Nanak Flights Blog

Staying on the Right Side of Good Etiquette in India

If you’re making a trip to India soon, then you’re in for an intense experience that is far removed from Western life. While most Indians are used to Westerners and their strange ways and will forgive you for the occasional faux pas, you can make life easier for yourself and everyone else by learning a few etiquette tips before you land. If you’re seen to be trying, you’ll gain respect and affection, as well as being a great ambassador.

Here’s how to not embarrass yourself or offend anyone else…

Wear modest clothing

Indians are quite conservative dressers and this applies to men as much as it does to women. You won’t see many men wearing shorts and tank tops, especially in rural areas. In the bigger cities you’ll see women wearing trousers and leggings, but in smaller towns and in the country, you’re best off playing it safe and making sure your arms and legs are covered.

Ideally, skirts should be ankle length unless you’re on the beach in Goa. The chances are that no-one will overtly challenge you or be rude, but they will form an impression of you that won’t help you or future visitors from the west – especially female ones. Remember, you’re a guest in India so you should show respect, especially in temples. You should avoid strapless garments and if you wear tank tops or spaghetti strap tops, then you should always have a shawl or wrap handy to cover up. Some places need you to wear a head scarf or hat, so do be aware of this.

Never wear your shoes indoors

If you’re invited to someone’s home or if you go into a mosque, church or temple, you really need to take your shoes off. Try to watch out for shoes outside shops, too, as some shopkeepers prefer people to enter without footwear; if you see some shoes by the door, then you should take the hint.

You’ll probably notice people wearing shoes in their homes when they go to the kitchen or bathroom, but these are reserved for indoor use and are never worn outside. Think of them as slippers and don’t think they’re an invitation to keep your dusty old boots on indoors.

Don’t ever point at people

Especially not with your feet. Feet are deemed unclean and so to gesture to or touch someone with your feet or toes is insulting. You should similarly never touch or move objects with your feet, particularly valuable or important objects.

If you do catch someone or something with your feet, then make sure you apologise immediately. Most people in India will understand “Sorry,” or “Excuse me,”, but it can be a nice touch to apologise in an Indian way by touching your head and looking regretful.

Pointing with a finger is also rude, so if you need to point, use your entire hand or a thumb instead.

Never eat food or pass an object to someone with your left hand

In India, as in some Muslim countries, the left hand is used for bathroom hygiene so (even if you scrub up like a surgeon) using it to handle food or to pass something to someone is considered unhygienic and disrespectful.

Get used to really intrusive questions…

If you’re a very private person, then India will be tough for you! The Indian culture isn’t really about minding one’s ownbusiness. There’s not much privacy to start with and people are very hierarchy-driven. You’ll be asked all sorts of questions that you won’t get back home, even from close friends. Examples include:

·       “How much do you earn?”;

·       “How many children do you have?”;

·       “Why didn’t you have more children?”;

·       “Why do you have so many children?”;

·       “Why do you have that tattoo?”;

·       “Why are you so thin (with helpful suggestions for remedies)?”;

·       “Why are you so fat (with helpful suggestions for remedies)?”, and

·       “How much rent/mortgage do you pay?”

These questions might seem intrusive, but think about how people back home make attempts to “place” you in a much sneakier way and then actually act upon their judgements. In India, it’s 90% curiosity and they don’t mind if you ask the same questions right back, with no judgement on either side. In fact, they’ll be more than happy to give you the answers and to offer advice on your weight/fertility/budget.

You can always be vague with your answers or even lie if you want to.

You don’t always need to be polite

In Western society, we have rituals based on manners. You’ve probably been taught to refuse the first offer of coffee but to accept the second or third because then you’re doing your host a favour. India’s quite different. If you refuse first time round, you can really hurt someone’s feelings, so always accept what’s offered. If it’s something you really don’t like, then say you’ll have a little but your doctor has warned you off it.

The more formal traditions of thanking someone for their hospitality can create a distance, too, so be careful. If you’ve spent the evening at someone’s house, then don’t say “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done,”, as this is more like a diner-waiter scenario which plays into the hierarchy thing. Instead, tell them how much fun you’ve had and how much you loved talking to them and sharing food. Anything else might seem like they’re providing a service rather than being your friend, which can be hurtful.

The flip side of the coin is that politeness can be interpreted as weakness, especially where beggars and street hawkers are involved. If you’re vague – “I don’t think so,” or “Not today,”, then this translates as “Convince me,” or “Ask me tomorrow,” It’s not a nice feeling, as a Westerner, to be stern and abrupt with vendors, but it’s necessary if you want to be left alone.

Never say a direct no to an invitation

In direct contradiction to the advice above, you should never outrightly reject an offer or invitation from a friend or associate. If you say a definite no, then this makes the person feel (and look) bad. It’s always best to be vague and say something like “I’ll do my best,” or “I’ll see if I can make it,”. In the West, we’re used to people being upfront and not wanting to leave people in doubt about our intentions, but in India it’s OK to give a sliding answer, especially if there’s other people about.

Give up on the idea of punctuality

There’s objective (in as much as it can be, if we listen to Einstein) time and Indian time. You’ll hear about Indian Stretchable Time and you’ll also experience it. Many well-travelled people think that Europeans and the immediate descendants of European settlers have a very linear idea of time and that this idea isn’t shared around the globe.

If you’re going to be five or ten minutes late in Europe or North America, then you need to call as soon as you can. In India, time seems to morph and elongate so if someone says they’ll be there in 30 minutes, make yourself comfortable. It’s not rude, it’s just different.

Don’t be precious about personal space

India is a very crowded place so try to get used to it. Europeans are used to much more personal space than many other civilisations so you’ll have to accept that you’re not in Kansas anymore and ignore the almost constant contact with strangers.

If you’re in a queue, you’ll find that people press close to one another to prevent cut-ins. Then there’s boarding a train or bus… You will get the hang of it, but watch out for those grannies – they can be quite assertive…

Nix the public displays of affection

You’ll see people eating, going to the bathroom, changing diapers and arguing in public when you’re in India. You’ll hardly ever see men and women hugging and kissing in public, however. India is quite a conservative place and displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon because they can have sexual overtones. An older man showing affection to a woman who’s obviously a daughter or granddaughter is fine, but if it’s a man and woman who could be in a relationship, it’s not. Even if you’re married, PDAs are not advised as you may be censured by locals and even told off by police. You’ll probably escape arrest, but you won’t be popular. Keep physical affection for your hotel room.

Watch your body language

Men and women don’t tend to touch when greeting unless they’re related. A handshake is a very formal and business-like greeting in the west, but can be misinterpreted in India if, as a woman, you proffer your hand to a man.

It’s best to err on the side of caution and do a Namaste greeting with your palms together. Businesspeople in the bigger cities are more used to handshakes, so watch what others do; if you’re unsure, however, then don’t risk it. 

Above all, greet everyone with a smile, learn to laugh at yourself and be prepared to look stupid at least five times a day. You’ll be fine.