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Etiquette: Tips for Understanding & Engaging in Indian Culture

Etiquette: Tips for Understanding & Engaging in Indian Culture

Oct 2, 2017|CulturalWhere we travel| by Savanna Kearney

Daily life in India offers insight into a rich and diverse culture. However, due to the caste system, religious customs and other factors, Indian customs can seem strange and unsettling from an outside perspective. The key is to understanding Indian values and society, not only to avoid accidentally offending someone, but also to create new friendships and learn more about this country’s abounding and vivid culture.

 

Photo by Lisa Palmese-Graubard

Greetings

To many Westerners and travelers from the U.S., Indian customs may seem very stiff or formal. When it comes to verbal greeting, a simple English “hello” will usually suffice. As a polite gesture, you may want to try greeting someone in the native language of Hindi. Greetings vary between religions: for Hindus, say “namaste,” for Muslims, say “salaam alaykum,” and for Sikhs say “Sat sri akal.” Shaking hands is not the greeting custom in India. Some exceptions may be that Indian women will shake hands with Western women, but they will probably feel uncomfortable shaking a Western man’s hand. Many Indian people, especially Hindus, usually press their palms together (“praying style”) in front of their chest and bow. It is best to stand an arm’s length or more away from the person you are speaking to, as the Indian people value their personal space.

 

Photo by Vinoth Chandar

Head, Hands, and Feet

It is easy to confuse physical gestures of “yes” and “no” in Indian society. Indian people often shake or wobble their heads, which may look like a “no,” but actually signifies “yes” or “OK.” “No” is expressed by a short, sideways gesture of the head with a discharging movement of the hand. Although Westerners are used to using both hands in everyday life, it is important to be conscious of using each hand for different activities. In Indian culture, the left hand is considered unclean because it is the hand used when going to the bathroom, for cleaning one’s feet and other “dirty” activities. Always eat and interact with people with your right (“clean”) hand. Not only is this the respectful custom, you may appear unsanitary and unhygienic to those around you if you use your left hand incorrectly. Another non-Western habit is that pointing with your fingers is considered rude. Most Indian people use their fingers only to point to animals or inferior classes. Instead, use a head nodding gesture or your entire hand when pointing to a person. Feet are another body part that has significant meaning in India. Feet and shoes are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, which is why it is customary to take off your shoes before entering someone’s home or a temple or mosque. Touching the feet of honored holy men or elders and then touching your head is a great sign of respect, as well.

 

Photo by Lisa Palmese-Graubard

Clothing

Women should avoid wearing shorts, skimpy T-shirts and other offensive Western clothing. Primarily, a woman’s legs and shoulders should remain covered unless at the beach. To play it safe, men should wear long pants to be respectful in certain areas. Different places of worship require different dress codes. When visiting a mosque or temple, take off your shoes and wear appropriate clothing; at Sikh temples, both men and women must cover their heads. Generally, Indian people would not understand why a wealthy Western traveler would travel around in very little clothing, so staying well-dressed and well-groomed makes a good impression on the local people.

 

Photo by Todd Gustafson

Gender Roles

Indian society follows a patriarchal structure. Not only do gender roles exist, they are encouraged. A woman is expected to obey her father, husband and son, and female family members generally care for infants. Most girls usually receive very little education, and arranged marriages are commonplace. On a similar note, public displays of affection, such as kissing or even embracing are not acceptable in Indian culture. However, it is not uncommon to see two men holding hands as a sign of “brotherliness.”

Photo by Lisa Palmese-Graubard

Other Etiquette Rules

In most Indian languages, there is no true translation for “please” and “thank you,” so don’t expect to hear them often. It does not mean that you are being treated rudely; it’s just not a part of the social custom. Hospitality is, however, an essential part of Indian culture, so it is important to welcome people into your home and, at the very least, offer them refreshments. When invited to a private event in someone’s home, surprisingly enough, it is actually considered polite to arrive later than planned and leave shortly after dinner. Discussing topics such as the caste system, arranged marriages, religious conflicts can sometimes be taboo, so do so with careful consideration. Some questions Indian people ask you may seem mildly intrusive, but are actually just polite conversation for them.

 

Understanding why Indian people follow these social customs makes them seem much less strange and unfamiliar. Use this guide as a step in the right direction towards a memorable experience in India’s rich and beautiful culture.

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