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Insights: Michael Real on communicating in India

January 16, 2013

For the past two years, School of Communication and Culture Prof. Michael Real has led a group of MA in Intercultural and International Communication students on residencies to India. Here are five tips he has for communicating in the dynamic culture.

Don’t be confused by the head waggle

The head waggle – also known as the bobble or wobble – is a common gesture in India. The motion involves a side to side tilting of the head. “It’s used expressively by virtually everybody, but it’s very hard for outsiders to read or to do,” says Real, adding that the waggle is not interpreted as a yes or a no, but is more like hand gestures, which don’t have rules of meaning. 

“The trickiest thing with the head waggle is not over-interpreting it,” he says. “It’s typical of what you have to be ready for, which is something that’s out of your frame of reference, and not be thrown by it. It’s not threatening, it’s just another element of communication that you begin to get comfortable with over time.”

Know the history of where you are working

“The more the students and I got to know the factual history of the areas we were in, the more we realized we needed to know that and more,” Real says. “The Indian culture has inherited so much and there are things built into it that we aren’t used to at all. The degree of identification with a religious, ethnic, historical cultural tradition is very important.”

Real recommends reading fiction and non-fiction about the areas you’re visiting, as well as following the news (he recommends the Times of India app), beforehand. He also suggests exploring popular culture representations of India.

Be patient when making plans

Making a hotel booking three months in advance is normal and often necessary in North America. But in India, that’s a long lead time, Real says. He advises people to be patient and trust that arrangements may come together at what might seem last minute, but are typically very organized.

Add a personal touch when making plans

If you are setting up meetings before arriving in India, Real says continuity and the personal touch are paramount. People want to know who they are dealing with, he says, adding that if it’s a big organization, they’ll want a face and one point of contact. When you do meet for the first time, Real suggests holding back your hugs and extending your hand. Handshakes are the most common greeting with bows used in more formal settings.

Leave plenty of time to get to engagements

English can be the fourth or fifth language of some Indian people, making it challenging to navigate your way around. In many locations, rickshaw drivers don’t speak English, so you have to rely on hotel staff to explain where you are going, Real says. To add to the difficulty, in many cities there are no street names (with some exceptions) and no building numbers. “You get a business card, and it will say University of Mumbai, near Khar telephone exchange, opposite Sunday market,” Real says.  

He adds, “Don’t hesitate to go to India.  It is richly rewarding on levels you can’t even anticipate.”