Readme: Welcome to India

Social Etiquette

Kissing in India
India can trace kissing back thousands of years in its literature. Indeed, the well-known Kama Sutra has an entire chapter devoted to kissing. However, in most cultures of the subcontinent, kissing has traditionally been seen as part of sex, and in recent years many have unknowingly gotten into serious trouble for kissing, regardless of relationship or marriage or nationality. Kissing can lead to fines or even arrest. This is not a universal opinion, as many Indians find kissing acceptable, but common enough that avoiding kissing in public is a good idea while in India.

  • Never use profanity, even when someone does something that warrants it. Profanity makes you look bad in India so avoid it when you can.

  • Do not make fun of or criticise someone’s knowledge of English. Contrary to what Western culture may have you believe, many Indians are proficient in English and English is one of two official languages of India. Making statements such as “You speak very good English” for example will be met with offence.

  • It is considered extremely impolite to pass unwarranted comments or make jokes about someone’s family members. In the Business world, Indians often mix their business and personal relationships, since they very much value trust. This is also why Indians often like to hire their friends and relatives to work together. Indians will surprise you with big anger if you jump in to joke about their family members or give in your opinion about their family life without even asking them for it.

  • Do not criticise or patronise someone for their profession or vocation. Someone’s occupation is usually an important part of one’s personal identity, and most Indians will react with big anger if you criticise their occupation or vocation.

  • Never raise your voice or lose your temper at someone. Even if someone is acting incredibly officious and nosy, it is commonly associated with “losing face” and it can seriously offend someone. If you must confront someone, do it behind closed doors and in a diplomatic way.

  • Never be offended if someone asks you direct personal questions. Questions about your personal life, such as your salary, your lifestyle and so on, are quite commonly asked and should not be taken as offensive or insulting. If you don’t feel comfortable with such answers, simply give an indirect answer and move along. Outright telling someone that “it’s none of your business” can be taken the wrong way as Indians are very sensitive to being beckoned directly.

  • Outside of the larger cities, it is unusual for people of the opposite sex to touch each other in public. Even couples (married or otherwise) refrain from public displays of affection. Therefore, it is advised that you do not shake hands with a person of the opposite sex unless the other person extends his/her hand first. The greeting among Indians and more so among Hindus is to bring your palms together in front of your chest and simply say 'Namaste’, or 'Namaskar’. When speaking to Muslims, it is more likely to hear the opposite person say As salaamu alaykum, which is Arabic for Peace on you. Residents of Punjab and followers of Sikhism are equally likely to say Sat Sri Akaal and those from Tamil Nadu could be heard saying Vanakkam instead. That said, it is not necessary that the above mentioned forms of greeting are the only acceptable forms. Almost all the people (even if they don’t know English) do understand a “Hi” or a “Hello”. Kindly note, however, when unsure, that at least in cities, it is quite acceptable to offer a “Hello” or “Good Day” followed by a handshake, regardless of gender.

  • Smoking in any public place is illegal in India. But it is rarely enforced except in the Southern state of Kerala where police will fine you at the spot. Smoking is still considered a taboo when associated with women but things are slowly changing and one is more likely to spot a woman smoking in Indian cities today than ever before. Even in larger cities, it is becoming much more common to find women smoking outside offices, in universities, in pubs and discotheques than in most other places. Outside of large cities, probability of spotting a women smoking is rare and decreases sharply. Though in some rural areas women do smoke, but discreetly. Since ages, a woman who smokes/drinks was associated with loose moral character in much of the country’s growing middle class(by both men and women) and this thought process has not yet disappeared completely, especially outside of major cities. Surprisingly, Indians are relatively more relaxed regarding women of foreign origin consuming liquor or smoking in public as compared to Indian women themselves.

  • Places such as Discos / Dance clubs are less-conservative areas. It is good to leave your things at a hotel and head down there for a drink and some light conversation. Only carry as much change as you think you would require since losing your wallet or I.D. means that you will waste a considerable time trying to get any kind of help.

