An American’s View on Working with Indian Men in Bangalore
I had been living in Spain for 7+ years when I was laid off from my job along with my entire team (save one) and half the company back in May, 2010. The Spanish economy, like so many others, had tanked and the country’s unemployment rate was skyrocketing. I was on the executive team of an online marketing company heading up the MarCom division. I loved that job and was so sad when the layoffs started but assumed I would find another job easy enough given that I had 15 years of MarCom experience with high-tech start-ups in California and in Spain. But as the months dragged on and Spain’s unemployment rate rose to 21% I realized that I needed to start looking elsewhere.
My daughter and I make decisions together so we turned on the computer, opened up Google Maps and started systematically working our way across the globe, short-listing a handful of countries where we both felt life would be a fun adventure for us if we had to leave home, which was Barcelona. I hopped on LinkedIn and other job portals and within only a week I received an email from a company looking for a chief marketing officer to launch their Indian company into 14 new markets over the next couple of years. After a friendly email exchange with the CEO, a phone interview was setup.
From the first few seconds on the phone I liked him. You know, the phone is a funny thing. Someone could be wearing fuzzy kitty slippers and still have on their bathrobe and no one would ever be the wiser. They could be in the kitchen or snuggled up on the sofa and again, you can’t really tell. But there is ONE thing that is – in theory – 100% silent but can be detected and heard through a phone line…and that is a smile. You should try listening for one next time you are on the phone because this IS true. I could tell right away that the CEO was smiling and had a genuinely vivacious character during our first call. As the line from the movies goes, “he had me at hello”! The CEO from my previous company in Barcelona is French. He was fantastic to work with and he’s really fun away from the office but he was tremendously serious at work, as were my other French colleagues if you compared them to my “American” style (which I understand is very different and possibly a bit over-the-top for the French sometimes). So the energy I was feeling across the line to India was a nice treat and offered up my first sample of what was to come.
The same energy and smiles followed the next phone interview as well as throughout the days I spent in Bangalore during my face-to-face interviews and our employment negotiations (read more here on the hysterical negotiation process when I had my first run-in with the famous Indian head bob!).
I was the first foreigner ever hired at the HQ in Bangalore at both my first job and with my current company and I am treated very well by the male colleagues at work. Some of the ‘special’ treatments are things that I have experienced at both jobs so I figure that these are customs in India. For example, the security guards at the entrance of either the building or on each individual floor in the building will stand at least the first time each day when I walk past them and say either “hello, madam” or “good afternoon, madam” and might even give me a small salute. I find it so sweet and actually really like it now. For some reason, when the female receptionists call me “ma’am” it bothers me because it reminds me of how much older I am then they are but when the men do it I don’t have that same feeling. It just feels like a gesture of respect. Although at the beginning at the first job it bothered me a bit because I already stood out so freaking much that having the security guy stand and draw more attention to me wasn’t a really welcome thing but now I like it and hope they don’t eventually stop.
I am happy to say that I have only had what appear to be “ego” difficulties with one male colleague so far in eight months. In Spain, I worked for a couple of men over the years who were all roughly my age but with far less or no marketing experience and whenever my opinion differed from theirs (because mine was right, of course, hehe) I caught a ton of attitude from them. It was as if they wanted me to be a “yes” girl just for the sake of it but I’m just not that way … at least I won’t go down without a fight when I strongly believe something. The ego on these guys played such a huge role in our daily exchanges that working with them was a nightmare. Yet here, my superiors are quite different and I feel that they appreciate my experience and expect me to bring it 100% to the table and I have yet to feel like I’m expected to be a “yes” girl.
Generally speaking, Indian men don’t always get right down to business. There is an inherent trait built into the men here that makes them natural conversationalists and they don’t start a meeting without some light chit-chat and banter first about personal topics to catch up a bit or get to know someone a bit better. Or if I haven’t seen a colleague in a few days or it is post-weekend, a couple of the guys at work will walk up and want to catch up on what’s new, which is quite nice.
Out at conferences here I’ve noticed that I stand out like a …well, like a white woman at an Indian conference! The men there have no problems being bold, they stare pretty openly and check me out quite freely. Yet it is interesting (and appreciated by me) that they don’t try to speak with me unless I make an initial approach.
