A Cruising Couple | December 23, 2015 1:00 AM ET
Avoiding Indian Cultural Faux Pas: A Quick Guide
Photo by A Cruising Couple
“But gradually, you realize (India's) like a wave. Resist, and you'll be knocked over. Dive into it, and you'll swim out the other side.”
Taken from the 2011 movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” this quote is one of the best explanations of what it's like to visit India for the first time. India is essentially one massive and incredibly intricate set of impossibilities, that should you try to make sense of, absolutely will overpower you. (Just look at the traffic. You can't make sense of that…)
Mother India is perhaps one of the most unique places on the face of this Earth, and a visit to this country has the potential to change your life — if you can learn to give in and embrace her for all of the beautiful chaos that she is.
I remember crying in my hotel room on the first night of my trip to India, thinking, “What on Earth did I get myself into?” Yet by the end of my trip, I was almost ready to sell all I had and move to this beautiful country forever. The culture shock may be intense at first, but seeing this country for yourself is a profoundly alluring experience.
The good news is that you can ease the initial shock with a little research before you leave. Although every region has its own customs and language, going prepared with even a few bits of information will help you become accustomed far quicker.
The Basics To The Culture Of India: What You Need To Know
Interacting With Locals
Indians are known for their hospitality. You will be shocked at the extent Indians will go to in order to help you feel comfortable as a guest in their country. You will most likely be invited for dinner, successively questioned, asked to take a picture with their children, and introduced to the entire network of friends and family. Should you run into a problem, most Indians will drop everything to help you. This is just in their nature as Indians. The way they treat their guests is exceptional, and in their minds, you, having traveled nearly across the world to reach them, are an extra special guest.
Don't be surprised if nearly everywhere you go, someone wants to talk to you. Don't be surprised when you see strangers taking your picture. Don't be surprised when you turn around and see an Indian staring, mesmerized at you, just inches away from your car window.
Privacy and personal space isn’t really a thing here. You will have to let these two very Western ideals stay at home. Most Indians mean well when they come up to you, and are sincerely curious about you and your culture. Of course, use natural intuition and judgment always. You can typically tell the difference between someone staring out of curiosity and someone staring in an inappropriate way.
Photo via Flickr/New Delhices
The normal greeting in India, for strangers and friends alike, is Namaste. Bring your palms together and against your heart. Give a slight bow and say “Nah-Mah-Stay.”
For those individuals you know fairly well and want to show great respect for, greet them by bending over to touch their feet with your right hand, and then touching that hand to your heart. This greeting is used for respected family members, friends’ family members and elders, as well as those you want to show extra respect to.
Take Your Shoes Off
Photo via Flickr/flowcomm
Feet are considered dirty and disrespectful in Indian culture. When entering someone's home, or when entering a nice shop, take off your shoes and leave them right outside the home. Make sure never to point the bottoms of your feet toward someone. Should you accidentally touch someone with your feet, apologize immediately and touch your heart, then your forehead with your right hand.
The Left Hand Rule
Perhaps the single most important tip I can pass along to you is never, ever use your left hand to eat or gesture toward someone. Because of the way Indians use the bathroom (I'll save you the details here) they never use their left hand for sanitary reasons. Although your left hand is probably clean, if your Indian friends see you eating with it, they will be thoroughly disgusted.
How To Eat
Photo via Flickr/Six intheworld
You may find yourself in the company of locals who understand your culture well enough to offer you a fork. Or you may not. Indians eat with their right hand and knowing the technique behind this custom can save you a bit of embarrassment at your next dinner party.
If you're in North India, you want to aim at using only the tips of your thumb and fingers. Try not to use your pointer finger, and definitely do not allow any food to get on your palms. If you're in the South, it's appropriate to use more of your hand.
Scoop a bit of rice to the side of your plate, and mix it with curry using the tips of your fingers. Pick up the rice ball-ish bit of food and use your thumb to scoop it off of your fingers and into your mouth. Don't lick your fingers, but rather think of your fingers as a scoop and gently slide the rice in with your thumb.
The same goes for bread — don't use your left hand. Use your fingers to hold the bread against the plate, and your thumb and middle finger to pull the bread into pieces.
These basic tips cover much of what you need to know to avoid some of the most common Indian cultural faux paus. Your explorations of the deeper components to Indian culture and life can now begin.
Have you traveled to India? What would you add to this snapshot of understanding Indian customs and norm?
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