10 tips for foreigners working in India

Posted on July 13, 2017 by Heather

Living and working in India can be challenging for those unaccustomed to the country. However many books and blogs we read, nothing can really prepare us for the reality of trying to navigate a culture which can seem very alien to us Westerners, at times. I’m a Brit who’s been living and working in Mumbai for 14 years, and married to an Indian for 9 of those, so I’ve learned a lot over time. I absolutely love India, can’t bear to be away from Mumbai for too long, but even now, I need to occasionally breathe, refocus and remember a few of the “adjustment” basics.

Here are my 10 biggest learnings, to help you really make the most of life in India. Please note that this is subjective and based on my own personal experience – feel free to comment and add your own.

1. Find your “coping mechanisms”

Even for long term expats, life in India can be challenging. The noise, the pollution (depending where you live), the crowds, the fast pace, can zap your energy and leave you feeling like a wrung out dishrag. The key to ensuring that this doesn’t all gradually wear you down and turn you into a frazzled, exhausted shell of yourself is to have your “coping mechanisms” in place. Simply put, these are ways you can temporarily escape the apparent insanity, and recharge the batteries. Whether you join a private members club, find an awesome spa for a weekly massage or even find a spot in a secluded park, you need to find somewhere where you can take yourself to de-stress. My Coaching sessions for Expats can help you find ways to cope and de-stress even further.

2. Be compassionate … without being taken advantage of

This is a really tricky one. As relatively well off expats, we stand out like a sore thumb. Not only that, but we tend to feel guilty about having people cook, clean and drive for us, as if we are somehow exploiting them (when actually we are providing them with employment). The trick is to be fair. You’ll be approached for money every day, and you’ll be spun endless sob stories. Some may be genuine, but many won’t be. It’s impossible to give to everyone, however well meaning you may be, and giving money isn’t always the right thing to do. I carry biscuits and sweets in my car for kids who beg on the streets, and I also go above and beyond in supporting the people who work in my home.

3. Understand what drives the country

India is a complex country, and almost impossible for us foreigners to ever really understand, at a visceral level. However, we can at least try to dig beyond the surface, to understand what’s going on. My Cultural Adaptation Coaching can help you find “insights”, and manage appropriate responses. My own discoveries, over time, have made me a far better manager of people and teams in India. Over time, I have gained an understanding of the complexities of a society without the safety net of a social security or “benefits” system, where money and status are critical to differentiate you from others and where familial ties and expectations and even gender roles put pressure on co-workers. Understanding some of these dynamics, and how internal and external pressures drive people and behaviour, is critical for any Expat.

4. Try to get out once every 3 months

I absolutely love Mumbai, and adore living here, but even I find that unless I leave the city once every 3 months, I start to feel the telltale signs of stress. By leaving the city I don’t mean flying off for an expensive holiday every quarter (although that would certainly be nice!) but a trip to Goa which is only 45 minutes away by plane, a visit to another part of India, or even just a weekend chilling out at Madh island which is a short ferry ride from the area I live in in Mumbai. This really helps me wind down and again, it’s all about recharging the batteries.

5. Choose which lens to view life through

We always have the choice to control our reactions in life. Though it can be difficult sometimes, I always find that my life in India is made easier when I choose to view it through a less critical lens. OK, things may be frustrating to those of us used to a more orderly approach, but if we look at life from a different perspective what can be frustrating can also be liberating. On the one hand, it may seem impossible to get anyone to commit to a timeline in India and stick to it. “Yes” often means “no chance” and no one really likes to plan things too carefully. On the other hand, the Indian concept of “jugaad” (a catch all word which embraces the ability to find innovative solutions to problems) may mean that what would be impossible to do in the West happens as if by magic in India.

6. Don’t react to a “crisis”

This is one of the most significant things I’ve learned in my years in India. You can pretty much guarantee that there will be some kind of “crisis” in the workplace on a weekly or even daily basis. And by crisis, it’s usually something which is actually blown out of proportion. Adapting to the Indian work environment, and learning not to react to situations, is one area which Cultural Adaptation Coaching can really help with. The point is that India thrives on drama. It is a hugely expressive country – just watch a few Bollywood movies and you’ll see what I mean (as a Shah Rukh Khan fan, the classic Kal Ho Naa Ho is my all time favourite). Real life reactions to situations can be equally dramatic. Strip back the drama, wait a while, and things usually go back to normal.

