6 cultural differences between India and the U.S.

This is the first of two posts comparing India and the U.S. starting with what we as humans seem to be more trained to see – differences.  There are of course many more so feel free to add to this list.

A recent book review for Roadrunner: An Indian Quest In America, suggests that the author uses his experience in America to reflect on his own country, India, and that “to reflect is to identify problems, acknowledge failures, and offer other ways of thinking.” While I’m not quite at the IAO (identify, acknowledge, offer) part of this process, I have certainly reflected on the cultural differences between the two countries.

Borrowing from the thesis of Switch, the Heath brother’s new book, it seems that the question for a successful entrepreneur in this century – whether in India, the U.S. or in between – is how to build on what is working to fix what isn’t. Though sometimes it’s hard to know what needs fixing.

  1. Spoken versus written language: In both work and socially, the clearest sign that I am not from India is my attachment to the written word. Despite knowing that face-to-face and voice-to-voice are the preferred means of communication, I can’t let go of my desire to make plans over email and present an idea in a document. So I’ve just started to do both – drafting an email that says I will follow-up via phone or verbally flagging for my colleague that I sent them something to look at. In India, a word of mouth recommendation is just that, while in the U.S. it has become “word of link.” 
  2. Service versus empowerment: It takes but a moment in this country to learn that India is a service-based culture in every way. As evidenced by the people that follow you around in stores to some of the categories on the GreenMango site (drivers, cooks, etc), there is virtually nothing you need done that you couldn’t hire someone to do, at a relatively low cost.  This is possibly a legacy of the caste system but most certainly a result of India’s two largest commodities: people and time. In the U.S. on the other hand, labor is expensive, time is limited and people want to feel independent. Companies in the U.S. – from Home Depot to the Food Network to Mint.com – are about automation and helping people become more self sufficient.
  3. Order versus law: Indians seem to snub almost all road laws including red lights and helmets, and while judges are honored members of society, a land dispute in India can last generations with no resolution. Very much the opposite of the U.S., which relies heavily on the law to settle disputes, India is a not a litigious society and yet, the crime rate in India is significantly lower overall (at least reported) than in the U.S.. People will get angry, but generally the recipient will absorb it and the problem doesn’t escalate. I am learning to take advantage of this in small ways: when I walk into a store and they ask to check my bag, I give an Indian head bobble and keep walking, as I know they don’t want confrontation.
  4. Wealthy obesity versus poor obesity: Generally, in India, people who are overweight are wealthy. (These are the same people I see doing the toe touching workouts at the gym, which might also explain their weight problem.) On the contrary, in the U.S. weight problems more skewed towards low-income earners: 22.4% of young people living below the poverty line are overweight or obese versus 9.1% whose families earn at least four times that amount according to TIME in 2008. This certainly has to do with the cost of food, which generally is the opposite here as it is in the U.S. where unhealthy foods are cheaper (of course, a generalization). In India, a box of cereal costs me about $6 (though imported) and a bag of Haldirams snack mix is 70 cents while a bag of seven carrots costs me 18 cents a yogurt costs 33 cents.
  5. Fantasy versus emotional marketing: The core of U.S. marketing – whether for a product or a mission – is trying to make something more emotional to “tug at the heart strings” and make you act (or buy). There are studies that compare puppies against kittens and we know that pictures of kids faces (or any faces really) increase response rates.  But in India, some argue that people are consistently surrounded by emotion (or reality) such that escape is more attractive.  One person told me that you only need to look at the movie industry to see this: Slumdog Millionaire was not as acclaimed in India as it was in the U.S., for example, as compared to the dramatic, dancing, singing Bollywood style of film.  I haven’t completely bought into this but there are significant differences about selling to Indians versus Americans if for no other reasons than some of those on this list. 
  6. Landmarks versus street signs: In the U.S. you can for the most part get in a cab and say where you’re going and get there. In India you almost always have to know where you are going and that also almost always involves landmarks as few streets are properly labeled.  This may be a bit different in more metropolitan cities like Mumbai or Delhi but in Hyderabad, maps are pretty useless.  Take the directions to get to Hash House Harriers on Sunday.  Something like: “Go past Apollo hospital and when you get to the fork with the temple, stay to the right. Go about 1km and make a right at the VSIP sign.”  Navigating involves all parties in the vehicle and can become quite a bonding experience with the driver. 

