KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Etiquette & Culture In India

Business Etiquette & Culture In India

The ability to attract large-scale FDI into India has been a key driver for policy making by the Indian Government. India has received Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows worth USD 60.1 billion in 2016-17, which is an all-time high. India’s emerging economy encourages international business relationships and more companies are looking to do business in India. 

Historically speaking, India is a post-colonial country and that has had an impact on how business is done in the country. Having been a British colony, some of the laws and ways business that business is done are an interesting mix of local customs and English style. Some may feel familiar to you and others will be surprising. To learn more about colonialism's impact on India, you may also enjoy this Globig podcast about Post-Colonialism and Culture in India.

As with all business etiquette guides, the information we’re sharing is based on generalizations and everyone you meet will be unique. Here are some common areas where misunderstandings can arise. Minimize them by keeping these tips in mind.

Business Communication

The official languages of India are Hindi and English, though there are over 22 major languages spoken in the country. Most people you will deal with in a business setting speak English. While it’s common for business people to speak fluent English, be prepared to work with an interpreter if needed.

While conversations in Northern European and American cultures tend to be direct, you’ll find conversations and business discussions in India are more circular in nature. Some have likened it to a flowing meandering river moving from topic to topic. You will eventually get to all the topics you want to cover but expect it to be more of a squiggly rather than a direct line. Assume that all conversations, relationships, and business dealings will take much more time than you expected. Always stay respectful, and don’t get frustrated or rude when this happens.

Business Customs

Indian culture and customs may be confusing or frustrating until you understand them. For example, the Indian time zone is often referred to as SIT: Stretchable Indian Time. Punctuality is considered rude. Expect the meeting to begin up to a half hour late. On the other hand, your new associates may be accustomed to observing Western time in the workplace, so you absolutely must be present and prepared to begin at the stated time.

Because business dealings in India are relational, expect to begin business meeting with small-talk. No matter what you have to offer or propose, it will be better accepted if the people you are dealing with are acquainted with you. A welcome question you can ask is about a person’s family. And expect questions about your family, as well. Always assume your meetings are going to take longer than what you thought. Don’t schedule your trip so tightly that you’re not prepared to spend time with your prospective business partners.

Handshakes are the usual greeting, but in some of India’s many cultures, men and women do not touch. Take your lead from the interactions of others in the room. If a woman offers her hand, shake it. If she keeps her arms to her sides, do not extend your hand. Instead, put your hand over your heart and make a small bow.

Greet as many people as possible individually instead of as a group. India is a hierarchical society. Be extremely careful to greet the most senior or oldest person first, followed by the next senior and so on down the line.

Always use titles. When you do not know a person’s title, use Mr. or Mrs. You may use first names only when invited.

Business Gift Giving

Small gifts are appreciated when meeting with business prospects -- especially sweets, which should be presented in an attractive bakery box. An inexpensive gift that is representative of your country is thoughtful, such as a calendar or book with photos of American landmarks.

How To Dress

In general, business meeting attire is conservative and fashionable. Jackets, shirt and ties for men, and skirts that cover the knees for women, or pantsuits are also acceptable. The startup and IT world has pockets of less conservative dress but it’s best to start conservatively unless you know the people you’re meeting with and know that they dress less formally.


Be prepared to hear “maybe” or “I’m not sure." A direct “no” is too considered confrontational. Rephrase the question or a series of questions if possible so that “no” is not a possible answer. For example, “If we open a plant here, what would be the best location?” Hard sell and demanding language will not work with people who value harmony and respect. Remember that Indians bargain and barter in most transactions, so they are comfortable with negotiating. Final decisions will be made by the most senior person. This may take time, so your patience is crucial.

Business Cards

Expect to exchange business cards. If they are in English, they do not need to be translated on the back. Present your cards face up with the text facing your business prospect and accept cards with appreciation and pride. Make sure you look at the card and then place them in an attractive card holder, demonstrating that you value them.

Business Lunches & Dinners

A business meeting in India may not end with a decision, though it will likely include a meal. If you are invited to share a meal, these dining tips could go far in swaying the decision in your favor:

  • In restaurants, it is common to order several dishes to be shared. Let the Indians order. If utensils are not provided, a waiter will serve you. Do not dip into a common dish with your hands.
  • You may ask for a spoon, though it may or may not be provided. It is best if you are prepared to eat with your hands. Remember to use your right hand only as the left hand is considered unclean. Use the naan (bread) for a scoop, and form rice into neat balls.
  • Good topics of conversation include politics, films, music, cricket, Indian history and culture, and economic reforms. Never ask about religion, Pakistan, or their country’s poverty.
  • Do not say “thank you” at the end of a meal, but be sure to praise the food and show your appreciation while you eat.

If you are organizing a buffet, be sure to over-order on the quantity of food. It is acceptable for invited guests to bring others such as colleagues and friends. When written invitations are sent, follow-up with a telephone call the day before,  which is the polite way to extend an invitation. Include a variety of vegetarian dishes (at least half) as many Indians do not eat meat, often for religious reasons. Do not call attention to a guest’s failure to try a dish that contains meat.

With over 1.3 billion people and ranked second in the world for size, this diverse and interesting market has tremendous potential for your business. Being aware of and doing business in a way that respects the Indian business culture will help get you off to a good start with your business relationships in India.

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KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Etiquette & Culture In India