Food · India

Social Norms in India: How to Dress, Eat and Greet

When it comes to India, foreigners tend to get away with not following most social norms that people from there follow. Yet not doing so in turn reflects negatively on those who fail to follow them while earning respect for those with the willingness to learn. Though recently many Western practices have been adopted, thousands of years of Indian culture have left a complicated legacy of nuanced interactions and actions that may or may not be permissible. Here are some of the few of many.

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Namaste greeting as done by children

Manners:

  • One of the easiest ways to gain rapport with people is to greet them, in particular with elders. Indian greetings consist of putting your hands together as if to pray and bowing slightly as you say “namaste” or “namaskar“. This is especially crucial in rural areas but even in urban environments people greet each other in this manner from restaurants to schools to the home. While handshakes are growing as a form of greeting, it is still often seen as inappropriate to physically touch someone of the opposite sex, thus the namaste is often preferred.
  • Due in part to more conservative attitudes in India, public displays of affection are inherently looked down upon. it is very rare to see any couples doing even something as simple as holding hands, for them to kiss would cause a scandal. For Indians, displays of affection are relegated to the home and even then may not reflect in the same manner that Westerners are used to. The only exception for holding hands seems to be between two males or females as it is seen as a form of camaraderie rather than the Western connotation of sexual attraction.
  • When it comes to visiting people in their homes, it is important to keep in mind that arriving late is actually considered to be polite. Most people tend to arrive 30 minutes late as a general rule since this will give hosts more time to prepare and a guest should not be allowed to help with preparation due to it being quite rude. (The arriving late reminds me a lot of Latin American families though it’s often hours late rather than minutes).
  • When inviting people, many will often say they will come to a party or get-together but end up not going, it is considered rude to reject an offer but not so much to not actually show up, guests that do arrive will show up late though. An interesting note is that guests will often bring their own guests without invitation, this is considered to be polite whereas in the U.S. it would be very rude.
  • When entering a home, one should take off sandals or any footwear in order to not dirty the house. For that matter feet are considered dirty in general and avoiding pointing feet at people or touching anything of importance with them is important to keep in mind, especially in someone’s home.
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Eating with your right hand is crucial to avoiding embarassment

Food:

  • People will often invite guests to drink chai (tea) regardless of whether they are poor or rich.  Chai is often a morning activity but it can be drank almost at any time of day and Indians will offer what little they have to guests. It is good to at least try a bit as a way of being courteous and not rejecting generosity.
  • When eating, only eat with your right hand and avoid the left altogether. Bread of some sort is often used to scoop up food with the right hand but even those that are left handed must use the right due to left hands being seen as dirty; this is in part due to the fact that the left hand is used for wiping oneself after pooing.
  • It is polite to leave a little bit of food on your plate once you’re done eating, that way the host will feel that you are full. If you finish your plate, hosts may feel compelled to give you more food in embarrassment for not having given you enough initially.
  • Jootha or “already tasted food” is used for the act of coming into contact with others’ spit. Despite the fact that in India sharing is very important, it is necessary to be careful not to contaminate what is to be shared.
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Women are expected to dress conservatively in most of India

Business:

  • When it comes to business, it is best to avoid being seen as confrontational. that is, avoid folding your arms or putting your hands on your hips, these are seen as aggressive postures in India.
  • In schools, students tend not to participate because the structure involves memorization rather than putting things into practice. As a result of high regard for teacher’s, rarely will students back talk or ask questions.
  • Decisions are rarely made quickly and negotiations can often go on back and forth for a very long time. It is important to be patient and maintain a friendly disposition. Due to inefficient bureaucracy and the need for paperwork in every aspect of life, things in India tend to go slow. Moreover there is not always the same customer service as there is in the West so patience is the key. When you feel as though you have been treated improperly, it is best to not complain but express you feelings in a polite manner.
  • Jobs are structured hierarchically, bosses are expected to give orders and avoid doing jobs relegated for lower employees. Inversely employees are expected to follow the orders of higher ups without much question of decisions.
  • As a general rule symbols whether religious or national are to be respected regardless of who they belong to. All religious symbols are afforded the same decency and people are expected to stand in salute of all flags or national anthems regardless of the nation.

Things Not To Do:

Aside from the things mentioned above , there are a few other things that should be avoided if possible.

  • Don’t wear tight, revealing or ripped clothes because Indians pride themselves on looking professional. Women especially are held to a higher standard and expected to dress conservatively and avoid showing too much skin.
  • Don’t be offended by prodding questions such as whether you’re married or  how much you make; there is very little privacy and India so feel free to ask these questions back. If you don’t feel like answering then make up an answer.
  • Don’t decline an invitation outright because much like Japan, saying no directly is inappropriate. Instead one can say “I’ll think about it”, “I will try”, “maybe” or anything that is not a direct no.
  • Don’t expect people to respect personal space, everywhere from transport to walking around, people will get very close to you. In fact people in India stare a lot, especially if you look foreign. In any case, expect to get uncomfortably close to other people.
  • Don’t always be polite, using please and thank you can cause unnecessary formality for people that are close to you. This is due to the fact that it is seen as distancing yourself from them but it is fine to do for people you don’t know well, such as service providers.

Of course do to the largeness of India and the trend of Westernization, these can vary from region to region and even person to person. However it is useful to keep some of these tips in mind in order to be seen as respectful and knowledgeable about others’ culture.

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