7. Enjoy the obvious benefits

You can enjoy many experiences in India which would seem like a luxury back home. Make the most of them. Many expats are lucky enough to have a car and driver. Being driven around is an absolute perk – sit back and enjoy the ride. Watch the sights and sounds of the city from the comfort of your air-conditioned car. Revel in the fact that you don’t need to worry about finding a parking space, or driving home from work when you’re dead tired. Indian cities are jam packed with beauty parlours which offer very competitively priced services. Get your self a manicure, pedicure, blow dry or massage. Enjoy being waited on hand and foot, and always tip generously. Oh, and there’s the sunshine of course!

8. Avoid going “too native” BUT avoid staying in an expat bubble

There are those who come to India and immediately immerse themselves in the culture, learn the language, wear sarees and salwars and seek to be as “authentic” as possible. Others prefer to live in a gated community, surround themselves with other expats, refuse to learn a word of Hindi and eat only imported food items from the expensive supermarkets. Both are exhausting, and there is a happy medium. Indians love it when as a foreigner, you embrace their culture. I wear a saree for weddings and to the office on certain festival days, but I also generally feel more comfortable in my western clothing. I’ve learned enough Hindi to get by, but it’s exhausting trying to speak Hindi all the time, so I don’t. Many of my closest friends are Indian, I work with Indians, but I also have expat friends and belong to expat groups. It’s a happy balance.

9. Use the help around you, and network like crazy!

There are many really useful groups which you can join, or be a part of. Most Indian cities have a good number of expats and foreigners, tourists and travellers, and you can hook into those networks. Expat groups are particularly useful for new arrivals, and can help set you up with a place to live, help at home, furniture as well as connecting you socially with a group of likeminded people. Networking is a huge thing in India, and it’s often who you know, not what you know. Take advantage of Indian hospitality and warmth, make those connections, and see you circle of influence expand rapidly!

10. Don’t try to change India

These words of wisdom were given to me when I first arrived in India, 14 years ago, and have rung true ever since. As tempting as it may be, don’t try to change India. You need to adapt and be flexible, if you are to survive. Having said that, there are certain things which I refuse to stop doing – being on time for meetings, for example, though that is an uphill battle. Be open minded, find your coping mechanisms and support groups, perhaps even consider some Coaching sessions, understand the culture a little bit, embrace the madness, and you may well find that India will change you!

Alongside my work as a Coach for business leaders, I specialise in coaching expats to help them adjust to the challenges of living and working in Asia. Do contact me if you’d like to chat further.

2 Responses to “10 tips for foreigners working in India”

  1. Ramona says:

    Hi Heather, can you write a blog in how to effectively assert oneself when presenting negative feedback to customer service in India? For example, at a restaurant if the waiter was terrible or asking intrusive questions. My experience is that “complaining” is seen as a negative trait in comparison to many Western-oriented countries. Also, how do you deal with gossiping and backbiting?

    • Heather says:

      Hi Ramona … yes, I’ll write a blog post on this in the New Year. Meanwhile … my topline advice would be as follows – you have every right to demand excellent customer service in India, but unfortunately the level of training which is given to customer service people is woeful. That applies whether it’s in the hospitality industry, call centres, etc. So while we might want to apply our very western standards of customer service, we’ll get little response back from people who are simply untrained in putting the customer first. If you’re having a really poor experience, I would always ensure you’re talking to someone who is senior enough / trained (if you can ascertain that!!) before “having a go”. If a waiter is asking intrusive questions, and his/her behaviour is really inappropriate, then definitely escalate it. If it’s a question of the usual “5 waiters on duty all looking up into the sky and not attending to guests” then I always raise the matter with a more senior person. Gossipping and backbiting … well that’s a subject which I could write an entire book on! Broad advice would be – don’t react to it. India thrives on drama, and when there’s none, will often invent scenarios to create solutions, and excitement!!!

Leave a Reply

Back to top
%d bloggers like this: