Understanding Indian, but also German Culture

minal_sauerhammer_1minal_sauerhammer_2Understanding Indian, but also German Culture …
… in conversation with Minal Sauerhammer.

Interview by Julia Ringies

“Be prepared, not to be prepared.”
Indian proverb




About twelve years ago Minal Sauerhammer – today an intercultural trainer for international companies – moved to Germany. In our conversation about intercultural management she lets me in on the secrets of doing business with Indians.

So, if you have a group of people to train what are the first things you teach them about doing business in India?

Minal: For India: The first thing is networking, flexibility and „take it with humour“. You know, you cannot have a fixed agenda and make it work in this way. I mean we have a saying in India: “Be prepared to be not prepared“. You need to be ready for this in meetings or in project management. Deadlines might not be met.

In India it is more important to get to know the person and afterwards the matter whereas in Germany the matter is more important. The Indian thinks: If I can measure you as a person, I am more likely to take a risk and this one step of trusting you. Germans need to learn to build up this trust, because the Indian culture is very relationship-oriented.

What helps is the capability to small talk, to network as well as flexibility and patience. I think these four words are the first things I teach.

After 6 years of working in this field are there typical reactions from German participants about doing business in India?

Minal: Most of them have the deadline problem. The thing is that it is very difficult to get an Indian to work independently and especially to talk about not being able to meet the deadline. Most Indians would say: I can do it. They will somehow try to make it fit. And – only in the last moment – they say: Just one more day. The way Indians look at time irritates German managers and colleagues a lot.

And others would say: Indians do not take the responsibility. The reason is that in India there is the boss and the boss has to tell you what to do. To make suggestions and risk negative feedback is tough and also a problem with possibly disrespecting hierarchical orders. Germans find this very difficult to understand because here the boss expects employees to take decisions, to be creative and to think out of the box.

So what would be the suggestions for German business – if they experiences this kind of problem?

Minal: Best thing is: Do not assume! When an Indian says “ok” ask what does the “ok” mean. It doesn’t mean “yes”, it doesn’t mean “no”. It is always better to ask questions. Do not ask closed questions. Is this ok with you? Do you think you can do it? Better it is to ask open questions like what? where? how? That way you receive more information to see if the Indian colleague has really understood what you said. Confirm and reconfirm. Really clarify things. In a project plan ask in between the deadlines and give supervision in a friendly way. Reconfirm, reconfirm and clarify. Again and again. Indians do not like it when the boss doesn’t keep in contact with them. It is always good to keep in touch with them.

Sounds like a clever way to use communications to solve the intercultural differences. Finally, is there one thing what you hear from Indians about Germans a lot?

Minal: In trainings I hear that Germans are unapproachable. I think in India body language is very important. We speak a lot over our body language – with a lot of friendliness. And the Germans don’t have that much body language. I mean it is more on the stiffer side. So that confuses the Indians. For us it is not what is said, but how it is said. Everything in India is taken very personally. If maybe in the beginning the body language is rigid, this distances the Indians from you. Germans are very direct and that can be very irritating for them. So if I tell you, shall we meet tomorrow and you say I don’t have time it will be taken very personally and the Indian thinks, ok, she doesn’t like me.

Ok, talking about these differences make me realize, I am more German than I thought I am and that it is super important to reflect upon my own culture in the same way as about the Indian culture to be able to understand intercultural communications.

Do connect with Minal Sauerhammer on Xing – Networking welcome!