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Business & Culture in India

The influences of Hinduism and tradition of the Caste System have created a culture with emphasize on hierarchical relationships.

Hinduism has a long and complex history. It is a blend of ancient legends, beliefs and customs which has adapted, blended with, and spawned numerous creeds and practices.

In the second millennium BCE the Aryan people (Aryan means noble), a nomadic people, arrived in North-West India. The Aryans may have come to India from the areas around Southern Russia and Balticum.

Through the history, their language and religious traditions influenced the religious practices of the peoples who were already living in India, and different practises tended to blend together. Sacrifices were made to gods, such as Agni (the God of Fire), and Indra (the God of Storm).

  • The Indus valley communities used to gather at rivers for their religious rituals.
  • The Aryans gathered around fire for their rituals
  • The Indus valley communities regarded rivers as sacred, and had both male and female gods.
  • The Aryan gods represented the forces of nature; the sun, the moon, fire, storm and so on.

The Aryans also introduced the varna system (varna = estates or classes) to India, which may have contributed to the caste system we see today. Some think that it developed from a simpler two-tier structure consisting of nobles at the top, and everyone else below. Others say that it was established and practised by the priests who divided society into three parts:

  • Priests (or Brahmins).
  • Warriors (the Kshatriyas).
  • Ordinary people.

Hinduism as it is known and recognised today has been greatly affected by the influence of western thought and practices. In the 18th and 19th centuries, missionaries from Europe attempted to convert Hindus to Christianity with varying degrees of success. This challenged Hindu leaders to reform many practices and in some cases, revive old practices. This period has been recognised as a period of Hindu revivalism.

Indians are always conscious of social order and status in relation to other people, family, friends and strangers. In the family, the father is considered the leader. In school, the teachers are called »gurus« due to their source of knowledge. At work, the boss is the source of ultimate responsibility in business. Relationships are based on hierarchies that must be observed for the social order to be maintained. Indians are group related, and people define themselves by the groups they belong to rather than by their status as individuals. They have close ties to their family, and create a myriad of interrelationships, based on mutual obligations and deep-rooted trust.

Business Meetings and Negotiations

Business life in India is based on personal contacts, mutual trust and respect, so it is of great importance to know the right people for introducing you to new contacts. 

One to two months prior to your trip, you should forward presentation material that presents your company, its history, and literature about your products and services. Although time and date for the appointment is made, reconfirm it a couple of days in forehand, and send your agenda for the meeting. Call again in the morning, because it is common that meetings can be cancelled on short notice. If you have planned more meetings during your visit, try to arrange a flexible schedule, and if possible add some extra days to your stay. Arrive in due time or slightly early to your meetings, as being on time is vital in India.  

The person of the highest status will initiate the handshake. Academic and professional titles are used together with surnames. People without a formal title, should you great with Mr or Ms, followed by their surname. Age and position earn respect, so elderly and seniors are introduced first. Remember, there are seldom handshakes between men and women due to religious beliefs. Therefore, when greeting an Indian woman - wait for the woman to extend her hand.

A business meeting usually starts with »small talk » to set a friendly atmosphere. Decisions are usually made by the person with highest authority. Decision making is often a slow process. Do not believe you will do business swiftly. Do not under any circumstances loose your temper during the negotiations. Do not show disagreement with any of your associates in public. You will lose face and create an uncomfortable atmosphere. Indians are non-confrontational. It is rare for them to overtly disagree, although this is beginning to change in the managerial ranks. Be patient and expect delays, especially if you are dealing with the government. Most Indians expect concessions in both price and terms. It is acceptable to expect concessions in return for those you grant.

Another thing that is important for you to know is that Indians never say: »no«. Instead of disappointing you, they would prefer to offer you the response you wish to hear. This is not considered as dishonesty. In fact, an Indian would be considered as terribly rude if he turned down a request from another person. With this in mind when you get a vague answer about specific details, you ought to look for non-verbal cues, such as a reluctance to commit to an actual time for a meeting or an enthusiastic response.

Business Attire

Indian business life is conservative. It is expected by the Indians that foreign business people will dress formally. Men should wear dark coloured business suits, and women should wear conservative dresses. In public, women should avoid wearing blouses with no or short sleeves, or short trousers. 

Business Cards

Remember to bring with you enough business cards for your trip. Present and receive business cards only with your right hand. After examining the cards, place them on the table in front of you. It is an excellent way to remember the titles and names of the people you are meeting 

Gift Giving

  • Deliver and receive gifts only with your right hand.
  • Gifts are not necessarily opened when received.
  • It is not the value of the gift, but the sincerity with which it is given, that is important to the recipient. 
  • A gift from a man should be said to come from both he and his wife/mother/sister or some other female relative.
  • If you are invited to a private home, it is a nice gesture to bring flowers. Do not give white flowers, as they are used at funerals.
  • When you wrap gifts, use yellow, red or green paper as they are considered lucky colours.
  • Important to be aware of is that Hindus should not be given any leather-gifts, and Muslims should not be given gifts made of pigskin or any alcohol products. 

Lunches and Dinners

Successful meetings are often followed by a dinner. Punctuality is vital. Indians expect punctuality from foreigner, even though they may not always be punctual themselves. Depending upon occasion, the Indians entertain their guests in their homes, restaurants or in private clubs. Dress conservative for your dinner appointment. Take off your shoes before entering the house. Wait to be told where to sit.  

As part of the protocol, when you are given the first offer of tea or coffee, you should politely say »no, thank you«. You will soon be asked again! Table manners are formal, but also tempered by the religious beliefs of the various groups. Spoon and fork are in general used, but many Indian dishes are also eaten with the fingers. Use only your right hand's fingers! You will be asked to wash your hands before and after sitting down to a meal. Leave some food on the plate to indicate that your are satisfied.

Lamb, chicken, and fish are the most commonly served main dishes for non-vegetarian meals. Due to the regious beliefs, there are diverse dietary restrictions:

  • Hindus do not eat beef
  •  Many Hindus are vegetarians
  • Muslims do not eat pork
  • Muslims do not drink alcohol
  • Sikhs do not eat beef


Interested in learning more about India? We will recommend “History of India” in Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_India

Last update: March 2015