My Cultural Mistakes in India

If time machine is true, I want to get this Cultural Intelligence class and read this book written by Aarthi Kelshikar before my job posting in India. I realized made consecutive cultural mistakes even from my day one there. This article initially means to make summary of the book, but I think it will worth also to self-embarrassed me by relate it to my experience because best way to learn is from mistakes.

As usual, let’s start from disclaimer. The writing may invite debate especially from Indian colleagues. So that, I want to be clear that I just refer to the book instead of giving my personal judgement. I fully aware that when we talk about other culture, we often have ethnocentrism biases (think that our culture is better) which is definitely not true. I also hate stereotyping, so I clearly mention now that not all Indian will follow these cultures, it’s simply a normal distribution which mean “not all of them”. My point is, there is no culture better than other, but its always good for anyone to improve our cultural awareness and adapt accordingly.

Culture one: “Two Minutes!”

It’s maybe the most obvious cultural observation for any expats who first time work in India. If you wait Indian to come, and they said, “2 minutes!” chance is it won’t. It can be another 10-30 minutes. It’s not that they can’t do the math of time (in fact they are one of the best nations for math), but it simply a culture of saying. Being someone trained in Japanese super punctual culture its really surprise me also in the beginning. But then my advice is never taking it personally, it just acts of culture, and adjust your work accordingly.

Culture two: “Ho Jayega!” & “Yes, Boss!!!”

There are 2 words here, first is “Yes”, second is “Boss”. Let’s start from the former. Most of Indian tend to say “Yes”, “it will be done!” or “Ho Jayega” for any job assignment given. But when the deadline is come, nothing happens. This is due to their politeness towards saying “No” to their boss even if the deadline is impossible. Being High Context culture, they just trying to be polite. Disagreements were rarely spoken. Not only by word but also body language. In fact, the famous Indian head shake is always mean “Yes”.

Second word is “Boss”. Being High power distance culture, tendency to only accept instruction from their line of hierarchy is high. It may trouble for cross functional assignment. One time I have been asked to improve company forecast system and work with other departments, I give up, because whatever instruction given, they simply not doing it (even though they said “Yes” in the beginning). This book realizes me that the instruction should come from their direct boss or at least get their authorization.

Culture three: Dress like a Boss

Every culture has their own expectation towards “boss like” appearance. The book mentioned that Indian respect visually accepted boss style. This includes coming to office with “royal car”, have a driver bring your bag and wear branded watch. Simply not aware on this, and considering business situation at that time, I accept company request to use the old car (which mean for lower rank), not using my driver allowance, use my old off-color shirt and wear “running watch” in my first day. So, when I read this book, now I can imagine what they may thinking, a young-faced small-sized Indonesian, parking old car by himself, bring his own slingshot style bag, with no so convincing attire. What a perfect combination!

Culture four: Act like a Boss

The expectation also extended to the way of act. The boss should be the most knowledgeable and experience to make decision and talk with a clear and concise direction. Posted there? live with that pressure! :). Collaborative decision-making style (which try to encourage team opinion) may not fully suit on this culture. It was also bit challenging to ask their point of view, initiative, or idea in decision making, as kind of not sure whether their voices are matter. But once they decided to speak, most of it it’s a bright and out of the box idea. So, it’s just the matter how we empower them to speak.

Culture five: Job Title is Matter

With strong culture of arranged married and family acknowledgment, what mentioned in their business card is really matter. So, don’t surprise of they come to you to ask for promotion more often compared with other culture. One way to accommodate the culture is by create more sophisticated position, such as instead of “Sales executive” try to use “Business representative”. Regarding this, one of my funny Indian friends once joke with me, “Our pursue for higher degree and working upside-down are simply to get more beautiful wife”:), life is so tough for them so respect it!.


Working in other culture is not always easy, at least for me. But I enjoyed most of time working there. The people are so nice and friendly. They share their food, sweets, drink, and smiles. Chatting along with a warm cup of street thick-milky Chai is the unforgettable moment. Definitely going abroad with better preparation in term of Cultural Intelligence will help us understand and compromise thus better adapt and perform better, which unfortunately it was not in my case, and time machine just a fairy tale.


  1. Note that I not said (nor the book) that above cultures are only happen in India, but it was mentioned somehow the degree is higher.
  2. I only cover some small part of the book in this article, or I can say it’s only a teaser. I encouraged anyone to buy this book if you want a better understanding about how Indian culture in work context. It was indeed insightful.