Indian Standard Time Warp

NYC: Dali at Time Warner Center - Nobility of Time

NYC: Dali at Time Warner Center – Nobility of Time (Photo credit: wallyg)

“I’ve already spent more time on this than this deal is worth to me.”

That’s what a prospective business partner said to me, complaining about the 45 minutes we had spent in a meeting together.

I was taken aback. I had just flown most of the previous 20 hours (from Bangalore to Chennai to Frankfurt then onward to Stockholm before taking my final transfer to get to Gothenburg, Sweden) to get to the meeting.

I had merely asked him to help me understand why I should pay $100,000 to represent his company in India (but that’s another story). While I did manage to keep my cool that day, it brought home to me how direct people can be in a business setting.

Having worked most of my adult life in the U.S. – most of that in California’s laid back Silicon Valley – I was used to plain speaking. However in the year I had been back in India before the Gothenburg trip, I had clearly lost the habit of being direct. I had acquired a more fluid sense of both time and speech.

The move to India opened my eyes to the way things are done in the Valley, sort of like watching an unflattering video of myself at a stag party.

While working in San Jose, I had never quite noticed how rude we were when we failed to return voice mails or in moved meetings at the last minute, even when people had flown in from overseas to attend them.

This was in stark contrast to Japan where a great deal of my business was coming from in the first years back in India. In my first business meeting in Japan, two managers from a $40 billion firm spent two hours with me (the marketing guy from a $5 million dollar Indian company) to understand why we were charging “so much more” than the competition.

Of course, many people have apocryphal stories of negotiating in Japan or China where indirection and opacity seem the norm. In one, two-day session I found out only at dinner that the guy that seemed to spend most his time taking pictures was actually the key decision maker and the two people we hadn’t been introduced to were competitors

India, in many ways, straddles these two very different business cultures. The almost unquestioning acceptance of seniority, the acute awareness of hierarchy and near-obsession with not losing face that Japanese businesses are known for can be found in Indian companies as well.

Still, the Japanese put much more importance on time schedules. In India you could never imagine a client instructing you to take the 7:52 express train to the transfer station where the client would join you at 8:24 to reach their office at 8:50 – the requisite ten minutes before your 9:00 a.m. meeting. I regularly get detailed directions like this from our Japanese clients.

In India “Let’s meet at 11” is generally a suggestion. It means “We should connect around that time and it’s likely that I’ll call you at 10:45 to tell you I am stuck in traffic and will be late by 30 minutes or more.”

This has been the biggest lesson for me about doing business in India. Time and communication (and even space if you try to drive here) take on a sponge-like quality here.

In my unending naiveté, I initially believed that the inability to stick to schedules was the fault of the sales and marketing folks or overburdened C-level executives. That illusion didn’t last long. I started to understand what really happens after sitting through a weekly customer call with my engineering team.

“How can the deliverable slip by a month when we were on schedule last week?” the customer asked. I could visualize the apoplectic look on the client’s face even without a webcam.

Our engineers, I found out, were well aware of the delay that was accumulating daily but had redoubled their efforts to crack the problem on time. They had been confident they’d solve the problem and recover the lost month and wanted to avoid causing anxiety to the poor client.

The most positive way I have found to look at this delivery dilemma is to figure we Indians are eternally optimistic. We are optimistic to a fault. We are certain that we will clutch victory from the jaws of defeat much like a Bollywood hero gets his girl at the end of the movie, just as the police drag away the dastardly villain. When we say the report will be done this evening or we’ll get there in 15 minutes, we believe it – the laws of physics be damned!

As with all understanding about India, there may be exceptions. You might meet an ex-military type or maybe a Bengali or Tamil gentleman who will confound you by always being on time. Worse still, they might expect you to be on time like the Japanese or direct and brash like the Valley types.

Fortunately India is so vast that such encounters are likely to be rare.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s India Journal

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