Rude or polite, it’s a matter of perspective
World standards of polite behavior are so different and in fact cultural differences are so varied, that when people come face to face with another culture for the first time they might find that they act in ways which make them unpopular, making it difficult not just to get along, but also get things done.
A recent Business Etiquette survey by Servicorp [December 2008] which evaluated responses from 700 international business people in 13 countries on their thoughts on workplace expectations and standards, tells us that there are wide differences even in English speaking countries. For example, Aussie manners are not always appreciated, not by Americans and Britons at least. The results are given in the table below (table from Servicorp).
India wasn’t on the list/table and so I created my own column at the extreme right. The figures I have given for India are just a guesstimate, and based on the corporate India I have come across. You are welcome to add your insights.
The table shows the percentage of people offended by a particular (workplace) behavior.
What’s surprising is that so many people in the US and the UK feel offended by the use of bad words! I had the impression that using the word starting with “f” is a kind of norm in those countries but I guess I was wrong. In India using bad words at the workplace is not liked at all, and only a boss can get away with it. But he could well lose the respect of his colleagues.
When it comes to offering beverages to guests, it kind of happens automatically if one visits any office in India, even a government office. The host doesn’t usually have to get up and get it, he has to just call for it. Offering a beverage to a guest involves no effort on the part of the host, and therefore if a beverage is not offered, the guest could feel a little put out.
As for having personal conversations at the workplace, all of us do that, don’t we! Considering how late we work, I guess that’s forgiven! Or are we just too laid back?! However do make sure you don’t have any such conversation if a Japanese co-worker or guest or business associate is around, because he/she will think you are quite useless! The Japanese do not appreciate this type of behavior (68%) and their scores are the highest of all the countries.
I was surprised to know that in China and Japan bosses do not get mostly offended if addressed by their first names as I believed that to some extent theirs was a hierarchical society, just like ours. But I guess I was wrong. The Chinese and the Japanese are nowhere as hierarchical as Indians. Unless the survey results are wrong.
According to the Servicorp survey, it is the Chinese who seem to be most offended by personal questions, and their percentage is higher than even the Americans and the British! I tend to think they are right about the Chinese. I remember during our trip to China I was trying my best to make friends with our guides and while they were friendly they kept a distance. In fact once I asked a guide a personal question and I could see that she was offended by it.
Talking on the cell phone during meetings is common enough in India, particularly by senior people, and one of the reasons for this is that we Indians tend to do several things the same time. A kind of juggling act is always on, and it could be because things take time to get done and continuous follow-up is required. Also as relationships with colleagues and business partners are very important, we spend time talking to them. If someone calls, it is impolite to not take the call or not speak a few words. And the chatterboxes that we are, a few words never suffice do they! A westerner might think this is a waste of time (developing relationships at the workplace) but it’s critical in India. Having a cool professional and distant attitude does not work.
Considering that we Indians set so much store by work relationships, and in fact relationships on the whole, it’s surprising that we are not too concerned about greeting colleagues at work. The Australians were most offended by this behavior, but Indians would never be. I have a feeling that this is because we Indians tend to have our work relationships going, and might think of greeting someone who is not part of that group as unnecessary. Not a nice thing because newcomers to the office could feel pretty much at sea.
What’s clear, is that although other countries are a little different from each other, we Indians seem to be at the other end of the spectrum in most things. In fact the only similarity we have with the others is the dislike of bad words at the office.
I thought I would make a list of what Indians find mildly offensive at the workplace. I made this list partly from reading on the web and partly from my own experience:
Indians could get mildly insulted by:
- Guests who refuse beverages like tea or coffee or snacks
- People who are start talking business without bothering to make small talk
- People who do not use the correct titles
- People who address them by their first names without knowing them well
- Those open gifts in their presence
- Offering food to another which has already been touched by the saliva of another person, called “Jootha” or “Ushte”
- And despite what people say about Indians not valuing privacy, Indians do not like to stand physically close while talking to people
Related Reading: Cultural Differences between the East and the West (Hofstede’s study)
How to Tip in India (Tipping Etiquette)
Indian Tourists are not the world’s worst!
Want to leave that job you hate? Think again!
Job discrimination at the workplace
Getting your due without sucking up
What foreigners like about working in India