  • People are fully-clothed even at the beach. There is no law prohibiting women from wearing bikinis. As with women smoking, wearing bikinis, especially by Indian women, was thought of to be completely unthinkable until some time back. This has begun to change with more media exposure but is still significantly prevalent somewhat and there is a clear difference between family beaches and tourist beaches. Most tourist beaches have bikinis as part of beach culture. So, be sure to find out what the appropriate attire is for the beach you are visiting. In some rare places like Goa, where the visitors to beach are predominantly foreigners, it is permissible to wear bikinis on the beach but it is still offensive to go about dressed in western swim wear away from the beach. There are a few beaches where women (mostly foreigners) sunbathe topless but make sure there it is safe and accepted before you do so. Clothing like shorts and modest versions of tank tops are more acceptable for a visit to the beach.

  • In local/suburban trains, there are usually cars reserved only for women and designated as such towards the front. This reserved car is usually (but not always) the third-to-last compartment.

  • In most buses (private and public) a few seats at the front of the bus are reserved for women, Usually these seats will be occupied by men and, very often, they vacate the place when a female stands near gesturing her intention to sit there. If you sit near a man, he may stand up from the seat and give the place to you; this is a sign of respect, NOT rudeness.

  • Travellers should be aware of the fact that Indians generally dress conservatively and should do the same. Shorts, short skirts (knee-length or above) and sleeveless shirts are frowned upon in smaller cities and rural areas, but are commonly accepted in large metros. Cover as much skin as possible. Both men and women should keep their shoulders covered. Women should wear baggy clothes that do not emphasize their contours. However, if you move to metropolitan cities, there is much more liberalism of wearing western outfits and skimpy clothes though still they may become a centre of stare from men. But they should avoid moving alone at night.

  • Keep in mind that Indians will consider themselves obliged to go out of the way to fulfil a guest’s request and will insist very strongly that it is no inconvenience to do so, even if it is not true. This of course means that there is a reciprocal obligation on you as a guest to take extra care not to be a burden.

  • Bring a few spare coins from your home country - Indians often ask if you have any and they really appreciate it if you do! Pens are also often appreciated by school children.

  • Overseas visitors are often magnets for beggars. Begging is criminalized in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. It is however common in many cities, and in pilgrim cities there are sadhus who live an ascetic life style of the seeker that requires them to adopt bhiksha-charya (begging vows) only for sustaining the body.

Dining Etiquette

  • It is customary to put up a token friendly argument with your host or any other member of the group when paying bills at restaurant or while making purchases. The etiquette for this is somewhat complicated. These rules do not apply if the host has made it clear beforehand that it is his or her treat, especially for some specific occasion.

  • In a business lunch or dinner, it is usually clear upfront who is supposed to pay, and there is no need to fight. But if you are someone’s personal guest and they take you out to a restaurant, you should offer to pay anyway, and you should insist a lot. Sometimes these fights get a little funny, with each side trying to snatch the bill away from the other, all the time laughing politely. If you don’t have experience in these things, chances are, you will lose the chance the first time, but in that case, make sure that you pay the next time. (and try to make sure that there is a next time.) Unless the bill amount is very large do not offer to share it, and only as a second resort after they have refused to let you pay it all.

  • The same rule applies when you are making a purchase. If you are purchasing something for yourself, your hosts might still offer to pay for it if the amount is not very high, and sometimes, even if it is. In this situation, unless the amount is very low, you should never lose the fight. (If the amount is in fact ridiculously low, say less than ₹10, then don’t insult your hosts by putting up a fight.) Even if by chance you lose the fight to pay the shopkeeper, it is customary to practically thrust (in a nice way, of course) the money into your host’s hands.

  • Indians are also keen on finishing everything they get and not wasting anything, down to the final grain of rice. While they don’t expect foreigners to do the same, not doing so and wasting significant amounts of food reinforces negative stereotypes of foreigners not being considerate of the inequality regarding nutrition in the world.

Religion and Superstitions

India is a secular nation, which guarantees religious freedom to all religions and their practice. However there are a few things worth bearing in mind when visiting India.

  • In mosques, churches and temples it is obligatory to take off your shoes. Not doing so is rude manners.

