my shoulder because I have to find out what it is that we could collaborate on. But if somebody said, I find your profile, I think this is where we connect on a personal or a business level. Then actually we have it might trigger me. And I think that’s what it’s about. You need to trigger the other person.
Jennifer: Exactly, I think you brought up a good point when you’re talking about this dynamic between the service provider and the client. Somehow, in India, people see this as different than we do in our providers, someone who’s not really having expertise but guidance, who can kind of save our time and money and energy and effort by getting to the point real quick. And at the same time, yes, of course, as a service, as a person getting the service, we have expertise in our own way, but maybe not in what we’re asking the service provider for. Otherwise, why would we need the service provider?
Jennifer: Yeah, this dynamic is completely different now in the sales process, but also in the normal meetings and all of those things we talked about earlier as well.
Hugo: Yeah, exactly. And another thing that I think we discussed that before, but you said Americans are actually very task-oriented. So if somebody from India sent an email to me as an American, I want to get an email that clearly states, okay, this is a task I could help you with, whereas Indians are more relationship oriented. I think actually Europeans might be in between because we are sort of task oriented, but relationships are important. If you are too straightforward and goes straight to the point which indeed some Americans sometimes do, that might not work either.
Jennifer: Yes, that’s a good point. Yeah. So I think definitely it’s good to know about all the different cultural aspects so we can balance the different aspects and it takes time and energy but also takes this experience. So definitely the task versus relationship would be different and sometimes I think maybe I could be wrong, but cold emails from the Indian sense really might not be seen as we’re selling anything yet. We’re just starting. We’re just talking. You may or may not read it. We may or may not even listen to it. Now, what we’re building, we’re getting there. But in the American sense, maybe in the European sense, maybe it’s more about “What can I do for you now? How can I help you now? If I can’t, then move on to the next one. It sounds like the European is a little more patient than the American.
Hugo: Well, I mean, first of all, it’s tough to say “the European” because there’s like 20 different cultures or 30 different cultures over there. And every culture has its difficulties. But I think in general, Europeans are indeed focused on building relationships first. Whereas if I like you in the first contact, I could also give you a project that, you know, after our first meeting, it just depends. Or like if I have a project, I might give it if our first talk is good. But, but in general, I think business is done through relationships, especially on bigger contracts and consultancy, on software development. You just need to meet people and become friendly and then something will happen.
Hugo: I see that they basically approach Europe in the same way as they approach America. Whereas America is large and although there are cultural differences, you could one approach will probably work in most states in the US. But in Europe it’s a different story. Every country is different and if you want to do it well, then in each country you would probably need a local to represent your company, which is what this emphasis or the big firms do.
Jennifer: Yeah. And actually, a lot of startups I work with here in India. They do have a contact as that intermediary….
Hugo: For the US. You mean the sound got a little bit blurry again?
Jennifer: Yes. Yeah, I know. Went out a little bit.
Hugo: Okay. So maybe one last topic to shortly discuss before we wrap up we discussed those cultural differences in general. Then we dove into how do you how do you sell interculturally. I think the third challenge that I often see in offshoring is that the intercultural differences also influence the delivery. Let me put a general statement again, I think Indian firms are often inclined to say, okay, just give me a project. I’ll do it. I’ll show you that we’re good and we’ll take it from there. And they just get going. They say, okay, we’ll deliver the project next week, on Friday, for example, and then it’s Friday. You don’t get anything. So how do you help teams to solve that issue of maybe structure versus just go with the flow.
Jennifer: Yes, because that can be that’s a big challenge, I guess. Firstly, it’s when we initiate the project, how do we set our expectations, whether that’s in roles or timelines? So some of it depends on the length of projects. For projects that might go a little longer than, say, two, three, four months, it’s also good to know the holiday schedule of both sides. And if working with teams in different parts of India, there’s different holidays in different parts of India. So even these little things can actually help a great deal because it’s not going to be fun to get a call on the day of Onam. So that’s why the project is not done. Or if it’s, you know, someone in the US was supposed to give something to someone in India on American Labor Day because in India Labor Day is on May 1st. So I guess most of the other two, but in the US it’s on the first Monday of September. So if someone in India was looking for something on the first Monday of September and now they found out on the previous week, Oh hey, it’s a holiday, they’re not going to get it.
Jennifer: So now everything’s going to get pushed. These are the things can help initially also to know who to talk to about what these things might and often are missing when starting a client relationship I’ve seen as well as a simple thing, is how detailed the contract can be or the details that are missing from a contract. Even when looking at how many features can be put in a site or how many features on the app or something like that? So then if they have to come back later to ask for feature to be added or removed or replaced, they can refer to the contract, which at least in the US sense the contract is kind of like when the trust is built from that. But in India, like you mentioned, the project had started based basically on the spoken word. The spoken word may not be a good lever of trustworthiness in the US because [written] contracts tend to hold more weight. So this is actually a big cultural difference. A really big cultural difference I’ve seen. Yeah. How about your side?
Hugo: Americans are very goal oriented, so they might start a project in a similar fashion, like the Indians. The only exception would be that they want to have a more fixed contract because that’s important in the US. I’m personally a process-oriented, structured guy. I think a lot of people over here in Holland and Germany as well are into structure. So they want to see, okay, how are we going to collaborate, what’s the process and make agreements about the how before you start the work. So in my in my case, we have even developed a method to help teams with creating that sort of structure before a project starts. But I still see, I mean, that’s always a challenge. It also depends on the size of the project because if you’re doing a one or two-month project, it might not really be feasible to do a whole workshop on structuring the team. But if you if you work long term, it will help.
Hugo: But it’s all about you. I think you need to agree on the rules on where you’re going to meet. Indeed. What’s the vacation schedule? You need to get clarity on all those aspects, what tools you’re going to use. Make sure that the video conferencing always works, this kind of stuff. And if you don’t agree on that upfront, you’re going to face that during the project. And that doesn’t help. Um. Yeah, but I think again that might be. I see that in the US people are more. Are you still that Jennifer? I think we’ve lost Jennifer again. Okay. So we lost Jennifer again due to connectivity issues, but we were about to wrap up. So I think it’s good. Jennifer, if people want to know more about you and about your trainings, how could they reach out to you?
Jennifer: It’s easy online at authentic journeys dot info. Hopefully we can link that up somewhere around wherever the video is embedded as well. And of course, the website this Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter where they can also find it under authentic journeys. So that would be the first start.
Hugo: Okay, that sounds good. So that was one more question I meant to ask you, because I get this question a lot. What would be your number one book on cultural differences that you recommend?
Jennifer: That’s a good question because I haven’t had any chance to read recently. But there is a book called Working with Americans that’s written by an American who lives in the U.K. So it’s actually kind of comparing the USA and the U.K., but it actually is helpful for people going to the US from any country. And maybe I can give you the link for that book. Other books off the top of my head. Sorry, I can’t catch it right now.
Check out Working With Americans by Allyson Stewart-Allen and Lanie Denslow
Hugo: Okay, so I’ll put that into the show notes because this seems to be the number one. So that’s good because usually it’s all about offsite state and generic thing. So I like practical books. That sounds like one.
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