As Indo-U.S. trade blossoms in 2015, with President Obama reciprocating Prime Minister Modi's visit and trade barriers dropping further, many Indian business people will venture to America for the first time. If you are one of them, here are six tips, based on my observations as an advisor to top U.S. companies, on how you may avoid some common stumbles.
It's all about size
Everything in America seems big at first: the houses, the portions at restaurants, the office complexes, even the parking garages. You may be told that California alone has about as many cars as all of India (about 15 million) and about as many commercial flights. I can readily fly out of five different airports ( Los Angeles, Long Beach, Orange County, Burbank and Ontario) located less than hour's drive from me, compared to just one in any Indian city. It is relatively easy to adjust to these differences, but it takes many Indians a while to fathom the travel time between major cities in a country three times the area of India (and that's not counting Alaska).
If you have a meeting with me, you can't just fly up to Boston for a quick second meeting. From the Sheraton Cerritos next to my office in California, it will take you more than eight hours to reach Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even if you leave your hotel at 5 AM Pacific Time (which is already 8 AM EST), you won't be checking into a room on the east coast until the late afternoon Boston time. On a USA map, Las Vegas and Phoenix look awfully close to Los Angeles, but it takes 4 hours of driving to reach the gambling capital, not counting for traffic. And Phoenix is even further.
Email, being asynchronous, is more effective than phone calls for most routine communications with Americans. But to be most effective, you should strip out verbosity and floweriness from most business communications ("First of all, it is a pleasure and honor for me to introduce to you our esteemed company, which started in the business of exporting ...." began one missive that I received last week).
Don't use SMS-like abbreviations in your email. (Are u avail for a mtg 2 discuss your pdt dvlpmnt needs?). Most Americans over 30 years old are far more comfortable with email than SMS (which they call texting) for business communication. Until you are seasoned in dealing with American businesses, your language will inevitably include terms that are unfamiliar to your readers (do the needful, the same is included in the annexure). Don't handicap yourself further by using what looks like code to many American readers.
Texting has become a bit more acceptable in the business world in America today, but I still caution Indians from relying on it too much. First of all, when you text from your Airtel, Reliance or Vodafone device even with global roaming enabled, there are instances where the reply may get dropped in the ether and never reach you. If you use a temporary U.S. number via Matrix or other service, keep in mind that the same number may be assigned to someone else a few days later and you may miss your incoming messages again.
The largest economy in the world is also egalitarian and consistent on many dimensions.
CEOs and receptionists may dress and talk alike at a company picnic. They may address each other informally even at work. Some Indians jump to the conclusion that the Chief Sales Office that they met is not respected in the company, simply because a junior employee corrected him in front of a visitor. Deferential behavior is not generally rewarded in America, at least not over accuracy.
In India, our map of communications is sometimes populated with ethnic or regional textures (Gujaratis are a certain way. Muslims will react to something. People educated in an "English Medium" school look at things in this way). Such differences are largely cloaked or relatively unimportant in India. It is true that people from Louisiana may talk differently from Bostonians and that New Yorkers may always seem in a hurry. It is also true that many laws in America vary from state to state. But for most business issues, America is a single, consistent market. Relationships and contracts can be built or broken in the same way across all fifty states. By no means do I want to imply that differences don't exist in America; I am simply making the point that you don't need to become fluent in these differences for initial success.
Inequality of Knowledge
A well-read Indian will probably know the names of several members of President Obama's cabinet as well as stories about famous American CEO's such as Larry Page of Google or Fred Smith of FedEx. Don't assume that your American counterpart will recognize the name Nirmala Sitharaman or Ravi Ruia, however.
A famous TV host who interviewed me on a live show in the wake of the 26/11 terrorist attacks thought that Mumbai and Bombay were two different Indian cities. The studio edited that out in the two minute delay loop. But I don't mean to berate her at all. Most American media and most American conversations are about domestic events. As I write this, I looked at the webpage for ABC World News Tonight ("More Americans get their news from ABC than from any other source" is their tagline). At the only internationals stories on the main page are about a stabbing in Abu Dhabi and a typhoon in the Philippines.
The rest of the world does not capture the headlines unless there is a major calamity. So as a US-India consultant, I was slightly disappointed but not surprised to see that the September visit by Prime Minister Modi received almost zero coverage in mainstream American media, with the exception of the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Be ready as an Indian visitor to explain basic things about India to your counterparts. Don't be surprised or offended by any questions. Instead take them as an opportunity to inform, entertain and perhaps educate your business colleagues.
A "Today" Culture
In India, our lives are typically immersed in history and context. By comparison, America is much more about the here and now. As the debate rages about President Obama's executive actions on immigration for example, there is scant perspective from the lessons of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 or the sweeping changes wrought in 1964. If you are an avid watcher of American politics, you may remember "Joe the Plumber" from Senator John McCain's failed presidential bid in 2008 but most Americans have long since forgotten him.
We took a major American company to India last year. In planning the engagement, senior management told me with absolute certainty that this was the corporation's first encounter with India at any level. Much to the client's surprise, my team in India discovered during their outreach that our client had launched a concerted but quiet effort four years earlier and then put it on ice during the financial crisis. Most of the leaders of the earlier effort were still at the company but had changed roles. The institutional knowledge of the earlier foray had evaporated. Our advance work in Mumbai saved them from an embarrassing meeting with a partner they had earlier rejected.
The good news is that you are not at a disadvantage because your company is new to America. Incidentally, most Americans have been treated by a physician of Indian origin at some point and usually harbor some good will as a result. They may not realize that the motel they stayed in is owned by a Patel, or that the CEO of their favorite potato chip company (Indra Nooyi) is from India, but the close personal interaction of Indian medics is not easily forgotten and has been further reinforced by years of watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN
Socially most American men connect to each other via their fandom of professional sports, largely (American) football and baseball and to some extent (ice) hockey and basketball. The travails of the West Indies cricket team and even the fate of Real Madrid or Chelsea mean little in America.
When Amitabh Bachchan appeared in the latest version of The Great Gatsby movie, I actually had to explain to most of my American friends that he is bigger than Tom Cruise and Leonard DiCaprio put together in India. The last Indian movie that many American may remember was in fact directed by Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire.
Religion and politics are generally considered off-limits topics in business in America. So what do you talk about over lunch or dinner with your American counterparts?
This is a tough subject.
Thanks to LinkedIn and Facebook, you may find that your counterparts have disclosed some of their interest online and if you like the same books or vacation destinations, by all means start with those.
Otherwise I suggest starting with food and family. Most Americans have at least encountered Tandoori Naan and I suggest that you research salads, pies, pot roasts and other items beyond burgers and pizzas prior to leaving India. You can start a discussion about family with some gentle self-disclosure ("My husband comes from a large joint family whereas I grew up in Mumbai with just a brother and my parents." Or "My daughter is planning to apply for college to London and Los Angeles").
Divorce and remarriage often produce blended families in America and many couples may have children out of wedlock. Same sex couples are not rare either. Your counterpart will decide how much to self-disclose. My advice is to be non-judgmental and measured in your question. It's ok to ask "What sports does your daughter enjoy?" but hold back from querying an openly gay man if his sexual orientation holds him back in his career.
To summarize, be aware of America's vast size, learn to use email to your full advantage, rejoice that America is more homogenous than Europe, don't be upset that Americans don't know India well, recognize the important of "today" and prepare carefully to build relationships. This list is by no means complete, and I also welcome any corrections based on your experience.