18 Responses to “6 cultural differences between India and the U.S.”

#1 Watch Hindi TV on March 24th, 2010 at 12:33 pm

nice blog post about this topic. this makes me ask a question though, so i dont really understand the relation of this topic and your entire blog. it just doesnt go together. But nontheless i found it very helpful. Regards, Rizwan

#2 Ali Cherry on March 26th, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Thanks Rizwan. Excellent question. It’s really just a compilation of lists from me – not so much strategies. I live in India right now so have done a bunch on my reflections of India. I should probably change the tagline. Thanks for reading and commenting!

#3 Deepa on May 13th, 2010 at 8:21 am

Nice to see you like the indian experience.

#4 Lakshman on May 19th, 2010 at 1:20 am

An excellent analysis! Navigating in India definitely leads to a bonding with the driver!

#5 JM on March 23rd, 2011 at 12:13 pm

What about the differences between the way kids are raised. In the US education is plan B in case sports acting or music career dont work out. In India education comes first. Right? Also how about the diffs in marriage. Arranged marriages are still common in India, NOT in the US (way different approach)

#6 Bhavna on June 19th, 2011 at 6:26 pm

You may add difference for the priories for the families and friends between India and America.

#7 Simon on June 30th, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Hello,
I’m from Europe and living in India. I have only Indian friends, no expatriates. One more difference for me is the attitude to fixed appointments which in fact are not confirmed unless your friend actually shows up. In India saying “no” is like being rude. So, e.g. instead of saying an appointment is canceled, they would rather make you wait for 2 hours till you assume it’s canceled. Later they might call you and say they are sorry they couldn’t make it.. For me, this is the hardest cultural difference as saying NO here is a taboo. Sometimes I feel like this ruins my trust in people as I never know if I can rely on them or not…

Another thing would be the value of a word. They say e.g. that they will call you and they never do. Later they seem to have a memory problem…

Best,

#8 Ali Cherry on July 7th, 2011 at 9:14 pm

These comments offer such great additions to the list. Thanks so much everyone!

Simon, I relate your experience very much. My colleague and I would arrange appointments, spend over an hour to get to one (bonding with the driver as Lakshman says!) and when we’d call to say that we arrived, the person would say they were busy and could we reschedule. Very difficult.

#9 Arvind on November 23rd, 2011 at 3:08 am

Hi,

I would like to add another point to this list. I have been to the US and one major difference that i find between American citizens and Indian citizens is that they do not feel the need to be courteous. Simple things like if you buy something at a shop thanking the shop keeper or owner.

That is definitely one thing i learnt during my stay in US is being courteous is good and should be done.

#10 Joel on April 5th, 2012 at 7:38 am

I am preparing to move to Mumbai on a company assignment soon (by June of 2012). One of the cultural differences I’ve noticed working with our affliate in Mumbai is that no one can give bad news about a project. And if bad news has to be given, it can only be given by an executive and by then its typically too late. It’s difficult to learn about bad news at the lowest levels of the project in time to take corrective action. Unlike projects in the US where we encourge project team members to alert management when issues arise as quickly as possible.

#11 Ali Cherry on April 5th, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Great point Joel! I wonder if this is about anti confrontation like never turning down food. Thanks for sharing!

#12 mahbube & bahare on July 7th, 2012 at 2:55 am

really this writing was excellent.

#13 Dhaval on September 17th, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Nice article…

#14 Hectic Homework Girl on October 26th, 2012 at 6:37 pm

JM, I appreciate your addition to the list. I was having some difficulties with my India homework,and your comments were majorly helpful. Thanks again! Great presentation by the way, Ali!

#15 Tubha on November 15th, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Hi

I think it’s only fair that we speak in terms of INR and not USD. The exchage rate may actually give a better picture. Also, the buying power of the 2 currencies matter more than the value / actual exchage rate,
don’t you think…

#16 Nipun Chawla on November 24th, 2012 at 6:06 am

This is so neat. I am an Indian and couldn’t agree more :) .

#17 Abhishek Dwevedi on December 2nd, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Great Post..!!

I think India is divided into a lot of groups and communities, so you will get different kind of India in each and every state of India.In Delhi , people are straight forward while if you go in interiors people are poor and have alot of emotional values.
So, for me you can’t compare Indian culture to any other country.Yeah may you should compare culture of 28 states of India first .Then only you should think of comparing it any other country..!!

#18 Ali Cherry on December 4th, 2012 at 8:05 am

Good point Tubha! When I say “low cost,” I mean value for the money. Indians tend to pay for service more than Americans do. Home Depot, with 2,000+ stores and $70 billion in revenue, used to use a tagline “you can do it, we can help.” The absolute cost isn’t really an apples to apples comparison.

Abhishek, excellent point. These are certainly generalizations but I would say that would happen with any comparison. For example, some U.S. states would make this country seem very polite but that wouldn’t necessarily be an accurate characterization of the country.

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