Experiences & best practices on nearshoring, offshoring & global IT staffing

What are the cultural differences between India and Europe?

Last week I was giving a presentation at the Rajagiri School of Management in Cochin, India for a group of 150 MBA students. The two central themes were Outsourcing and Entrepreneurship. One of the questions that came up was ‘What are the cultural differences that you experienced between India and Europe?’. I find it always extremely hard to answer this question, because it tends to always imply huge generalizations (can we make a generalizing remark about a country with more than a billion inhabitants or a complete continent with many very different cultures in it?). But I always try.

I tried to make two points about what occurs to me as different in the Indian behavior from what I am used to.

1. Hierarchy

Indian society is very hierarchically organized. I can see that already from the way parents raise their kids. The parents are the boss and the kids follow the instructions from the parents. When I visited some daycares to find one for my own kids, I often saw kids obediently sitting on chairs waiting for the teachers to give them some instructions. This is strikingly different from the daycare that my kids go to in Holland, where there is an ‘organized chaos’  and kids are left free to do whatever they want.

In organizations, hierarchy is the central way of managing. If you work with a software company, even a small one, you’ll find a project manager, who is managing the team leader, who is managing the programmers, even in the smallest projects. And the programmer will need his superior for anything that he does.

In Europe (at least in the Netherlands) most companies give people responsibility + freedom and measure people on their performance within those boundaries.

2. Openness

One of the core values of myself and also my company Bridge is ‘openness’. I believe it’s important that you give another person exactly the same image about something as the image you have in your mind (ok, some exceptions might be appropriate). In Kerala (it might be true for the rest of India too), the general spirit is not openness. People are always trying to be very polite and won’t share anything negative or offending (which also makes for a very positive cultural experience). It is sometimes hard to really get the truth or the person’s vision on a subject.

In Europe (especially in the Netherlands), people are very open. Sometimes even too open, which results in being blunt or offending people.

From an outsourcing perspective it’s valuable to know and recognize these cultural characteristics. By understanding them, it is easier to develop a succesful cooperation. I hope that you will share some of your findings so we can elaborate the list of differences.

Ah yes, a last difference: women don’t shake hands (which they also don’t do in Eastern Europe).

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This entry was posted in Communication process, Offshoring, Outsourcing by Hugo Messer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Hugo Messer

Hugo Messer is the CEO of Bridge Global IT Staffing and is a Global IT Staffing Expert.Hugo Messer has been building and managing teams around the world for over 7 years. His passion is to enable people that are spread across cultures, geography and time zones to cooperate. Whether it’s offshoring or nearshoring, he knows what it takes to make a global cooperation work.Read his articles here.To know more about Hugo and his global team building programs visit www.hugomesser.com

32 thoughts on “What are the cultural differences between India and Europe?

  1. Dear All,

    I observed that all the comments and want to add my views about my country Bharat.
    If we go through our history, we’ll find that during 1100-1500 AD our country was one of top richest country . We have been followed with our old tradition, culture, philosophy and it is unchangeable and reasonable justify.

  2. Hi Emma, I can imagine, it’s hard to understand whether it is approriate to shake hands with a woman. I always wait till the woman takes the initiative if it is not a Dutch

  3. As a Hungarian (do you consider it Eastern Europe?) I have to say, I prefer shaking hands to any other greetings (hugs, kisses, touching). Unfortunately I often find myself in awkward situations (in the UK, France and Spain) when people (especially men) don’t receive my handshake.

  4. As a matter of fact we all respect their cultures when it come individuals to choose.
    The point is we as a whole as a human’s need to see the good point’s from every culture and adopt them as a whole so that we improve our self’s and thus help’s to improve our environment too.
    This will lead to have more harmonies among our self and balance with the society around the around and thus reducing the differences between culture’s and treating him or her as a human not the basis’s of where he comes from.
    Thus this results lead to increase in happiness around the world without any complaints of other things just does the things you like without harming others.
    Love to see all in same disc:) some day
    Please save trees for future.

  5. Few major differences that come to mind (based on generalizations of course):
    1. Indians are shy compared to people from the western countries. One of the primary reasons being that kids are sheltered by the parents and relatives making it difficult for them to live independent lives or make bold choices. Most kids go to school and back home. Compare this to a European lifestyle which encourages an outdoor life with most kids involved in camping or some sort of sport from an early age.
    2. Indians, especially those living in India, still suffer from a inferiority complex when dealing with Caucasians. You can definitely feel this if you were to visit India, where the level of service provided to you usually depends on the ‘whiteness’ of your skin. Switch on the TV or flip open a newspaper and you would notice the amount of advertisements for creams that make your skin ‘White’ in a few days.
    3. The amount of spending Indians do on lifestyle items is comparatively less than their western counterparts. There is more emphasis on saving money rather than spending it on healthy food choices, a Armani perfume or a pair of Nike sneakers.

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  7. Very interesting discussion!

    I have read all the comments. One question I have is – a few people have said “Indians adapt everywhere.” Sometimes I got the feeling this meant “Indians adapt better everywhere than Westerns/Europeans.” I have heard this among people before. I am curious why people say this or think this? I would think cultural adaptation is based on a person’s personal ability to adapt, not based on nationality, culture, religion, etc. Even within the same family, different members adjust differently. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

  8. 1. Language
    2. Life style
    3. Idealism
    4. SOP’s followed by each religion, each cast, each sub cast, etc.
    5. Habits – good, bad, ugly, logical, horrible, etc.
    6. Beliefs – good, bad, ugly, logical, horrible, etc.
    7. Weather conditions and which are directly affecting on food, clothing & shelter
    8. Basic educational system – Maths, science, language, geography, social science
    9. Marriage system
    10. Above all, India do not respect & recognize only male & female. They have Dada-Dadi, Mama-Mami, Nana-Nani, Kaka-Kaku, Chacha-Chachi & so on. Indians do not believe in calling anyone by their first names. Over & above, we add many additions like Saheb, Rao, Anna, Appa & so on.

  9. Family and clan feeling is heavily inbedded in the mind set of most of the Indians and they are more socially amenable to any cultural situation. On the otherhand Europeans are not so bonded both as a family and or clan feeling. Most Indians follows a ritualistic religion than the Europeans and perhaps the Europeans carry an appoach that they are more developed and more civilisized and to my view that the common Indians accept this fact. Then the racial supermacy, though most Indians are not white the preferred body colour is white only…

    My view is that cultural differences exists in terms of relgion, race and family.

  10. A lot of differences are already mentioned. But from my personal experience (as a PM/FM of 2 Global Sourcing Projects), I have experienced that my Indian colleges couldn’t hardly say no or refuge anything. They are willing to do all kind of activities; It made them easily change their planning with saying that the other tasks were not finished yet.
    Another difference is that; when we (in Europe) ask commitment for a planning, it is the intention that data should be met). From an Indian point of view, a planning perhaps more a guideline and when it is not met, there is always the next day.

  11. Without touching or commenting on what several authoritative persons said above, I feel that Indians are more adept in adaptability in any country they live. In India itself, you will find a eastern Indians are settled in deep south Indian cities and vice versa. In New Delhi and Mumbai you will find people from all over India living without any issues. Recent IT revolutions has lifted thousands of Indians from towns and small cities and placed them at US, UK and other countries and there were no issues. I have not heard or seen any kind of performance slow down or mind-blocks or variation in capability based on their upbringing in a different way. The freedom in more personal matters what the Europe enjoys reflects on their climate and low temperature. The tropical atmosphere in India requires some speed breakers.

  12. Indian Systems is completely different from european systems including culture, taking decision, working environment etc.
    European society is also hierarchically organized this depends on country, for example Italy is different form France.
    Indian adopts everywhere in the world but not Europeans

  13. Generalization is just a way to know some cultures or groups of people either they are different races, genders, religions, ages, abilities and disabilities, socio economic levels, education, location etc… India hosts a mosaic of religions, ethnic backgrounds and languages so caution should be taken when generalizing a country like India. Note that generalization is the opposite of stereotyping which tends to be a negative focus on others that are different
    For India I would mention these points:

    • Is it a traditional, family-run business or a more modern hi-tech operation working with western business methodology?
    • India, places great value on the quality of inter-personal relationships. Do not try to push things too quickly, take the time to develop relationships.
    • Both society and business are extremely hierarchically arranged
    • Pushing a flatter, more egalitarian approach can prove extremely difficult
    • Most decisions are made at the top of an organization dont spend too much time negotiating at the middle levels of a company if top level approval has not already been given.
    • Managers are expected to give direct and specific instructions to subordinates – and subordinates are expected to carry out the instructions unquestioningly.
    • Meetings can seem very informal and it is possible for several meetings to be conducted by one person at the same time and in the same room. Try not to become irritated by this informal approach. Time is fairly fluid.
    • As relationships are important, many meetings will begin with fairly lengthy small talk. Take the time to engage in this process – it is very important to the development of solid, long-term relationships.
    • Contracts should be viewed as a starting point rather than as fixed agreements.
    • Teams expect to perform closely defined tasks under the strong control of a leader. It is not considered intrusive for the leader to take a detailed interest in the work of individuals within the team.
    • English language levels vary but widely spoken in India
    • Do not be surprised if people seem ready to agree to most things – it is difficult for Indians to show direct disagreement. People will tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. Always seek detailed clarification of any agreements reached.
    • Small gifts are often given and received – this is usually part of the relationship building process and should not be taken as attempted bribery. Gifts should be wrapped and not opened in front of the giver.
    • Women will be respected in business situations if they have a position of authority. People show respect to the hierarchical level rather than being affected by any gender issues.
    • Try to be sensitive to local religious conventions. Don’t offer alcohol to a Muslim or beef to a Hindu.
    • Before travelling to India on business check the calendar for local festivals, public holidays etc. – there are lots of them.
    Versus Holland
    • The Dutch appreciate plain speaking above all else.
    • Everybody has a point to make and deserves to be heard.
    • The manager is not necessarily the boss
    • Decisions are reached through a lengthy process of debate and consensus building buy-in.
    • Historical events (floods, invasions etc.) have made the Dutch cautious and deeply thoughtful in their approach to issues.
    • It is important to be seen as unpretentious in your dealings with other people.
    • There is a relatively strong separation made between work and private.
    • Education is highly valued
    • Employees tend to stay with one employer for long periods of time, which promotes a company loyalty and an interest in long-term goals.
    • Conducting business affairs over lunch is unusual in the Netherlands – lunch is usually a quick snack.
    • Dutch tend towards informality in business dealings with first names usually used – especially in international situations.
    . Women can achieve high positions though some stay home after giving birth
    I know it is a long answer but needed to show the general differences in the 2 cultures. Europe also is different from one country to the other

  14. The question mentioned here , requires the indepth knowledge of the two culture. I may not be expert on the matter but to few things one can clearly diffrenciate.

    If professional environment is discussed even Indian companies believes in providing the freedom to the skilled person, who has aptitude and attitude for the projects.Such freedom on the work front is always experience by me. Thanks to the organization and my seniors who has given such freedom to explore my true potential.

  15. The differences are far to many to list here. One could write a book on the differences. If someone is involved in outsourcing, They better understand these cultural differences.

  16. Hugo,

    This is a great question and one of the things I like about LI. Getting to know people from around the world has been an eye opener for me. One of the people that has helped my is Sahar Andrade and I’ll bet she could give you some good insight, not just in the difference between India and Europe but also genders.

