Etiquette in India
Many customs and points of etiquette within the Indian culture are based on the two ideas of humility and purity. For instance Indians do not shake hands as in the West, but as a symbol of humility, when meeting, clasp their own hands together, and nod or bow to the person they are greeting. Within the Hindu religion, you may say “Na mastay”, which means “I bow to the divinity within you”, again striking an attitude of humility and respect for the person you are greeting.
This clasping of hands may also have its roots in a need for hygiene. And it is also worth pointing out here that Indians make a very distinct difference between the use of left and right hands. Only the right hand is used for eating, pointing, touching another person, etc. and this is strictly observed. This point of etiquette is very strongly concerned with purity, bearing in mind that the left hand is used for toilet functions.
DressWhen travelling in India, observing a dress code is advisable so as not to give offence or to draw unwanted attention. For women, short skirts and shorts are best avoided – legs should be covered, as should shoulders. And beachwear should be kept for the beach. Carrying a light cotton scarf is advisable – not only to place around shoulders, but also for covering the head when entering an Indian temple.
To an Indian, a man dressed in shorts may well seem an oddity, and they would be perplexed as to why a relatively wealthy Westerner would dress in a lower-caste manner. In most cases, one needs to be more attentive in rural areas than in more cosmopolitan cities or beaches, when it comes to dress or general etiquette. Having said that, Western women in bikinis do arouse curiosity amongst Indian men, who, in some areas, regularly take the bus on the weekend to stroll up and down the beach staring. It is pointless to get infuriated by this – it really is best to try to ignore it, or simply cover up with a kaftan or sarong.
HospitalityWhen visiting an Indian household, it is customary to take sweets or flowers and, when receiving visitors, Indians will always offer refreshment comprising of drink and food. Within some Indian cultures, notably Hinduism, it is believed that a stranger visiting at an unappointed time must be given the highest form of respect, the belief being that their Lord can come in any form, at any time.
Another point to remember is that when visiting most Indian households, shoes should be removed either before entering a home or removed just after entering the foyer.
Public Displays of AffectionKissing, or any form of intimate behaviour in public, is considered impolite, even offensive. It is always more polite to err on the side of caution. This may be confusing when it is quite common to see Indian men embracing or holding hands, but this is a sign of friendship – a man and a woman acting in this way would be less acceptable.
ShoppingHaggling is commonplace in shops and markets, but this should not be taken too seriously. A tourist always has the option to walk away. It’s not necessary to get argumentative about haggling – by its very nature; it only works if the vendor begins with a price which is far more than he expects you to pay!
By nature, Indians are relaxed and easy-going – arguments are rare. So it’s worth bearing this in mind before getting heated about Indian bureaucracy, a hotel room or a missed train. Far more useful, when travelling in India is to try to adopt the mindset that things will not happen at the same pace as at home, and if they did, it wouldn’t be a holiday, or a pleasurable travelling experience.
ConversationIt is not impolite to be curious in India, and in fact to ask extremely personal questions. You may be questioned about your own lifestyle quite rigorously. If unmarried, you may elicit a certain amount of pity!
You will very likely be asked about your family, your position in life, even your salary. Do not be offended, since this curiosity works both ways, and an Indian will be very happy to answer your questions about his culture and his personal life, thereby enriching the experience for both of you.