Indian men are actually a real joy to work with. My own AMAZING team is comprised of all men and we form a fantastic unit and I have never once felt any attitude like they don’t want to work for a woman, something still quite common in the U.S. and Europe. I have to admit that I wasn’t’ quite sure how that was going to play out here actually, given the fact that India is still a very male dominated country and women are not really equals yet. Unlike other countries where there is complete equality, here there are still two very different sets of rules for men and women. This is neither right nor wrong, it is what it is. But it is something new for me and I simply wasn’t sure how it would affect me at work but it doesn’t affect me in the least I’m happy to report.
The men here don’t use clothing so much as an extension of themselves like in other countries. I work with clever, highly experienced and brilliant guys and they all have a much more casual approach to dressing than I’ve seen elsewhere. The biz dev, accounts guys and the upper management all look sharp but without the power suit 99% of the time. Now, what I do find absolutely wonderful is when the Hindus at work have gone to temple before coming into the office or were involved in a puja (ceremony ritual) and have come in wearing a tilak (the red dot on their forehead). I still am a bit in awe of that more so than the bindis on women for some reason. I also find it lovely when there is a very important puja and the gentlemen will come in wearing formal Indian apparel.
Socializing with men at work is really different in India too given that it is almost non-existent. Throughout Europe and in the U.S. we mix and mingle without really thinking twice about it with both female AND male colleagues from work for lunch and happy hour. For me I was most comfortable either going with my own team or with just the executive team but it was always a great way to bond a bit and enrich the working relationship. When I worked with the online marketing company in Barcelona, we held an annual summer beach party with the entire company. We had 200+ people from work in swimming costumes with all the girls in bikinis, eating and drinking cocktails, playing football and even dancing on the beach to a DJ spinning groovy house tunes on the sand. Now I just shake my head and laugh when I try to imagine that same scenario here in India. Again, not right or wrong, it’s just different.
Here we have really lovely pujas (ceremonies to bless everything from the office, calling lists … and (my beloved laptop!)) and engaging cake cutting ceremonies. There are annual team days with fun activities like synchronized dances and team building exercises and celebrations to share milestones with the entire company. But no casual happy hours and I have only been to lunch once with one male Indian colleague of mine, which is again different because for years I went to lunch with the guys from work every day.
Tea seems like more of a part of life here in India than even in the UK and I really like the way every single colleague of mine on the management or executive team will offer me a cup of tea any time we sit down together. I remember feeling jacked up on caffeine the first week I worked in India because of the constant set of training meetings I was in with the different team members…and each would be really offended if I didn’t want tea so I drank buckets of it at first. Now I only say yes if it is a long meeting but it still makes me smile every time a gentlemen graciously offers me a cup of tea.
I know that I am treated slightly different at times at work. Not by my peers so much but by the junior guys and I am okay with that. But something interesting that I have heard a few times during the past eight months is that because I am not Indian that I will be treated differently (insinuating ‘better’) by my superiors. I have never personally been on the receiving end of a bad temper since my arrival but I do know that in my last company that my Indian colleagues DID experience this from time to time. Since changing jobs I have never heard of it going on at the new company so I don’t know if this idea is true or not but I find it interesting that this is the perception of my work mates. Personally, I’d like to think that the negative treatment was unique to my old job and that this perception is false…but if you have some feedback you can offer up please feel free to comment.
If you follow my blog you know that last week I wrote the flip side of this article about what it’s like for me working with Indian women (read it here). I shared a few stories from my work life and I compared my experience in Bangalore so far with my experiences in other countries where I’ve lived. It was a really easy article to write and it flowed out of me quickly. And I am really happily surprised to share with you now that this article was exactly the same. I am still so in awe of the smiles I see from male colleagues every day at work, even when we are in power meetings. Indian men also have that gentle spirit that I refer to in my article about working with Indian women, although not as gentle 100% of the time but it still wins when compared to other nations…at least for me. I only wish that men out in my social world were as fantastic as the guys I work with. Now THAT would really make my life a lot better!
Don’t miss the flip side to this article: Working With Indian Women
© 2011 Angela Carson