6 cultural similarities between India and the U.S.

This is the second of two posts comparing India and the U.S. I started with 6 differences and now that I’ve been back from India for a few weeks, reflect on similarities.

While working at a women’s organization, I remember a news channel interviewing one our directors on the “battle” between couples with children and married adults with no children. DINK groups (dual income no kids) were calling for child-free sections at restaurants. Our stance was that focusing on the differences between the groups raises the wrong questions and that we should instead talk about policies that make workplaces and restaurants better for everyone, like paid sick leave or smoke-free policies.

I share this because it often seems harder to think about similarities, even though these are where sympathy and understanding stem from.  Unfortunately, differences and conflict sell news. I think differences and similarities are like criticism and praise or coffee and tea – you shouldn’t offer one without the other. So here is my attempt at highlighting similarities.

  1. People want to be helpful (and probably will be if given the chance): I get energized by how willing people are to go out of their way to help me. If I had a communication problem with an auto driver in Hyderabad, I could call a friend and they would speak to the driver for me. I was always offered rides to and from hash every Sunday and I was given dozens of phone numbers and emails of friends of acquaintances. I have found since I’m in full networking mode, that people in the U.S. will enthusiastically do the same when asked. In my experience, the best way to get the help you need – ask for it and be as specific as possible with the request.
  2. Education is considered the key to success: I was in a conversation this week with a man who said the best thing he gave his kids was an education and the rest is up to them.  At the Ashoka conference, a strong case was made that if we solve for education (and convince individuals they can make an impact), humans can solve all other problems for themselves. While every community in the world seems to be focused on providing a quality education for young people, I think the sub story is worth paying attention to. Especially in India, education needs more emphasis on creativity and critical thinking as opposed to factual memorization and skill learning. ASCD (my former client) is working on this in the U.S. with their whole child efforts and The Akanksha Foundation in India provides after school arts and athletic programs for children. Interestingly, the founder of Akanksha, Shaheen Mistri, is also leading Teach for India following the famous Teach for America model.
  3. Love of ice cream (and other frozen lick-able treats): By most measures, it feels like I never left DC, but the eruption of frozen yogurt shops is an undeniable sign of change. I cannot understand how it’s possible DC residents can eat more and, yet, within walking distance of my house, I can get Mr. Yogato, Sweet Green, Tangy Sweet, Yogen Fruz and Fro-zen-yo, and that’s not even mentioning where I could get ice cream. At the same time, I can confidently say that at every meal I ate out in India, I had the option of ice cream for dessert. Despite all the differences between consumers in the U.S. and India, I think selling ice cream is a bulletproof business model in both places.
  4. Relationships are everything in business: In the U.S. as in India, people want to like and trust who they work with so who you are is often more important than what hard skills you bring to the table.  To me, this is why networking and sales are art forms – you have to get personal enough to make a connection and business enough to make the case for the deal.  Sometimes scheduling happy hours and adopting an affinity for Makers Mark is time better spent than drafting proposals and cover letters.
  5. Everyone loves a discount: While in Delhi, I bargained hard for a couple of block fabrics and the guy working there said “you are part Indian now.” I took it as a compliment, though my attention to not over paying was becoming an unhealthy obsession. He was referring to the severe price sensitivity of Indians. Though it is more appropriate to bargain for goods in most places in India, which is not true in the U.S., consumers in both countries want to pay as little as they can and getting a discount is very attractive, even if it is just psychological. Side note: there’s a great scene in the book Inscrutable Americans about this topic
  6. There are more problems than solutions and a lot of entrepreneurs trying to figure them out: There are hundreds of foundations, incubator organizations, and venture capital firms – like Echoing Green and General Atlantic – dedicated entirely to encouraging and funding innovative people to figure out business solutions to the worst social problems around the world from youth violence and suicide to poor sanitation.  I asked a friend who works for a solar light company in India whether they are afraid of the competition given how many similar companies exist and she said, no that they are only scratching the surface of the full market. 

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