  • Books and written materials are treated with respect. In India, they are considered as physical forms of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of Wisdom. Touching a book/written material with ones feet or treating them poorly is considered very rude manners.

  • Currencies and items associated with wealth are treated with respect. In India, they are considered as physical forms of Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Wealth. As much, it is wise to not mutilate or treat them poorly as it considered very rude manners.

  • Never touch anyone with your feet or your shoes. It is considered rude manners.

  • Avoid winking, whistling, pointing or beckoning with your fingers, and touching someone’s ears. All of these are considered rude.

  • Do not confuse or conflate the Swastika with Nazism or Anti-Semitism. The Swastika is commonly seen in India, as it is considered a religious symbol for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Although the vast majority of Indians are unaware of its usage during World War II, conflating the symbol with the Nazi Party will not be appreciated or welcomed.

Things to avoid

Politics:

  • Be cautious when discussing politics. Indians in general are ardently political, and politics is a very popular conversational subject amongst many Indians, including the older generation. Many Indians have a breadth of political opinions, including that of their own country. As a visitor, you’ll be exposed to a breadth of political opinions both publicly and privately, even though most Indians often express frustration with the government. This said though, you could immediately be seen as uninformed if you do not follow Indian news closely. Don’t hesitate to engage in political discussions, but it’s worth mentioning that being a visitor puts you in a delicate position.

  • Do not insult or speak badly about the country or its culture. Indians in general have some very patriotic views of their nation, and would view any criticisms about their country with varying degrees of hostility. Making statements such as “India does not have a drainage system even when they have sent rockets to Mars” for instance will be met with offence. Most Indians are aware of their country’s problems, and will defend against any outsider for doing so.

Symbols:

  • Do not inappropriately use or desecrate the Indian flag. Not only would you cause offence, but you can also risk a fine as it is considered a crime.

  • Do not mock or insult the national anthem or any local traditions. Indians are proud of their national symbols and would take such actions with serious offence.

Religion:

  • Be very respectful when discussing religion. Religion plays a strong role in Indian society, and it is commonly used as a tool of political indoctrination. Some more conservative Indians may not be tolerant of other religions, and if you criticise or speak badly of their religion, it could result in harsh words, or at worst, violence.

Sensitive Issues:

  • Be very cautious when talking about Pakistan. The two countries have had a hostile, strained, often violent history, which has culminated in more than millions of deaths and refugees. Attempting to compliment or say anything that could be percieved as positive about Pakistan can evoke a strong response from some Indians. Don’t be afraid to inquire about the Indo-Pakistan relationship, but bear in mind that it can result in a very heated, often emotional, conversation.

  • **Be very respectful when talking about the Punjab Insurgency in Punjab (India). Although the worst of the insurgency has gone away, many people in Punjab, especially the Sikh community, have an incredibly emotional stance on the Punjab Insurgency as well as Operation Blue Star, widely regarded as one of India’s most controversial military operations. . Jokes, even made innocently about the matter, is absolutely the wrong way of approaching the matter.

  • Steer clear of discussing issues in the North East. The North East has largely been isolated from the rest of India, and many residents there have endured a great degree of social problems such as racism and discrimination. Media coverage of the region is virtually non-existent, and many of the more well-aware Indians regard this as an incredibly embarrassing issue. Although much work has gone into integrating the region into the rest of the country, some North-Easterners may react with hostility and/or fierce debates depending on your views.

  • Avoid using terms like “Chinki” and/or “Chinese” in the North East. They are regarded as racial slurs, and many in the North East would find you ignorant if you use such terms.

  • Be very cautious when talking about the Kashmir conflict. Most Indians regard Kashmir as a part of India, and inquiries into the subject can be met with fierce, passionate, or even hostile debates depending on your views.

  • Take care about the food that you eat. Some Indians are intolerant of non-vegetarians and you may be met with puzzled looks and/or hostile comments. This form of hostility has often extended to the workplace and/or the local government, where groups often encourage the banning of non-vegetarian food. This is largely common around Central India, although people in the South, North, and North East do not mind as much.

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