Don't assume things are the same, no matter how 'Americanized' your business partners may be

"The general rule that nobody follows: they assume that business is done the same way in their home country. It s the natural reflex. It gets accentuated in a country like India. If you go to China, you re reminded more obviously that you re in a foreign country. In India, you may be lulled into complacency. The differences are still there."

Business between America and India has increased exponentially since 1985, when two-way trading was around $100 million, the two countries now trade billions of dollar s worth of goods and services every year.

Despite years of efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sweep away arcane rules and simplify procedures, India remains one of the planet s toughest places to do business, according to the World Bank.

Almost every enterprise in the west is looking at collaboration and business links with India – but it is not easy, it requires patience and a lot of understanding. Even a non-resident Indian can find the landscape different. Here are some tips that might help your, but keep in mind you will find many variations and contradictions of these points in the very diverse and exciting India market.

Indian culture provides masses of room for non-conformists. Diversity of dress, styles of doing business and differing reactions to personal contact are to be expected over there. Your host might want to talk about diet or spirituality instead of your product and it is wise (and fun) to go with the flow. India might be the most diverse country on earth. Religions, beliefs, languages and culture all immensely varied. Keeping an open mind will help you avoid jumping to the wrong conclusions. Your host could have spent many years in the USA or the UK, and have a global outlook – or never have left India and have a regional view.

Most westerners come from a culture of the individual, but Indians are firmly placed in a collective culture. A visitor to an Indian company will often find four or five Indians in the meeting, and often it is not clear who is in charge. Many Indian leaders will not speak up or even speak at all in these meetings – in the collective someone else does the talking while they do the evaluating.

You need patience

Modern India can be slow or fast and it is hard to know which you will encounter. Sometimes delivery seems to take forever, yet on other occasions it is faster than the west. This means to succeed you need incredible patience, so don’t send your least patient executive to India. Being able to respond positively under both slow and fast delivery is the key.

You are just one of many

The world is knocking on India’s door. Even if you represent a major company, you are not that important to Indians. The rest of the world is chasing them too, so they have choices. While most western executives are under head office pressure to complete the deal, their Indian counterpart faces no such demand and can walk away in most cases.

Indians have an acceptance of change hardwired into their psyche – they thrive on it. It also means they are less specific in plans and contracts, which can be disturbing for newcomers. Getting the specifics set down can take a long time – but be careful about speaking too bluntly because this can be seen as insulting in a culture of relativity and relationship. And once you have “finalized” the deal, expect a continuing run of re-negotiation (in India things are rarely “set in concrete”) which is consistent with the Indian view of the world and life as constantly changing and vastly unpredictable.

Things will change at the last minute

Despite your expectation, India runs to its own rhythm. One westerner tried to break convention by running an early (6.30pm) dinner meeting, and his guests showed up at 9.30pm anyway. Often you will be called minutes before a meeting to change time or venue – going with the flow is an asset over there.

Expect to be interrupted

Indians like to do several things at once, so expect your presentations to be interrupted by other visitors, cell phones, papers to sign and other distractions. At formal conferences and lunches, cell phones are rarely switched off and often answered at full voice. Western focus and single-mindedness is not an asset in India. My experience is that although my Indian host might seem constantly diverted and interrupted during my presentation, not much has been missed as Indians thrive on multiple tasks at the same time, contrasting with the western single project orientation

Learn the art of flexibility and patience

Being patient and flexible is an asset, even if you come from a country that likes to be blunt, direct and structured. Most Indian communication is indirect so it can take some time to work out what the real issues are. India is full of surprises and you cope best through being flexible. Dropping any “one rule for all” approach is a good start.

If you are thinking of going, India’s great thinker Rabindranath Tagore can be your inspiration: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”