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Professionally correct

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

In a small but significant way, this book is a sign that India has arrived on the global business stage, if proof were needed. It is the logical culmination of many etiquette training courses that mushroomed in the mid-nineties as foreign investors started making tracks for India, and Indian executives increasingly found themselves in foreign settings.

Some people think learning etiquette is a frivolous business, something only the spouses need to imbibe to enhance the partner’s career. A deal is a deal, after all, in any language. Does it matter how you hold your fork and drink wine? Sure, no deep-pocketed investor is likely to close a deal with someone who has all the social graces but little grasp of, say, numbers or strategy. But it is also true that international business deals are a bit like organising an arranged marriage. Since neither party has full information about the other, they depend on a set of externalities to make their judgements — the “green card” or salary for the prospective groom; the complexion, beauty and qualifications for the bride-to-be.

These attributes are hardly a guarantor of marital bliss just as much as dexterity in wielding chopsticks is no indicator of a businessman’s ability to run a business. But everyone knows that there is a subliminal element in all human interaction, so a working understanding of global equips executives with the confidence to send out the right signals. Certainly, in writing this book Ms Mehra has displayed much more business sense than the average hard-nosed businessman!

I had initially picked up the book with some derision, expecting a basic “how to” primer riddled with inaccuracies. This pre-judgement had nothing to do with Ms Mehra’s reputation but several by US authors on the same subject: they were either laughably wrong (such as one that said never to shake hands with Indian women) or unbelievably patronising.

The reason this book works is that Ms Mehra places herself in the position of the average Indian executive and writes the book from that point of view. The tone, therefore, is conversational, practical and advisory rather than didactic or admonitory.

Consider the section on “Gender in Business”. She rightly points out that “in today’s gender-neutral world does not discriminate between men and women”. On the handshake she writes, “Today, there exists no ‘masculine’ (read: extra firm) or ‘feminine’ (read: dainty) handshake. Regardless of gender you are expected to offer a firm handshake….”

And here’s some really useful advice on business meals. When do you start discussing business on such occasions? Only after you have been served an appetiser or a drink. How should you eat during a business meal? (a) “Take small portions (especially if you are non-vegetarian) which you can finish quickly and swallow before answering any questions”; (b) “when speaking, there should be no food in your mouth”.

To this I could add, from experience, a line on eating sushi in a business setting. Make sure you take only the smallest smidgen of green ginger with each roll; it is so zingy that a larger dollop will go straight up your nose and make you weep and sniffle copiously and embarrassingly.

Ms Mehra’s advice goes beyond the standard eating, drinking, shaking hands, gender relations paradigm. There’s one great section on elevator etiquette that may be worth reproducing here in parts, if only because many readers will find themselves emphatically nodding in agreement.

“Right of way: When entering a crowded elevator, remember that the passenger inside has right of way and should be allowed to disembark before you rush in. As Indians, we tend to err on this point as we are very caught up with trying to ‘catch the life’ to reach work on time.

“Ssssh … Keep all conversation to the minimum as fellow passengers are unlikely to enjoy loud banter. If you’re chatting on the cell phone disconnect your call before entering the lift and take no further calls. It is extremely frustrating to ride with the person who bursts your eardrums by screaming ‘there is poor reception…’ into his or her cellphone….

“Press the UP arrow for going up and the DOWN arrow for going down. People who press the wrong button from the outside and make the lift stop unnecessarily waste everyone else’s time.”

There is much more advice in this vein: how to conduct small talk, how to handle small eats and alcohol at cocktail parties, how to end a conversation, how to exchange cards, recognising crockery and cutlery, different table settings and cultural nuances. Indeed, much of what Ms Mehra writes in this exhaustively practical book unwittingly says a lot about Indians in the urban habitat.

One point she neglected to mention is never to look over the shoulder of the person with whom you are conversing in search of someone more interesting or important. Maybe that has happened only to me. Or maybe that’s just a Delhi thing.

A Guide for the Indian Professional
Shital Kakkar Mehra
Collins Business; 294 pages; Rs 250

First Published: Wed, April 18 2012. 00:15 IST