India expert Aline Dobbie gives top tips for doing business in India

India expert Aline Dobbie gives top tips for doing business in India

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Aline Dobbie is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on India. Born in India to Scottish parents the last of five and four generations who served, worked, loved and died in India, in the British Army, the Indian Army and also civilian life, she spent the first 16 years of her life in the sub-continent. An acclaimed travel writer Aline is the author of a celebrated trilogy of books on India including The Peacock’s Call ( Aline received The Pride of India Gold Award for her promotion of India in 2006 from the NRI Institute of India. Her book Quicklook at India was specifically commissioned for business people seeking to be successful in India.

Here, Aline writes for giving top tips for doing business in India. Twitter: @AlineDobbie


  • Indian hospitality can be very generous and the business person will be the recipient of such a welcome. If however you are arranging your own arrival then you will have ordered a car to meet you and take you to your hotel. So often flights arrive in the late hours and you should allow yourself as much rest as possible. No matter how much one hears about the ‘new India’ the old India will hit you the moment you leave the airport – the crowds, the intensity of street life, great variations of wealth and poverty. The sheer intensity of the culture with people staring at you, pressing in on you, the temperature and humidity could be overwhelming.       Build in some ‘buffer’ time to rest and collect your thoughts.
  • Indian businessmen always wear jackets and so should you, at least initially as presentation is taken extremely seriously however hot it is. Women should avoid short skirts or bare arms and trouser suits are sensible. The air conditioning can become freezing and a shawl or jacket is essential.
  • Indians can have a relaxed approach to time – events unfold and often one starts from scratch on setting a schedule upon arrival unlike in the West where everything is diarised ahead. Ask your host to confirm what would be a good time to meet but do not schedule back to back appointments and anyway driving between appointments can take a lot of time in congested cities at all times of the day until about 7.30 in the evening.
  • You cannot get straight down to business. Establish a pleasant relationship which is very important. India is a relationship-oriented culture and if you don’t do that it will be hard to go beyond the preliminaries. You need to show an interest in and respect for your Indian colleagues and not just view them as a means to an end.
  • If you are meeting for the first time you will need to use the last name with the honorific until you get to know the people better. Status dictates that one uses the various titles and designations and affords respect that way.
  • Izat is the word that means self esteem, ‘face’ position in life and your Indian colleagues will need to establish their respective izats, and indeed so must you. They will be keenly interested in your designation within your organisation and how you live, whether married, how many children, perhaps what car you drive and your education.       At no stage will anybody want to be intrusive yet the more comfortable they feel with you the greater success and respect you will generate.
  • Establish straight away who is in charge.       There is a respect for hierarchical structure, rank and for position and people are not comfortable until everybody is clear on who they are; wait to be seated and try and be put in a position facing your lead person. If you are female put a special emphasis on your title and if you are representing the CEO or MD make that clear too. This will immediately engender respect which otherwise might not have been forthcoming. Be prepared to exchange cards with the person in charge and do not volunteer to give your card to everyone at the meeting without first discovering who they are. Do look at the card offered to you but without making too much of it. Make sure you use your right hand to receive the card and to hand over your card if possible.
  • Consider travelling with one other person because this enables you to uphold your stature, and if you were to be taking notes of a meeting you could easily miss some of the details which the second person can handle for you. It also makes you look like the big picture person and not the messenger of someone bigger back home in the office.       Position at all times is important.
  • Remember to pay attention to body language; you are finally face to face with the Indian executives and you must use your proximity to your advantage. Indian culture is more indirect than Western cultures and the body language may tell you something different from the words. Are people looking forward, are they fidgeting or uneasy as they say Yes…consider the message you are receiving overall. At the same time try and absorb the dynamics of the room and what other people attending the meeting are doing amongst themselves.
  • Don’t assume Yes means Yes! Indians have an aversion to saying No. So a person who to a question about deadlines responds ‘We’ll try’ actually means ‘We really can’t but we don’t want to tell you’. Often Indians will try and make something happen but actually it was not really ever possible. Do not bring Yes or No type decisions in the context of the meeting. Meetings are to discuss and to build the relationship and to see what the issues are, but the decisions are almost always made offline by the decision maker.       This is where having a meal together later could be very useful. When someone keeps nodding their head as if in assent please don’t interpret this as a ‘Yes’ it really means ‘I am listening, I understand what you are saying.’
  • The other reason not to schedule too many meetings in one day is that if you had to end saying ‘Well I have to go in 10 minutes because I have another meeting’ you may miss the most crucial points of the conversation. Often instead of saying as in the West ‘Here is what we need to talk about….’ A conversation about a whole lot of things circling the topic will then lead to the very one you wish to pursue.
  • If you are being hosted for dinner you can take an hour or two off to mull over your day and return to your hotel room and refresh yourself as dinner usually will not take place till about 9.0 pm, but play it by ear, they might be so absorbed that they just want to continue but in a different venue like a restaurant in an elite hotel.
  • Remember not to use your left hand to eat during dinner, or even if possible to break your roti (flat bread) or naan.       The right hand is considered the ‘clean hand’.
  • People in the West say ‘thank you’ a lot more than in India. This is our form of courtesy and always show appreciation for little acts of service or kindness but do not be effusive.
  • Please remember your Indian hosts will expect and appreciate a reciprocation of their hospitality when they come to your country.
  • If you are invited out in a personal way to the home do take a bottle of good quality Scotch whisky, a good malt perhaps.       Flowers in red, orange, pink and yellow are also welcomed and are readily available. Do not expect a gift to be unwrapped in front of you and do not use black and white paper but something colourful and vibrant.
  • If planning a visit to India on business when facing a heavily scheduled diary it is imperative that one approaches one’s GP and explains and obtains a prescription for a broad spectrum antibiotic such as Ciprofloxacin which is a most essential back up should one fall ill with a gastric upset or some such.   It would be foolish not to recognise that it is an unfortunate common challenge and it is so much easier if the ailing business person has recourse to this.   Ciprofloxacin taken at the prescribed dosage cures the ailment and one can venture out from one’s hotel with safety.  I also suggest keeping rehydrated with only bottled water and Coke or Pepsi or diet versions and where possible eating good plain yoghurt once the dilemma has eased.  I also always recommend some antiseptic cream; in my case I travel with neem cream which is a product derived from the famous Neem Tree which is often referred to as ‘the Medicine Box of India’ for its many medicinal properties.   Truly those of us with a knowledge of the subcontinent know just how efficacious this is in many forms.   Anyone wanting to know further just has to Google ‘the Neem Tree medicinal properties’ and will be rewarded.
  • India has truly progressed and has the most wonderful hotels from five/six star down to modest budgets.  For a British person’s visit to India I would suggest only five star and four star hotels where there is heavy emphasis on good food hygiene and great attention to detail.   Indian hotels at that level can be rated as some of the very best in the world with warmth of service, beautiful surroundings, facilities, choice of cuisines, business clubs, spa, gym, Wi-Fi, leisure and concierge facilities.  Coupled with efficient luxury there is also responsible luxury with many groups and boutique hotels which is an added bonus.



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