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Business Etiquette In India

Business man on cell phone

Indian culture differs greatly from the United States. When securing a deal with an Indian company, it is vital to know the differences between these two cultures, as an American saying or action could be disrespectful to your potential business partners. Knowing these variances and implementing them in your business interactions can improve your chances of the deal going well.

Dress Conservatively

Expect to dress conservatively for business meetings, even if the weather is hot. Your appearance upon the initial meeting is a way of showing respect to your prospective business partner.

Men should wear dark colored suits, such as navy or dark grey, with a matching tie. In the summer, it is acceptable to remove the suit jacket. In hotter parts of the company, you may see businessmen in less formal clothing; however, you should still dress in a suit for the first meeting.

Women should wear conservative dresses or pantsuits. It is important for women to keep the upper arms, chest, back and legs covered at all times.

Cultural Differences

There are crucial differences between American and Indian culture, and these are likely to impact how you conduct business.

Understanding The Hierarchy

India is set up in a caste system, and in all areas of life, the hierarchy determines greetings and behavior. Indians are always aware of the social order and their status to others, be they friends, family or strangers.

When meeting business partners, greet the eldest or most senior person in the room. Be sure to act respectful and dignified towards the boss, as bosses are seen as the source of ultimate responsibility in business.

Can’t Say “No”

The word “no” is harsh in India. In general, Indians avoid direct, negative responses both verbally and non-verbally. Instead, Indians are likely to use evasive refusals. Rather than disappoint you, they will try to offer responses they think you’d like to hear.

This is not dishonesty. In Indian culture, it is incredibly rude not to give someone what they asked for. When scheduling meetings or discussing proposals, look for affirmative answers that are vague or lack details. Watch for non-verbal cues like reluctance or lack of an enthusiastic response. “I’ll try” is an acceptable form of “no.”

Because Indian businesses prefer a non-confrontational approach, it is important to display the same characteristic. Do not argue with your potential partners or even disagree publicly with members of your own team.

Meeting Etiquette

Indians prefer to have long-standing relationships before conducting business. Spend time prior to your meeting building trust and gaining respect. If possible, be introduced by a third party. This will give you immediate integrity.

If you are traveling to India, schedule appointments by letter a month or two in advance. Schedule meetings for late morning or early afternoon, and reconfirm the time a week before, as meetings are commonly cancelled last minute. For this reason, keep your schedule open so times can be adjusted.

Shaking hands in India is common, especially with business clients who are accustomed to working with westerners. Men shake hands with men, and women shake hands with women. Rarely will men and women shake hands due to religious beliefs. If you are unsure, wait for them to extend a hand. Shaking hands is when you should share your business card.

Your first meeting will likely be filled with plenty of getting-to-know-you discussion. It is possible that your first meeting will have little to do with business. Even if business isn’t discussed, it is still important to send a detailed agenda, along with materials and charts before every meeting.

Decision making takes time, so be patient. The final decision is typically made by the person with the most authority. Expect delays, especially when dealing with the government.

When leaving the meeting, say goodbye to each member individually. Be sure to use professional titles. Indians value titles like Doctor, Professor and Engineer. If someone has one of these titles, you must use it. If someone lacks a professional title, use “Sir” or “Madam.”

Business Meals

Successful meetings are often celebrated with a meal. This could be in a home, restaurant, or other public venue depending on the circumstances. Meals are an important way to create stronger bonds with your Indian business partners.

What To Expect

If you are dining in someone’s home, remove your shoes upon entering. If offered tea, coffee or snacks, politely turn them down. Declining the first invitation is expected. You will be asked again later.

Table manners tend to be somewhat formal but may vary based on religious beliefs. Most Indian cuisine is eaten with fingers, but if utensils are available, they will be a fork and spoon. Always eat with your right hand, whether you’re using your fingers or silverware.

Before you begin, wait for your host to tell you where to sit. When you are finished, leave a bit of food on your plate. This indicates that you are satisfied, while cleaning your plate means you are still hungry. At the end of a meal, do not say “thank you.” Thanking your host is a sign of payment and therefore insulting.

Dietary Restrictions

Religion plays a large role in what food is served during meals. Hindus do not eat beef, and many avoid meat all together. Muslims do not consume pork or drink alcohol. Sikhs also do not eat beef.

If meat is being served, it will likely be lamb, chicken or fish as they avoid the meat restrictions of these religious groups.

Gift Giving

If invited to an Indian’s home for a meal, it is not required that you bring a gift, but it will not be turned down. After conducting business, gifts can be signs of good faith and help build a stronger relationship with your partner.

When wrapping gifts, use red, green and yellow colors. These are lucky. Do not give or use white flowers because they are associated with funerals.

Remember the religious restrictions when gift giving. Do not give Hindus gifts made of leather, and avoid giving Muslims gifts of alcohol.

If you give a gift, it will not be opened in your presence. In the same manner, if you receive a gift, wait until you are alone to open it.

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