  17. I find the views some Indian people have off women to be too different from what I’m used to in Europe. Being asked by a programmer from India “And doesn’t your husband mind that you are working?”, or my partner being told “that women cannot program. Their brains are too small” when talking about a (successful female) teacher. I think they came from very traditional/small cities but really gave a bad impression.

    I don’t know, I wouldn’t say anything so rude to somebody in a professional setting, and if those people expect to work successfully with their European counterparts they should be aware that probably they’ll work with many women programmers.

  18. Your question is a good one as it highlights a very important and
    highly relevant issue in these days of increasing business interection / cooperation / outsourcing between India and Europe

    Answering the question, however, other than giving a simplified superficial and generalised overview, would be difficult within the context of a LinkedIn discussion — whole books could be written on the subject, particularly as Europe and India are not themselves entirely single entities with uniform cultures throughout

    Of more value, therefore, could be to address the cultural differences that might apply to a particular type of business situation as part of a seperate discussion

  19. Europeans are more hard to generalize than Indian people. Mainly because of the hierarchy view in India as someone mentioned. That view is not shared in Europe. But in India you are born with that view.

    I have also met Indian people that can not say no, and that were silenced by their boss when talking, in the middle of a sentence. Italians do that as well, but in that case it has nothing to do with hierarchy.

    If there are different areas of cultural similarities in Europe it would be Scandinavians, French-Italian-Spanish-Switzerland in some sense, Germans, English, and more eastern cultures, But there are more that unite these cultures than, imho, in India.

  20. I dont think you can generalize like that when it comes to europeans.
    I work in an open office enviroment with people from 4 diffrent countries, and while we are all scandinavian, I can see huge variations in work ethics, work methods and more than anything the way we tackle authorities.

    But if I had to sum up some things to beware of (at least when dealing with scandinavians) – people here are not life dependent on their jobs, and will not stand for abuse, expect high levels of open mouthed complaining, and be prepared to explain your actions. That said, most people are able to work without supervision, and people are happy to make decesions on their own.
    Most of the people I have worked with also take pride in their work, regardless of its importants, and this in my book is the main selling point.

    Hope it helps.

  21. There are two that I, as a European, find difficult to handle:

    1 The passivity you saw in the daycare centres. The respect of the hierarchy that causes people to wait to be told in some detail what to do and how to do it. This, in my very European view, stifles creativity and kills productivity. It is hard to give someone your desired outcome and just expect them to do what it takes to achieve it or come and ask for help if they can’t. it will not happen.

    2 The strong desire never to say no or to embarrass you as the boss. So I have had Indian colleagues simply agree with me when I’ve been totally and utterly wrong or mistaken and they are fully aware of my error. Also I’ve had Indian students keep nodding and confirming understanding in the training I’m giving rather than admit they don’t follow and make me look bad.

    I recall a story published in a newspaper here about a young girl injured in a car accident and who subsequently died of her injuries on the way to hospital. The paper reported how the family broke the story to her aged mother over a period of about a 10 day period with reports of steadily declining health ending with her sad demise after a long struggle.

    My Indian friends admired the tact and care with which the family treated the mother and my European friend were horrified and the long drawn out pain she was put through to get the sad news.

    Two cultures with different starting points.

    I know I’m a prisoner of my own culture and beliefs so none of the foregoing should be seen as a disparagement of Indian culture or a defence of European. Just observation of difference.

  22. One of the main difference I believe is the way how we allow our children to grow! Teens are more free in European countries once they reach 13 year of age. That makes them to start taking decision on their own. Whether good or bad they are taking decisions which does has a huge impact in their risk taking capability as well. So its freedom to take decision on their own makes them more towards exploring new in a different way.

  23. Differing attitudes about bureaucracy in administration. Europeans seem more likely to view rules or protocols merely as a means to an end, something that should increase efficiency and never lower it.

