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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.