After an office meeting in Mumbai, I watched my colleagues receive their tiffins of hot chutneys, sambars, and roti from a delivery guy. But it wasn’t just take-out—it was their wives’ home cooking, packed earlier that morning. The lunch found its way across the city to our office because of the Daabawala system—which gets nearly 200,000 lunches delivered on time to the right offices every day with 99% accuracy.
This system illustrates high performance and truly skilled management and has been studied by business schools around the world—but stories like these often get overlooked when travelers talk about India. Instead, you will hear stories of constant power outages, rough roads and traffic, and overwhelming crowds and poverty. But that’s only a fraction of the story. For all of those stories about tough living or adventures gone wrong, there are great stories, too.
In fact, it is often said that whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also true. It’s a huge country, and each person’s experience will be completely different. That said, if you’re traveling to India for work for the first time, there are a few things to know that will help you ensure success and be prepared for all India has to offer.
Keep it Conservative
At high-level business and diplomatic meetings, you’ll want to dress very formally. Full suits are fine, and definitely wear closed footwear (no sandals!). If you are working in sectors like tech or engineering or meeting young professionals, you can go for business casual.
Women should absolutely avoid showing legs or baring cleavage (you will receive a lot of unwanted attention), and men should never wear shorts, only pants. You can adopt the local dress, like a salwar kameez, when you go out sightseeing or if your work is in the field—say, in a small village—but skip the sari (especially if it’s your first time or you don’t know how to tie it correctly). And for men, skip kurta tops for business but consider them when you are exploring—they’re made of loose cotton and will keep you cool.
One piece of advice: Always make sure to carry a scarf. It’s a multifaceted tool and can provide extra coverage if you need it or serve as a head covering in rural areas, mosques, and temples. It can also be used to carry or grip things (like when you are in an autorickshaw) or as a mask to shield yourself from street pollution and debris.
Always Share a Meal With Your Colleagues
You’ve likely heard stories about food poisoning (or worse) from colleagues who travel in India. But if you want to succeed in business in India, you need to leave the worries behind—because the food is delicious and the best business deals are made over a great meal. Indians take pride in their food, and you should always put a little bit of everything on your plate and show that you are enjoying it.
There are three reasons travelers usually gets sick: because they eat at an unhygienic or undercooked food vendor, because the spices don’t agree with them, or because they are in an endemic area. But there are ways you can avoid falling ill: Always drink bottled water (and make sure the cap is sealed when you buy it), make sure your food is hot and cooked through, and eat at stalls or local restaurants recommended by your colleagues. (Check out some tips to know what to look out for in a restaurant if you are on your own before you go.) Some travelers say to avoid meat—but some of the best food in places like Coorg and Punjab is the meat, and you don’t want to miss out.
Indian food is notoriously spicy, but if you can’t handle spice, be honest with your hosts. If you’re in a situation where the spice can’t be regulated, then use lots of yogurt, and cool it down with a lassi (an Indian yogurt drink).
At nice restaurants, you will be eating with a fork and spoon (shovel the food onto the spoon with the fork, and use the spoon as your main utensil), but in rural areas or in the field, you might find you are eating with your hands. In this case, breads or rice are often used as a utensil (only use your right hand when eating; the left is considered unclean). And no matter what, always make sure you compliment the food and leave enough room for dessert.
Acknowledge Class Complexity
Imagine you are in your car with your colleagues. You roll the window down for just a second, and suddenly there are seven hands in your face, all asking for money. Do you hand out a few rupees? Do you freak out and roll up your window? Do you let the moment pass? (Don’t forget—your local partner is watching you.)
Back at home, we often stay in our homes, offices, and neighborhoods and can be shielded from the reality of poverty—it’s out of sight and out of mind. But, there are parts of India where you can step out of your five-star hotel and still have to walk around people sleeping on the street. And how you act or react to this can be important. You should really always play it cool—let nothing phase you and try to act gracefully and with humanity.
It’s also important to let go of the common Western stereotypes about poverty in India. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire only reinforce those stereotypes, but don’t depict the diversity of daily life. Your business partners might in fact be extraordinarily wealthy—or they might be part of the large growing middle class. Or, they may have come from nothing and had success launching a startup.
You should know that the visual landscape is different, too—in urban settings, you could pull up to an office building that looks run-down or that's located next to an empty lot filled with stray dogs, but that doesn’t mean it should be considered impoverished or dismissed—in fact, it may be pristine on the inside. It’s important to acknowledge each space in its own context and not to pass judgement.
Build Your Network and Make Friends
Business relationships mean a lot in India, and you will have to work really hard to build strong, one-on-one relationships by spending a lot of time with your colleagues. (You will find yourself talking a lot over cups of chai and great dessert!) Take a genuine interest in your colleagues’ kids and their studies and in their own interests—maybe they take dance classes or play cricket. And know that, many times, you will be doing a lot of listening.
Also research the history and culture of where you’re visiting a little bit; know that cricket is a national pastime (and its very different than baseball) and that Bollywood movies are still number one. Know the latest movies or hit songs is also helpful. You should be open to answering people’s personal questions about your family, marital status, and career goals. Be open, be humble, and just learn to laugh.
Understand the Differences
Most importantly, understand that each of the 28 states in India is very different from one another in terms of culture, religion, and outlook. For example, Maharashtra is very different than a Southern state like Kerala or Tamil Nadu—South Indians have their own movie stars and film (known as Tollywood for Telugu films, Mollywood for Malayalam films, and vegetarian dosa and idli are more common than the meat dishes of central and Northern India. And there are 22 official languages, and about 438 different languages spoken throughout the country!
So, know where you are headed for work, and do your research beforehand. It’s a good idea to have an understanding of and talking points for each specific region you visit.
India is not a country to be romanticized, stereotyped, or feared—you have to take it for what it is: a country with a billion people and a billion stories. Be ready to embrace it all, and as you do business there, you will have many of your own stories to share.
What are your tips for traveling to India? Share in the comments section below!
Pre-Trip Clothing and Accessories
Books to Read
Photo of Indian streets courtesy of Paul Prescott and Shutterstock.com.