Negotiations with India: Indian Body Language

by Brandi Moore on June 17, 2010

india negotiation handshake

Can you trust this handshake?

All Americans negotiating with should rethink their initial gut reactions in evaluating Indian counterparts.  Why?

Because we tend to trust those we meet and those feelings of trust are based on body language definitions from our own culture.

Harvard’s Negotiation Project has an article this month called “smoking out liars” on how to search out liars at the negotiation table.

Can you evaluate a negotiator’s trustworthiness if they are from another culture?  No.

According to Jeanne Brett, author of Negotiating Globally, a negotiator will interpret behaviors through a cultural lens and that lens is “frequently erroneous and may affect negotiation relationships and ultimately outcomes.”

Here are a few body language interpretations that would be incorrect inside India:

  1. Head Shaking left to right / Head Shake Up and down: These mean the same thing as in the US but tread carefully when you see a NO.  Its hard for Indians to say NO.
  2. Head Shake Left and Right + Cocking head down toward shoulders: People have all different names for this such as the Mumbai roll.  The way I describe it is a tracing your nose in a small infinity sign.  This expression is very confusing to Americans.  It means “I hear you” or “Ok” and can be used as an affirmation or agreement.  In my experience this is simliar to an Englishman saying “right.”  I have worked with several Indians where this gesture appears to me to be a NO instead of an agreement gesture. If you type in Indian Head Shake into YouTube there are thousands of videos on this gesture.  Here is my favorite one.
  3. Never Making Eye Contact: Making eye contact can be disrespectful.  If the person across the table from you is refusing to look directly at you take is as a signal that they believe you are above them in the hierarchy of the organization.  Take care, this person is likely not the decision maker.
  4. Whisper Type Voice: Being quiet in India is a right of the powerful, not the weak.  This will be the opposite of your gut reaction.
  5. Weak Handshake or No Handshake: Indians may choose not to shake hands at all.  It’s a western tradition to shake hands and if you are a woman count on very, very weak handshakes

Save yourself time and dollars.  Put aside your gut reactions the first few times you negotiation with India and work against a written plan that is based on cultural knowledge not American cultural preferences that live in your gut.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nishant June 17, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Brandi – First two points are interchanged if you are talking about Indian body language. Point 1 -Head Shaking left to right – This is NO. Point 2 – Head Shake Up and Down: – This is YES.

brandi June 17, 2010 at 6:20 pm

HI Nishant – Thanks for stopping by and posting your comments. You are correct–the post was not as clear before but the new additions should make the different head gestures clearer! MVB-Brandi

kevin haynes June 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

Brandi well done and spot on with the ‘limp noodle handshake’, never spoke to soft speaking Indian though and Nishant thanks for the clarification.I have also lived in India for 4 years and find it much easier to converse than other countries I lived in since a big majority speak excellant English. I must say 4 years on I have never been cheated and if I was ;it is too insignicant to speak of. I find the ‘lower and lowest caste’ as the rich upper class Indians would say are the sweetest,kindest most honest people I have ever met in my entire life.. it is that very class that is always eager to cheat a tourist of his hundreds of US dollar whereas the common man feels guitly overcharging me 30 rupees for my tuk tuk ride..Ahhh Indian a land of diverse contrast but I love her so..

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