26 May 2015 18:26 IST

Converse across cultures

What a good job we do in India on talking; learn how to hone this art across borders

One cultural stereotype about Indians is that we talk a lot. Put complete strangers together on a train and by the end of the journey, they are swapping notes on everything from the state of the country to the state of their digestion. But translate that to a business situation, or worse, an international business situation, and the results are not quite so happy.

If you are the kind who either gets tongue tied in such circumstances or wish you had thought of saying what another good conversationalist just did, take heart. It is not such an insurmountable problem. Just a few simple rules can set you straight.

If you think most foreigners speak too rapidly and in incomprehensible accents, remember, they think the same of us Indians too! Whoever you are speaking to is probably quite as diffident about understanding or being understood as you are.

If you are on a telephone call, where your voice is further distorted by electronic devices, the simplest thing is to say at the beginning that you are going to ask that things you don't understand be repeated or clarified and that you also offer to do the same for the other person. Setting the stage like this eases conversation.

Be aware

There are limits involved in conversation, as not everything is a good topic for small talk. Never swear or be rude or raise your voice either when excited or angry. Even if the other person does, do not respond similarly, your class shows if you hold your tongue. If it is a business meeting, keep the conversation focused on the agenda after initial greetings. The other day, at a meeting, I saw the topic go from the project plan to someone’s new bead necklace, and swing back to deadlines, this is not the ideal pattern.

In a social setting related to business. you have more leeway. But remember, certain topics are taboo – people’s health issues, income and even potentially controversial topics like religion and politics are best left untouched.

Listen very carefully

If you are a good listener, you cannot fail in any conversation. Note everything that is said and mentally underline anything that you want to discuss further. After the person has finished speaking, then ask your question. You will not only come across as intelligent, but in a social setting, people will be flattered that you really listened.

Listening has other pay-offs. Often, a foreign culture can find your accent and pronunciation unsettling. Listening is the best way to get used to their tone and language and also to align your vocabulary. The Australian says “no worries”, the Britisher says “Not a problem”, so you adapt to either based on circumstance. By listening you can learn about what is and isn't socially acceptable.

Remember body language

Maintain eye contact at all times. Don't look over his/her shoulder, never look at your watch directly. Lean towards the speaker, take notes, it shows your genuine interest. Smile. People can feel a smile even on the telephone. Make low volume, polite sounds that show you are listening, like “hmm” or “yes”

Be positive

Don't criticise, complain or condemn but be visibly enthusiastic about the conversation you are having. Nod often and say “yes”. If you need to disagree, there are non-confrontational, graceful ways to do this. Statements like “I actually have a different take on this, but we can discuss it another time”, if well practised, will flow smoothly.

Be simple and brief

When you are talking across cultures, keep communication simple and to the point. Compensate for language and comprehension problems by being succinct. Here's one story of what happened when the compulsive British need for formal, polite expression ran into Indian reality.

Wanting a photocopy of a document when his secretary was out for lunch, he called in the office assistant to help.

“Do you have a lot to do now, or would you mind terribly making me a copy, Raja?” (18 words) he asked of Raja, the office assistant. Raja looked blank. He was supposed to understand English and speak it, so why was he confounded, the manager wondered.

“Again sir, please,” Raja said tentatively.

“Oh I'm sorry. I just asked if it would be okay for you to please make a copy of the meeting notes?”(22 words) the manager repeated.

“Why sorry, Sir? Nothing wrong!” Raja exclaimed in horror, latching on to the word “sorry”.

“No, no, nothing wrong, I just wanted a copy. But don't bother. Let Mary (the secretary) come back from her lunch.”

“Madam Mary gone lunch, Sir. I here help Sir,” smiled Raja.

“Yes - one copy please.” (4 words and a wave of the paper)

“Oh Sir want copy?”

“Yes, that is what I was wondering.”


“Copy?” “Please.”

“Copy wanting?”

“Yes, copy please,” (3 words) and off Raja dashed down the corridor to come back in a jiffy with the copy in his hand!

Three words did the trick without entirely sacrificing the British need for politeness.