Guest Post by Gunjan Bagla

Global 2000 companies have grown their India subsidiaries at a dizzying pace in recent years as a result the CEOs of Hewlett Packard Dell Computer Cisco Intel and others have visited Bangalore Mumbai Hyderabad and Delhi frequently. Simultaneously IT and IT-enabled-services vendors from India have grown their American revenues to over 5 billion a year.

At the early stages of this tidal wave most CIO interactions were focused on immigrants from India who often received graduate degrees from U.S. universities before entering the American workforce. Increasingly though North American IT professionals need to interact directly with their Indian counterparts from India. Even though both sides officially speak English there are significant pitfalls for the uninitiated caused by culture parlance and distance.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday and you are finishing up a phone call with Jay your counterpart in Bangalore. Jay tells you that he will get back to you “tomorrow.” Don’t necessarily expect anything on your Wednesday. Remember it is already 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday in Bangalore since Indian Standard Time IST is 13 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Pacific Standard Time. Jay might be implying that he will get back to you when it is Thursday Seattle time but it would be better if he said “Anita I will get back to you on Thursday by 9:00 a.m. your time.”

Jay calls you back on Thursday to say “Anita the change request can be implemented in a couple of weeks when I will be in Seattle.” Jay does not necessarily mean 14 days. In India “couple” is an imprecise measure and often means “a few” not exactly two. It is best to clarify and ask for a specific date.

Jay and his colleague Ram arrive at your Seattle offices “in a couple of weeks” and you are huddled together in an all-morning meeting. Jay shows you the list of remaining software bugs and says “Anita have you and boss ticked off the critical ones?” No he is not asking if you have made anyone upset. He simply wants you to “check off” the critical bugs. You check off the bugs that you care about and say to them “If your developers finish the bug list by Thursday it will be a home run for you!” Perplexed Ram responds “Actually Anita don’t we have the meeting about the new project on Friday afternoon? We won’t be going home until after that meeting.” Baseball is not popular in India and home run is not universally understood.

Mark Nelson Executive Vice President of Global Sourcing for IndyMac Bank says that he is careful to limit the use of American idioms when speaking with his Indian vendors Cognizant Technology Solutions and EXL Service. “I don’t ask them to fish or cut bait we don’t hit singles and doubles and no matter how severe the weather it never rains cats and dogs” he declares having made two trips to India this year. Since American media are ubiquitous in urban India some Americanisms have become common but not all. You may never know the mistakes you are making so it is better to restate key points in non-colloquial terms.

Toward noon you ask your working visitors “Shall we take a break for lunch now?” Jay tilts his head to the side in response. His colleague Ram says “Yes I am famished.” You pause waiting for them to make up their minds. They look you at you wondering if you disagree with them or wish them to make more progress before lunch. You have just encountered the unique “Indian Head Crick.”

Americans indicate yes by moving their heads up and down. Indians might do that but they have a few other ways of nodding yes. One way is to tilt the head sideways with a bit of jerk and it means “Yes of course I agree let’s do it.” Another method involves a “Head Bob” rotating the head on “all three axes” according to Avinash Agarwal who established Sun Microsystems’ India Development Center in Bangalore in 2000. Other regional variations of yes exist and most of them look like a no to the uninitiated American. The former CIO of Echostar Corporation Ed Allwein spent several weeks in Delhi this year working very closely with a team of developers who are writing the code for his current company Active Sensing Inc. “By the end of my trip I had deciphered the head nods of each of my team members except for one” he chuckles.

At the end of the day Jay has to leave earlier than Ram. You see them walking down the hallway arm in arm and one tells the other “I’ll give you a tinkle when we are back at the hotel to see if we can have breakfast tomorrow.” It is perfectly normal for heterosexual men to touch each other in India and tinkle simply means “phone call.”

Next day Ram needs to buy a U.S. adapter for his cell phone and you offer to give him a ride. As you get into the car Jay remarks “The Verizon lady told me that we should not bark in front of the bed’s door.” What? Indians often pronounce the letter “P” like a “B” and the letter “T” like a “D” so he was probably told to not park in front of the pet store. Most Indians pronounce “V” and “W” interchangeably and many Indians from the eastern states pronounce their “V” and “W” like a “B.”

Each culture has its own acronyms and it is helpful to understand some of them when dealing with India. An “NRI” is an Indian living overseas or “non-resident Indian.” Indian immigrants may refer to someone as an ABCD short for American Born Confused Desi a humorous reference to any second-generation Indian living in the North America. If you see the term “FOC” in India it means “free of charge.” An “STD booth” is nothing prurient or dangerous it is simply an attended pay phone short for “subscriber trunk dialing” which is the old name for long-distance calling in India.

Despite these pitfalls the former CIO of MGM Studios Ed Altman now runs the Entertainment and Media practice at Tata Consulting Services out of his Los Angeles office and says he’s had a remarkably easy time adjusting to his Indian colleagues at India’s largest outtargetr. “The studio business is so inherently multicultural and it has been for a long time that I have not had a problem all I have to do is remember to use metaphors around cricket not baseball.” Occasionally when his colleagues are very animated or excited about a customer discussion Altman says that they tend to lapse into Hindi and he has to remind them to switch back so he can participate.

India is a very large and complex country and it is often possible to come to diametrically opposite conclusions about the same subject depending on your perspective. Nelson Altman and Allwein each commented on how “unfailingly polite” attentive and courteous the Indians appear in dealing with them. Yet they are seldom polite to strangers in public spaces the concept of waiting in line does not exist in most places in India. Allwein learned the meaning of “Indian Stretchable Time” during his recent stay in Delhi. “People would keep me waiting up to 30 minutes and more as a matter of routine. Not once did anyone show up early for an appointment.” Yet his software delivery schedules have been met accurately. “For a year-long project I am within two weeks of the initial projected delivery date and that is excellent.”

“Although there are times when nuances in language and speaking styles may result in restatement of a comment or two for purposes of clarification there are no language barriers that inhibit the successful conduct of business—or building friendships” concludes Nelson with a twinkle. “After all we’re all just chips off the same old block.”

This article originally appeared in the CIO magazine a few years back, reproduced with the author’s permission. Content Copyright Gunjan Bagla.

About the Author:

Gunjan Bagla has 25 years of global sourcing, engineering, and marketing experience. He has held senior positions in technology sales and marketing. Bagla has managed teams sourcing products and services from China, India, Japan, and the rest of Asia. He began his career as an engineer for Larsen & Toubro, Bangalore, a prominent Indian industrial firm. Mr. Bagla came to the U.S. and later worked as Director of Program Management for Tandon Computer.

Based in California, he is the author of the acclaimed title “Doing Business in 21st Century India: How to Profit Today from tomorrow’s most exciting Market” published in July 2008 by Warner/Hachette Books

Find out more about Gunjan Bagla’s company at their website.