The Culture of Business and The Business of Culture 

IMG_2486I write this at the table by the window in a busy, shared workspace in Delhi. My neighbours are young Delhi-ites crafting the latest app or expanding the NGO they founded. The workspace sits atop a popular indie cafe-restaurant, The Social, where your monthly rent works as credit for (what feels like unlimited) coffee and spicy lunch. It is nestled in a vibrant neighbourhood in the southern part of the city, full of new restaurants and small boutiques, catering more to local yuppies than foreign tourists. From where I sit, the start-up culture in India thrives; to use the word ‘booming’ to describe this country would be more than accurate. 

Although in India for non-work related reasons, I’m taking the exciting opportunity to live abroad to expand my businesses in a unique direction: my law practice is now primarily online and I’m offering Grammatika Legal English courses internationally, travelling the globe to teach and meet my cosmopolitan lawyerly peers. The feeling of movement and life here in India has been inspiring and refreshing, despite the evident challenges of being far away from contacts and familiarity when doing the already tough job of running your own business. More than anything, this massive change of scenery has sparked much self-reflection – on how I live, the work I do, and the way I want to do all of it.

Part of that reflection has been the realization -or the re-conceptualization- that what I teach through Grammatika Legal English workshops is about culture as much as grammar. In its early stages, Grammatika was envisioned to be about English-as-a-Second language courses for a legal context. That is still what we do in large part; however, I have realized through working with nearly 100 international lawyers that the perfected use of the conditional tense in a client interview is of secondary importance to the appropriate sign off on an email to a boss. Likewise, the difference in tone between a memo to yourself for reference and a memo for submission to a professor is key. I engage in these nuances of legal culture every time I draft a letter or factum in my own practice, too.

These teaching points have always been incorporated into the course materials I have developed, but I view them differently now. These small touches can’t be learned in a textbook; there isn’t a rule or formula to them. They are also not inherently correct or better than other ways of ‘doing business’, but simply the convention in the English-speaking Western (legal) world. Even law school itself was, more generally, a training in legal culture – how to integrate, perform and succeed in the legal profession. The language element may have been taken for granted there, but the process was very similar. If it wasn’t clear before, it sure is now: I am in the business of culture and I am teaching the culture of business.

This deeper understanding happened once living in India became a real thing. For the first few weeks here I was in holiday mode, awe-struck by the new scenes around me – the sights, the smells, the tastes and feels that is India. I felt like a foreign tourist pure and simple. Soon after though, when I began to seek out a routine, I wanted desperately to become part of the fabric of Delhi life and figure out its rhythms. Apart from the obvious factors that make me stick out like a sore thumb, I wanted to adjust and be a (as much as possible which might be very little) a natural part of this landscape.

That involved learning the culture of business here. What I mean by this is both big and small, both culture and business. I had to learn the appropriate way to negotiate with a rickshaw driver and how to apply to the entrepreneurial workspace I am part of now. I had to learn how to navigate my way through the markets to buy groceries and how to approach some very powerful people from different cultures. The tones of each situation are exceptionally nuanced, relative to one another and to the way I would do it in Canada. The process of learning each of these made me realize -again and more profoundly – that what I teach and what I practice, the language of law and professional English, is just one way of doing things.

It’s been a remarkably humbling and helpful experience, I think, because I feel more connected to and understanding of the participants in my courses. The teacher has moved into the student’s seat! It’s also been a fascinating sociological observation of how the world works in its own intricate ways, where it overlaps and diverges and why. I’m really enjoying this process of learning the intangible, unspoken rules of communication and trying it out myself, sometimes with laugh-out-loud results. I’ll save the embarrassing stories for now, but trust me, there have been many!

I’d love to hear some of your stories about learning a new culture of business, wherever that may have taken place. Please share your thoughts and anecdotes in the comments section below!




3 responses to “The Culture of Business and The Business of Culture 

  1. Amazing, Rebecca! So good to hear about your experience. I am so impressed with all that you are doing. I have only been to India once. I was 10 and was there for 6 weeks. Being so young, I do not think I got to appreciate it’s beauty. I don’t even think I tried to fit in or learn about its culture. You have inspired me to want to go back so thank you for that!

  2. I’m so proud of you Rebecca. You seem able to adapt yourself to almost any culture and any situation. India is a bit like old age “it ain’t for sissies”!

  3. This is uncommon wisdom, Rebecca. You grow with the challenges you face in India, and your clients and students will benefit in the future. Most people avoid such challenges, and stay small as a result. You’re offering a lesson for all of us.

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