The single most difficult thing that most expats living and working in India have shared with me, is the difficulty to adapt to the (in)famous Indian Stretchable Time..and that’s normal.
There are 2 major ways of perceiving time: the linear one and the circular one. According to me, no one is better than the other, they are just very different can sometimes have a hard time collaborating. As you can see in the video, I had to learn this lesson too.
I will not get into the details of the theory in this blog but you can click on the hyperlink for more details. However, some context can help understand where this difference in perception comes from.
In linear cultures, time is a precious commodity with a clear beginning and a definite end. This means that time is finite and has a clear sense of direction. As a rule, these are cultures where time is rare and so there is a premium in being able to do a maximum amount of things in a minimum amount of time. If we look back in Time, this is probably due to the rhythm of seasons in temperate zones where sowing had to be done at a very specific time of the year to make sure farmers could harvest before the winter sets in.
In circular time cultures, and India is an excellent example, time is represented as an infinite cycle with no beginning and no end. As a result, time has no, or very little, intrinsic value. The consequence of this is that instead of focusing on WHAT needs to be done first, people from circular time cultures usually look at WHO they need to execute the task for or with. This is apparently more common in countries close to the equator where farmers could, more or less, sow at any time of the year as the soil never froze.
Another aspect of this difference in time perception is how we look at multitasking. In my decade of working across cultures, I have asked many different professionals how they define professionalism. In India, multitasking comes up almost every time. The Indian workplace, whether corporate or not, puts a huge premium on being able to work on many things at once. To a lot of expats I have met, this seems counter-productive, as they see the ability to prioritize as necessary to break down an important list of tasks. Once again, I am not saying that one way of doing is better than the other, they are just different.
Does this mean, as we often hear, that Indians are always late? No it doesn’t. It just means that most Indians manage their time in a relationship oriented way rather than a task driven one.
So what can expats do to make the most out of this difference? Clarify expectations and build strong relationships
1. Clarifying expectations. This is an old chestnut tree by now but this remains crucial to being able to work effectively with diverse people. the sooner you let others know how you operate and why, the easier it will be for them to adapt to these expectations. This can only help but when dealing with something as ingrained in the culture as time, you will also need to build your half of the bridge between you and others.
2. Build strong relationships. A lot of Indians I have met at work, or elsewhere, work in concentric circles. The closer one is to the center, the more Indians will be dedicated. As an expat, we often start at the outer rim of these concentric circles. People don’t know us personally and our differences are visible, which means that we fall pretty low on the priority list (except when received as a guest, of course). To move inwards, expats need be seen as approachable, flexible in his/her work habits, adaptable to certain Indian ways of working and, sometimes, also take the time to get to know the individuals on a personal level.
When people say that India teaches you patience, they are not joking. Expats’ ability to understand this different perception of time and its consequences are key to sustainable success in India.