Before visiting India, get to know its etiquettes and culture
Updated: Aug 10, 2022
India is a vast country, not only in size, but also because of its diversity, history, and various norms and culture. However, due to the caste system, religious customs, and other factors, Indian customs can seem strange and unsettling from an outside perspective. And all these norms and conditions are sometimes hard to follow, especially when you are a foreigner in India. However, some traditions and etiquettes are standard all over the country, and it’s easy for foreigners to get familiar with them while visiting.
Indians generally are forgiving in nature, especially towards foreigners, and do not get bothered too much if outsiders are not aware of the etiquette of Indian culture. Indians do not pressure the foreigners, no matter how conservative they are. They will not pressure foreigners to acquire or respect Indian behavior and etiquette.
However, to save oneself from the embarrassment of making mistakes, here is a guide to some of the essential etiquette in India that can help foreigners navigate the country smoothly, connect with locals, and make a good experience out of the trip. Most Indian etiquettes are related to dining, eating, and meeting, which are normally so loved by most of the foreigners that they adopt them during their stay in India.
The key is to understand Indian values and society, not only to avoid accidentally offending someone but also to create new friendships and learn more about this country’s abounding and vivid culture.
Wear an appropriate attire
Wearing decent clothes falls under the conservative culture of the country. In most parts of the country, especially rural areas, Indians prefer wearing traditional clothes. Women will wear sarees where their legs, head, and arms are covered. For them, revealing clothes is considered vulgar. You will also rarely see Indian men wearing shorts, shirts, or t-shirts.
In major cities, many people (especially women) wear western clothes like jeans, skirts, crop tops, etc. No one’s saying that foreigners can’t wear what they want. They can enjoy them in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, or the state of Goa, as many Indians in big cities have changed their perception regarding clothes, and you will find a mix of Indian and western touches in urban Indians' wardrobe.
Always remember to dress modestly while visiting any religious places, like temples or mosques, or any village. There is a perception in India that foreign women wear revealing clothes and are promiscuous. So women are expected to dress modestly, with legs and shoulders covered (and sometimes even your head), especially when visiting temples in India. You will get more respect by dressing conservatively. Avoid wearing strapless tops or spaghetti straps, or wear a shawl or scarf to be modest.
Food etiquettes and the right-hand rule
In most parts of India, people prefer eating with their bare hands. Few eat with spoons, forks, and knives unless they are eating at restaurants or an event. So for foreigners, this could look a bit weird and potentially be a faux pas to eat with their hands. Eating with your hands requires a little practice. But always remember that while eating, use your right hand only. This tradition is not only in India but followed around most of the Asian countries. In India, the left hand is considered unclean, as it is used to wipe the bottom, take off shoes, clean a person’s feet, and do other unsavory things which are considered unclean. Therefore, always eat with your right hand. When you’re shaking hands or interacting with someone, always use the right hand. Some people from a particular caste (Brahmins), as well as strict South Indians, often get offended if somebody uses their left hands for things like greeting, eating, passing food, or even wiping their mouth with their left hand.
This rule also extends beyond food. People consider it a bad omen to do anything with their left hand, such as pointing at anyone or putting your hand in your mouth.
The other food etiquette is don’t pass your half-eaten food or drink to others. In India, this is called Jhutha (joo-tha) or sullied food. For example, if you take a bite from an apple and pass that half-eaten apple to an Indian, they will deny it. Also, while drinking water, avoid touching your lips if it’s in a shareable container. Instead, directly pour it into your mouth. This custom is generally to protect people from catching illnesses like hepatitis.
Put your Shoes Outside
Whenever you enter a temple, gurudwara, or mosque, always take off your shoes, flip-flops, or sandals before entering. These places already have shoe stands outside their premises, where you can put your shoes and go inside. Similarly, when you enter any Indian house, Indians always prefer it if you take your shoes off before entering their house. Indians normally wear flip-flops or slippers inside their homes, especially when going to bathrooms. However, such footwear is worn inside the house and not worn outside of the house. You might also find that some shops, especially any jewelry or garment shops, will also ask you to remove your shoes before entering.
Appropriate hand and feet gestures
Most foreigners know the famous Indian nod, which normally confuses people. So generally, most Indians wobble their head which looks like a “no” but it is a “yes” or “OK.” If people want to say “no,” they will turn their head shortly to the right and left along with a cross-hand wave with their hands.
Also, as mentioned above, pointing fingers at someone is considered bad manners. Most Indians only point fingers at animals or inferior classes. So to avoid any awkwardness, point to the person or thing with both hands.
Also, feet are another body part that has significant meaning in India. It is considered unclean and the lowest part of the body. Therefore, it is customary to take off your shoes before entering someone’s house, a temple, or a mosque. Also, do not point your feet towards anyone, and avoid touching objects like books, food, etc. with your feet, as feet are considered unclean. If you accidentally do so, apologize immediately. If Indians accidentally touch something with their feet, they often close their eyes and touch their head with their hand and apologize.
