India is, undoubtedly, one of the most mystical and diverse countries in the world. It is also a country full of stark contrasts in many ways, between the rich and the poor, the modern and the traditional.
While it is sophisticated and modern, at the same time it is home to many primitive tribes and millions of people who are deeply in need. There is a wide gap between the fortunate and the impoverished, and this gap has been made even wider by the caste system. This system has created a culture that emphasizes firmly established hierarchical relationships.
Because of this system, any visitor to the country might be baffled by the behavior of the locals and their customs, and might have a little trouble relating to them. But the Indians are very tolerant and forgiving towards foreigners who aren’t aware of the etiquette of Indian culture. That being said, it does help to be aware of them to avoid making embarrassing mistakes. Here are some things to keep in mind while you’re in India.
Because this is a hierarchical culture, make sure to always greet the eldest or most senior person first. Shaking hands is commonly done, especially in the larger cities like Mumbai wherein the locals are accustomed to dealing with westerners. In other parts of India, you may greet people with a “Namaste”, wherein you place your hands together at about chest level, then bow slightly. This type of greeting is greatly appreciated because it shows that you respect Indian culture.
Indians generally speak to each other while keeping a distance of at least an arms’ length away from the other person. Don’t stand too close to them because they value their personal space.
Public displays of affection are frowned upon, and touching the opposite sex is never done, although Indian men engage in friendly back-patting as a sign of friendship.
The Indians are also famous for the head bobble, a movement of the head that somewhat looks like a cross between a figure 8, a no, and a yes. It can mean a lot of things though.
The head bobble is the non-verbal equivalent of the Hindi word “accha”, which can mean anything from “I understand” to “good”. The head bobble is also used to answer in the affirmative, and to confirm information. It is also used as an alternative to “thank you” which is not commonly said in India. It’s also used to acknowledge one’s presence, for example if your Indian friend sees you across the street, he won’t shout or call out, instead, he’ll do the head bobble. It’s also a gesture of kindness or benevolence. But don’t attempt to do the head bobble because it might be misinterpreted as a mockery of local customs. It’s enough for you to understand what it all means.
The Western side to side wave for hello is often interpreted by Indians as “go away” or no. Only do that if you really mean to say no, which comes in handy when refusing the offers of numerous touts that you’ll meet once you get off the plane.
Indians are very sensitive to being beckoned rudely. To beckon, extend your arm with your palm facing down, and do a quick scratching motion with your fingers kept together.
Never point at an Indian person, because pointing is considered rude behavior. Use your chin, whole hand or thumb to point. Moreover, never point using your feet because feet are considered to be unclean, so don’t point your feet at people and avoid touching people or objects with your shoe. If you accidentally do so, apologize immediately. Note that the Indians touch the head or the eyes as a show of apology.
Dining at an Indian restaurant or home is a memorable experience. Indians entertain in their homes, in restaurants, private clubs or other venues depending upon the occasion. Knowing the proper etiquette can help make the experience even more delightful.
Take off your shoes before stepping into an Indian home. You will be offered a choice of coffee, tea or snacks. Refuse the first invitation—it’s ok, it’s actually part of the protocol.
The Indians have different dietary restrictions and these will reflect in the food that will be served. The Hindus and Sikhs don’t eat beef, and most of them are vegetarians. The Moslems do not eat pork or drink alcohol. The most commonly served dishes are lamb, chicken and fish.
You may be asked to wash your hands before and after sitting down for a meal. After washing up, you will be told where to sit. If hosts eat with their hands, assure them that you will do the same. If utensils are not given, use your right hand and your first three fingers and thumb only. If utensils are provided, there will only be a spoon and fork, and no table knives will be used. It’s important to never use your left hand to eat or pass food to another person.
In some situations, food may be put on your plate for you, and sometimes you will be allowed to serve yourself from the communal bowl or plate. Take food from the communal dish with a spoon and not with your fingers. Use the traditional Indian bread called chappati or poori to scoop up food.
Leave some food on your plate to indicate that you are full. Finishing all your food means that you are still hungry.
The Indians believe that giving gifts eases their transition into the next life. It is not the value of the gift but the sincerity with which it was given that’s important to the recipient.
Cash gifts may be given to friends and members of the extended family to celebrate events such as a birthday or marriage. A gift from a man should be said to come from him and his wife or sister or mother. If you’re a man and you wish to give a gift, always mention that it comes from you and a female family member.
Do not give gifts made out of pigskin to Moslems, and neither should you give them alcohol. Hindus should not be given anything made of leather.
Wrap presents in green, yellow or red wrapping paper—the Indians consider them to be lucky colors.
If you’re in India for business, be aware of the business protocols that must be observed during transactions or negotiations.
Indians prefer to do business with people they know, so it’s essential to build relationships and establish trust. If the person doesn’t know you personally, it’s a good idea to have a third party to make the introductions, and this will give you credibility.
Business cards will be exchanged after introductions are made. You may be offered a sweet milky tea, coffee or a soft drink. Don’t refuse the offer.
Don’t plunge into business discussions right away. Ask about the family, hobbies or interests before launching into the business side of the conversation.
Be patient because business is slow and difficult in India. Always be polite, never lose your temper, but be persistent. You should plan on several meetings or visits before both of you can come to an agreement, because normally that’s how business is done in India.
Keep in mind…
The Indians are an inquisitive people, and they are naturally curious. Don’t be surprised or offended if someone asks you what you do for a living and how much money you make and a lot of other questions of the same nature on the first meeting. You should also feel free to ask the same type of questions in return. People will be pleased that you’ve taken an interest in them.
So there you have it, a basic guide to etiquette in India. Keep these things in mind, and you’re sure to have a positive experience in this land of diverse culture and people. There’s nowhere else in the world like it.