The Republic of India is alive with color, culture, and natural beauty. Find out how to avoid offending the 1.2 billion people who live there (and even make friends) by following cross-cultural guru Dean Foster‘s advice on how to navigate the most populous democracy in the world:
1. Make a good first impression. When meeting someone, it’s always appropriate to say namaste (Hindi for “I honor the spirit within you”) while placing your hands together in the prayer position and nodding slightly. Men may then shake hands with other men, women with other women (employ a “softer” handshake than is common in the West), but many women might not take a man’s hand, and vice versa. If so, just let the namaste suffice.
2. Follow the rule of hands. Anything that requires the use of one hand (like passing a gift, a teacup, a tray of sweets, or an important document) must only be done with the right hand: the left hand is traditionally reserved for personal hygiene. At a typical Indian meal, for example, there is no Western cutlery: keep your left hand in your lap throughout, while using your right hand to scoop up rice, meat, and veggies on a piece of bread.
3. Practice restraint. If you’re a guest at a meal, and do not want any more food, leave a little on your plate. A “clean plate” indicates that you are still hungry, and obligates your host to give you another helping.
4. Don’t misread body language. Many Indians indicate interest in what you are saying by shaking or wobbling their head from side to side: this does not mean “I disagree,” or even “I understand.” It’s just the Indian way of saying, “Oh, I see.”
5. Look more than both ways, more than once.The Indian street is the great democratic thoroughfare; everyone and everything uses it to get from here to there: cars, buses, trucks, oxcarts, cows, pedestrians, dogs, each going in whatever is the most efficient direction for the journey at the moment. When crossing a street, constantly look both ways, make eye contact with drivers of any vehicle or animal, and, whatever you do, never stop: Keep walking, and go with the flow.
6. Brush up on your Inglish. Most Indians speak English and Hindi — the “national” language from Delhi in the north — in addition to their local regional language. That being said, the English spoken is “Inglish”: a local version of British English, filled with many unfamiliar and colorful colloquialisms (i.e., “let’s prepone our lunch,” meaning to schedule lunch sooner, or “you’re a homely person,” meaning trustworthy and honest). There are literally hundreds of these, so when you hear one you don’t understand, just ask.
7. Embrace tissue-ready travel. Wander a few doors down from your Western-style hotel, and you’re bound to experience a traditional Indian toilet, which is essentially a hole in the ground over which you squat, followed up with a wash from a freestanding hose (left hand only, please). Needless to say, never travel without a package of Kleenex.
8. Write it down. If you ask directions on the street, few Indians will admit to not knowing how to get you where you want to go, or that they don’t understand your question. Instead, they will take you by the hand (or arm), and walk you around until together you have managed to find the address you are looking for. Always write down the name and address of your intended location: it will go a long way toward getting you to where you want to go a whole lot faster.
9. Absolutely, positively visit that local Hindu temple! Hindu temples are as much venues for social gatherings as they are for worship; just be prepared to wash your hands and feet at the entrance fountain and leave your shoes at the front entrance before you enter (yes, they will still be there when you return). Just follow what everybody else is doing.
10. Do as the locals do. You will be implored to purchase some flowers at the temple entrance; do so, and leave them in the temple as an offering. And, if you are greeted with a garland of flowers placed around your neck, you are expected to remove them after a minute or two and set them aside. This shows humility.
Want more cultural dos and don’ts for your next trip to India?