Saturday, December 09, 2006

Cross Cultural Divide: Tips for Indian salesmen working with Westerners

In Jaipur we talked with a young man with green/grey eyes. It was in one of the big bazaars inside the walls of the old city. Not far from this picture. See more about the picture at the bottom. He was trying to sell us something, but not too hard. We started talking about Indian salespeople and foreign tourists. He pointed out a foreign couple in a shop and said, "Why are they so rude? No, not really rude, but very cold?"

We'd been thinking about this topic since India day one, but the other way around. What is it that Indian salesmen (not women) do that is so very annoying? I'm only going to speak for the two of us, though I suspect it can be generalized to other Americans and maybe even Europeans to some extent. Well, here's what we came up with:

1. Private space - We have an invisible private space at least two feet around us. Indians trying to sell us things move in way past that invisible line, automatically making us unconfortable. So stand back. Don't push things into our hands, right in front of our faces. Don't stand right up next to us if you want us to be comfortable. (I'm assuming that if we are comfortable we are more likely to listen and perhaps buy. You may have found if you make us uncomfortable, some Westerners will just buy to get rid of you and their discomfort.)

2. Initiating the interaction - We are used to going into stores to buy things, not being accosted on the street by people selling us things. When we are in the stores, we are used to being asked something like, "May I help you?" We've even had laws past to stop people from phoning us at home to sell something. We like to do the initiating. In India, the salesmen do the initiating combined with #1 above. We immediately get uncomfortable and defensive.

3. Strangers in a strange land - We are in a place where everything is new and different from what we are used to. We don't know the rules. We don't know how to read people. Are they being genuinely nice or are they just trying to sell me something. We had a number of people come up to us offering help ("Can I help you find something?"). They were charming, but eventually it became clear they had an ulterior motive - something they wanted to sell us, a shop they wanted us to visit.
We really didn't know how to distinguish between those who were being friendly and helpful and those who were hustling us. So when people came up to us, we were automatically suspicious, because the others had come to us in the guise of offering help, but really to hustle us. In addition, if we are possibly interested, Indian Rupees still don't mean that much to us and we are still having trouble figuring out how much things cost in US dollars. So we are possibly not saying anything because we are trying to calculate. Some of you have figured this out and have calculators all ready.

4. Persistence - At home, if I say, "No thank you" the salesperson generally backs off, or at most might ask, "Is there anything else you might need today?" In India, it seemed that "No thank you" meant "Yes, please show me more." "No!!! I'M NOT INTERESTED, LEAVE ME ALONE" seemed to be translated as "OK, I'm establishing a bargaining position, what's your next offer?" etc. We weren't speaking the same language.

So, it isn't that the foreign couple is being rude or cold (well, some may be), but they are going through a cross-cultural confusion. The messages they are getting - 1, 2, 3, and 4 above - are all building up to make them very uncomfortable and suspicious. They are pushed into a defensive mode. Meanwhile, the Indian salesmen (except for those who are intentionally exploiting this discomfort) feel the foreginers are rude or cold.

And on the other side, I recognize that foreigners often have more money in their pockets (or money belts, and certainly on their credit cards) than the average Indian makes in a year. And we don't have a good sense of what things cost in India (much less for most things than they cost back home) and so we are likely to spend more. People who don't have shops for us to go into - children and adults selling toursit items and the guides at every tourist site, rickshaw drivers, and street vendors - are for the most part not making a lot of money and have to compete with all the other people after our money. Being aggressive may be the most successful strategy, even if it irritates lots of foreigners.

I can give you a view of what it looks like from our side, but I can only guess at what we look like through your eyes. I'm sure, for instance, that when you offer us tea in your shops, it is part of traditional Indian hospitality. But we can't help but think, if we take the tea, then we have to buy.

Photo notes: This was an interesting situation. The tie dye process was so colorful I asked if I could take a picture. When it was done, the kid standing on the right started to ask for Rupees. He did it in a way that I knew he was playing around - but the tie dye guy really told him to stuff it and not act that way. So, this is an example of the opposite of everything I'm talking about above.

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