On the contrary, touching the feet of elders or some holy man is considered a great sign of respect. Indians bend down to touch the feet of their elders and then touch them on their heads. Doing so shows that they respect their elders, and in return, they wish for their blessings.
Greetings in India
Most Indians greet by joining their palms and saying “Namaste” (Naa-must-stay), especially Hindus, who fold their hands in namaste greeting and touch their forehead as a sign of respect. For a perfect namaste, one should hold his/her palms with the fingertips at chin level and nod a little and then say “namaste.” Namaste means “I bow to thee” or “ honor the godhead within.” It is a similar gesture performed when entering a Hindu religious place.
Indian Muslims greet by saying Salaam (Suh-laam), and Indian Sikhs show their respect by saying the name of the person they are greeting followed by “Sat Sri Akal” (Sat-shri-a-call).
Indians also lavishly welcome foreigners. At Indian hotels or any big events, guests and visitors are welcomed with garlands of marigolds or other flowers draped around their necks.
Don't Be Offended by Intrusive Questions
Sometimes you can meet Indians who can be mildly intrusive and ask a few personal questions. Culturally and by nature, Indians are very inquisitive. People hardly mind their own business. So foreigners often feel surprised and shocked when locals ask personal questions about their salaries, families, marriages, kids, etc. upon first meeting. But they won’t even mind if you ask them the same questions in return. So try not to be offended, and get more involved with the locals. If you don’t feel like sharing too much information, you can always give vague answers.
Being polite can Sometimes be Awkward
Indians are not very good at formal greetings like “please” and “thank you,” which are commonly used in western culture. Indians think that too much politeness can create unnecessary formalities, which can further turn into an insult. It is okay to thank someone who is providing you a service, like a shopkeeper, waiter, or assistant. But lavishing thanks to friends or family should be avoided. If you thank them, they see it as a violation of intimacy and the creation of distance. Indians prefer showing appreciation to others in different ways. For example, if you are invited for dinner, never say “thank you so much for having me over and cooking for me.” Rather, say, “I really enjoyed the food and spending time with you.” Generally, Indians think that being polite is a sign of weakness, and someone can take advantage of that weakness.
If you are ever on the streets of big cities in India, and people are continuously trying to sell you something, just saying “no thank you” won’t be enough to woo away those street vendors. One has to be strong and forceful to say no to them.
Being punctual is not an Indian Thing
Never expect Indians to arrive at a function on time. People prefer coming on IST i.e. “Indian Standard Time” or “Indian Stretchable Time.” Indians are famous for their unpunctual behavior. Whenever you are invited to a wedding or any function, Indians will come 10 minutes after the event starts, and there could be a 30-minute delay as well. In the west, this behavior could be rude, but Indians believe in flexibility.
Avoid showing affection in Public
Kissing and hugging in public are considered parts of sex in conservative parts of India. There is a joke which says, “you can piss in public but you cannot kiss in public” in India. Even holding the hand of your partner in public is considered bad or inappropriate. Because of the conservative society and the older generations, such acts are considered private and should be done behind closed doors. One can also meet people who do moral policing, but they hardly police foreigners. Some people can also get arrested by showing too much affection in public.
Do Not Call the Elderly by Their Names
Another tip to remember is to not call an elderly person by their name, since people might get offended and consider it rude. Always ask the local people how to denote elders, or just use “uncle” and “aunty.”
Some more important Etiquette
Do not directly make eye contact with people, as they often consider it rude.
Do not eat while walking down the street, as this can also seem rude to people, especially those who might be hungry and cannot afford to eat.
Do not start eating the food before the host. Wherever you are invited to a party, it is a basic rule to let the host and elderly start eating. It’s even a tradition in many states that elders and hosts are served the food first. Also, after finishing the food, do not leave the table until elders are finished with their meal.
Always consider bringing gifts while visiting someone’s place. Bringing gifts is considered a warm gesture, and your gift could be anything like sweets, fruits, chocolates, etc.
Avoid touching the opposite gender. In India, men do not shake hands with or touch other women, as it is looked down upon and inappropriate in Indian culture. It can be misinterpreted as something intimate if coming from men or women. Though professional Indians do shake hands with opposite genders, many prefer greeting with “Namaste.”
Don't Judge the Whole Country
All this could be overwhelming for some, and some might consider it a bit weird, but let's not judge a country on the above points. India is huge, and in different states, the cultures, foods, and traditions change. That's why it is a land of extreme contrast. But these cases might be followed in some places, and some places may not follow them. And these are not hard and fast rules. It's just to make foreigners aware of them so they do not get culture shock upon arriving. There are different kinds of people, and they behave in different ways. Hence, one should be careful not to draw any blanket conclusions about the whole country based on limited experience.
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