India is very different, and this is not surprising: there are four religions on its territory, many ancient traditions and customs are preserved here, there are still clear social divisions, and each state speaks its dialect (844 registered dialects). The resort areas filled with tourists are one India, the metropolitan and rural areas are another. However, there is something common in India, some special traditions that are typical for this overpopulated piece of the planet. That’s what we’re going to talk about.
How to communicate in India: what you can and cannot do
In Hinduism it is not customary to shake hands, instead, the gesture of shaking one’s own hands and tilting one’s head accompanied by the phrase “Namaste” is used as a greeting. This can be translated as “I bow to you as a divine being”. But, of course, it is not only Hindus who live in India.
If someone extends his hand to you, you can shake it, but it is not customary for women to shake hands. In general, to touch an unfamiliar woman, for example, take her hand, is considered improper, as well as any physical contact such as a kiss or hug in a crowded place.
In tourist “reservations” the customs are somewhat different. For example, in Goa, vendors can easily grab your hand to shout their offer. The universal address to foreigners and Indians is “my friend,” and you can address everyone in the same way when starting a conversation.
Despite the abundance of languages and dialects, most Hindus understand Hindi or English. In the tourist areas, almost everyone speaks English, so it is almost impossible to get lost – you will always be guided and everything will be explained. The tourist areas are very friendly and there are many things to see. If you are interested, you can explore more about the culture at myhindilekh.
But for other areas, here are some greetings and just polite phrases in Hindi:
- Hello – Namaskar, Namaste, Ram-ram
- See you soon – Phir Milenge
- Shubh rathri – Good night
- What’s your name? – Ap ka us kya he?
- My name is … – Mera nam … .
- Thank you – Dhanyavad, Shukriya
Indian men don’t mind a hug when they meet, may pat you on the shoulder, and generally don’t keep much distance. If you are quite friendly and communicate in a friendly manner, your comfort zone narrows, and you too may get a pat on the shoulder or a hug. But only if you are a man.
Women behave more reserved and hug in public, except only with very close people – your best friend, for example. And to hug a man in public is out of the question.
In general, the most common gesture in India is the head shake. This way Indians can express a greeting, approval, sympathy, or agreement, so do not take it as a simple “yes”. To say goodbye, Indians may nod their heads, make a “namaste” gesture or simply wave.
How to walk on the street
In Goa and all the tourist spots, everyone wears something light or whatever they have to wear. But in other neighborhoods, in order not to draw attention to yourself, it’s better not to choose short clothes like skirts or shorts, and walk-in something longer, covering the legs. It is also better not to wear tight-fitting clothes or those that reveal a large expanse of bare skin (especially in rural areas).
But in general, tourists are always treated leniently, so you don’t have to wrap yourself in long balaclavas, just nothing flashy and no bare shoulders or knees.
As for footwear, in many museums and temples, you will have to take off your sandals, so if you stock up on a pair of cheap spare sandals, it will be more peace of mind, and, in a pinch, you won’t have to go back barefoot.
Speaking of extreme cases: India is quite a poor country, so it’s better to take better care of your belongings, for example, when relaxing on a bench or in any other place.
Smoking, Alcohol and Street Beggars
Since 2008 India has banned smoking in public places: offices, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, bus stops, etc. But you can smoke outdoors or in designated smoking areas, which are available in restaurants and hotels as well.
It is highly discouraged to smoke on temple grounds, but I don’t think sane people would think of that.
Drinking alcoholic beverages in public places is also not recommended, for example in Uttaranchal you can get a fine of about $120 or go to jail for 3 months.
It is generally undesirable to get into conflicts with locals because if it comes to the police, support will be on the side of the locals, and you are likely to get a fine.
There are a lot of little beggars in different parts of India, and you don’t want to give them money, because otherwise you will be followed by a whole crowd of screaming children or they will fight over your money. It is better to give them candy or cookies.
But if you are asked by wandering ascetics, give some. The same goes for Hindu temples, where it is possible and even desirable to leave offerings.
By the way, I must say a few words about trade in India. It is customary here to haggle, and everywhere – in the markets and stores. If you don’t know how to haggle, you will have to learn how to haggle or you can buy every item for three times as much.
Everyone has his method: some people talk long, others just tell their price and leave, and the sellers return them, agreeing to the terms. In any case, the Indians are quite friendly people, so don’t get heated during the bargaining and get mad at them. If you don’t like it, leave.
How to visit and behave at the table
If you are invited to a party, you can please the hosts with a gift: bring fruit, flowers or some souvenir. Just do not buy white flowers – it is customary to give them for funerals.
Friends on important dates like birthdays or weddings can be given money. It is desirable to pack gifts in red, green, or yellow paper because these colors are considered lucky. Well, if you have to give something to a Hindu follower, don’t think of choosing something leather.
If the Indians “gave as a gift” you shouldn’t open it right away, and you definitely shouldn’t take it with your left hand (it is considered unclean, and it would be rude).
It is customary to take your shoes off in the house, and you will be offered drinks and food, but most likely without beef and no meat at all (for religious reasons, most Indians do not eat animals).
Well, that’s all I wanted to say about etiquette in India. Some people adore this country, some consider it a dirty, smelly cloaca, some come here for spiritual enlightenment, and some, once here, stay forever.
They say India turns on a different side to everyone, and you have to go there to decide which side it is. Hopefully, the rules of etiquette will help you avoid getting into an awkward situation.