    Differing attitudes about the importance of traditions, rituals, and flattery as a form of politeness. Europeans can actually view flattery as impolite if they feel it is insincere and done merely to honor the hierarchy.

    Differing attitudes about fatalism vs. personal responsibility or self-determination. One side deludes themselves that things are out of their control when they really aren’t; the other side imagines the situation is under their control when it really isn’t.

  24. I have quite some experience with working with offshore teams, so I know there are a lot of cultural differences. What surprised me some time ago is that the differences are also already clear closer to home. if you compare the Dutch with the Germans (http://tomvanlamoen.wordpress.com/2008/11/27/team-culture/) there are already some clear differences, which I did not expect. If the distance between locations grows bigger we tend to accept more differences. Maybe that’s the reason why geographically spread out teams have a bigger team spirit than some local teams I’ve worked with?

    The cultural differences are good, that’s one of the nice extras you get when working with people from another country. A major difference between Europe and India I experienced is totally different experience of time.

  25. A nice one! Especially the ‘openness’ point which tends to be hidden most of the time unlike the hierarchical point .

    Should have mentioned that ‘Most women don’t shake hands’ in the last difference pointed out. :) Though I understand that it was intended for the pun of it. Yep! Right! This is coming from a lady alright! :)

  26. I share Hugo’s assessment and think it’s equally true for India compared to the USA. I would also like to expand a bit more on the effects of those two key factors, as they will have a huge impact on client / BPO relationships and day-to-day work.
    1. Hierarchy also means that team members will follow the rules. They will look for rules (processes, methodologies, work instructions) to follow. If the rules are not clear, they will not necessarily ask questions to clarify, but will likely do their best to make assumptions and interpret what little guidance they got. That may result in a lot of wasted effort and frustrations.
    2. If the rules don’t make sense, or don’t produce the best possible output, team members will still try to follow them. I think that both hierarchy and openness (or rather, that openness is perceived as impolite) are the reason for that behavior. Suggesting a different path or methodology would be admitting that the rules weren’t all that good in the first place, and be close to criticism. It may take a while until a team lead feels free to suggest improvements.
    3. Getting a good team lead in place is vital for the overall success of the team. The absence of a team lead, or a weak team lead, may well make the entire team dysfunctional.

    I know that this is a generalization, but it describes some recurring themes that I’ve seen in more than 6 years of working with Indian BPO providers. Moreover, also keep in mind that “following the rules” is not all bad, especially for structured processes with a highly defined output. If team members start ignoring or bending the rules, the outcome can be very messy.

  27. Another great question!

    It’s great you mentioned that such a question inherently invites generalizations, that is true. With that said, some meaningful observations can still be made.

    My caveat is that I know less about Europe than India, but will proceed under the premise that the US (my country) shares sufficient similarities with Europe to be described as a “cousin culture”, and thata I may offer some insights.

    One striking aspect of differences between Europe/the West and India is the difference in individual-versus-group mentalities. In India, one can ask a group a question and receive absolutely no responses. In Europe/the West, one will generally receive some feedback on a question.

    When I dug deeper into this phenomenon with an Indian colleague with whom I had a personal rapport, he described that an associate who may want to stand up and speak his/her mind in front of “his peers” on a question asked by “a superior” might come off as haughty or opportunistic, and receive some verbal jibes later – “You are trying to be better than the rest of us.” or “Why do you want to look so smart?” In other words, quietness after a question is not always aloofness, it can be a response to the Indian precept that you need to stay plugged into your specific tier in life.

    On the other hand, differentiating yourself from your peers in Europe/the West is more or less the goal.

    Back to the question of generalizations, this impulse for equity is different all over India. I would offer that a group in Chennai would feel this impulse much more strongly than, let’s say, in Mumbai.

    Additionally, people do open up in India over time, so this lack of a response may be encountered more frequently at the front end of an assignment than it would be after a year.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking question!

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