Business Management

Do Indians Lack Workplace Politeness?

One of the most engaged conversations on the India Leadership Network on LinkedIn is ‘Are Indian lacking in politeness during normal workplace conversations?’ This was started five months ago, has 337 very lengthy comment comments… and presents a mix of extremely impassioned views.

These range from perspectives on Indians’ negative workplace characteristics through to strong assertions on Indian cultural politeness. There is also a lot of debate about specific differences across the country, along with general views on the workplace. Many people feel very strongly about this subject and a number of the comments posted are a lot longer than this article.  

In response to some shouting by the commenter above. One wrote: “They blow their smelly breaths on our faces, they come and kick us on our thighs, they bend and show their pelvises if we are doing well and they are on the verge of being fired. This is the work place culture of IT companies today. It is suffocating to be an Indian.”

Another was more pragmatic: “At a college in Delhi where I was visiting faculty, one of the deans warned me that it would be difficult to get my Indian students to respond to my questions directly. He knew that in my old country, the USA, children are taught, ‘Say what you mean!’ and ‘Get to the point!’ whereas in India such direct talk is often considered rude and offensive.”

Some people agreed with this. Many did not. One said that he has worked in many multi-cultural places such as the US, UK, Korea and Japan and has seen seven things which “distinctly set us [Indians] aside”. One of these is: “too direct, going straight for the jugular too fast, not leading to a point”. In a lot of ways this contradicts itself… and this is the case with much of the debate.

India is an extremely social country which usually means more verbiage. This point was often raised. As part of his seven-point list the individual above stressed: “lack of ‘introductory’ approaches” and “too much talking, too many sentences, too much loudness in voice”. Many others, however, were vehement that a quiet voice is culturally a good thing.

India is very hierarchical. This structured society was continuously brought up. “We talk differently to those whom we deem beneath us in social standing,” one said. “An Indian friend who lived in the US was surprised at how polite diners are to the waiters there.”

However, corporate life itself is hierarchical. This applies all over the world. As one individual said: “Why should anyone behave in the right or expected manner when the core behaviour being reinforced by the top managements of all organisations is the opposite?”

This is part of a wider point. But the case is explored further by the individual who wrote: “Business doesn't require being polite. Business requires strategy and tactics. Communication is but one aspect of the tactical execution of any project.”

Of course, this discussion could be relevant everywhere, yet it really does seem to touch a raw nerve in India. A lot of conversation focused on the divided nature of India. It circulated around British India. And took us through some pretty impassioned book recommendations and a journey back through Indian history.

Generalisations were castigated as unhelpful: “I have seen behaviour that cuts across the spectrum in corporate India - from polite to rude, and from illegal to ethical. To my mind, there can be no generalisation.”

Whilst another said: “Softness in some parts of India will be either ineffective - or land you in trouble. Brashness in Mumbai will definitely land you in trouble.”

These may all be valid points, but what is interesting is that this debate still rages on… and it is clear from some of the commentary that these professionals are genuinely nettled. One individual described it as “personal touchiness” and “acute sense of misplaced nationalism”, whilst another suddenly burst in stating that he’d been watching the debate and not taking part, but eventually couldn’t resist.

Are Indians less polite in the workplace? And more importantly why does this question cause so much angst on a leadership forum?


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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