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Customs & Traditions in India

Updated: Aug 8

General Etiquette

  • Public displays of affection are not encouraged.

  • Do not show anger.

  • Winking and whistling should be avoided.

  • Ears are considered sacred so do not touch or pull on others ears.

  • Refrain from standing within an arm’s length of others.

  • The top of the head is considered to be the most important part of the human body. To touch someone on the top of their head is considered rude and insensitive. This is especially the case with babies, children, elderly, religious leaders, or statues of deities.

  • Feet are considered unclean (this also applies to the left hand) so avoid touching another’s foot (apologize immediately if this is accidental)

  • To show the utmost respect towards a religious leader, a statue of a goddess, or an elder, one will touch the feet of the person or the statue.

  • Never sit higher than an elder. If they are seated on the floor, you should also sit on the floor to avoid being higher than them.

  • Objects are generally passed with one’s right hand or both hands. The left hand is thought to be reserved for cleaning, and the left hand alone should never be used to pass an object.

  • Indians typically have a relaxed approach to timekeeping and punctuality. It is common for people to arrive at events 30 minutes to an hour after the designated time. However, Indians will usually observe punctuality in a formal context such as important business meetings, appointments, or when visiting a doctor.

  • You may find some questions Indians ask to be quite forward or frank by others' expectations (e.g. ‘How much do you earn?’). However, these kinds of questions are commonplace in India.

  • India has the world’s largest democracy, which is an impressive feat. Indians are often proud that their population of over a billion people have the freedom to participate in electing their government.


Family

  • Family values are highly respected and are fundamental in daily life

  • The structure of the family is patriarchal; a woman must obey her father, her husband, her son.

  • Arranged marriages are familiar.

  • The urban middle-class population of India has begun to move away from arranged marriages

  • Families often live with three or four generations in the same house.

  • Traditionally sons inherit and daughters receive a dowry

  • Child care is provided by the female family members

  • Until the child is two,  the mother or grandmother is the primary caregiver.

  • Once the child is two, older sisters are the primary caregivers

  • Sons are generally given better opportunities and receive a superior education

  • Gender-specific roles are encouraged within the family unit and in wider society.


Naming

  • Due to India’s diverse cultural groups, there is a variance between regions on naming conventions.

  • It is generally polite to address an elder as ‘sir’ or ‘Ma’am’.

  • Indians generally have a ‘given’ name – a name they use at work or for people they are not overly familiar with.

  • It is common for people to have nicknames among close friends and family. Nicknames may be designated from a young age and follow someone through adulthood.

  • Often you will find any older female is called ‘auntie’, even if she is not in your family member.

  • Younger males are often called ‘little brother’.

  • Indians may also use a different religious name.

  • Many Muslims do not have surnames. Instead, men add the father's name to their own name with the connector 'bin'. For example, Abdullah bin Ahmed which means is Abdullah the son of Ahmed.

  • Sikhs all use the name Singh (‘Lion’) for men and ‘Kaur’ (‘Princess’) for women.

  • It is common for people (particularly Hindus) to be given names on the basis of horoscopes, usually provided by an astrologer. The astrologer determines the sound a name should begin with and the family will choose a name based on that sound.



Meeting & Greeting:

  • In India, it’s traditional to greet people using ‘Namaste’ – place both hands together and bow slightly.

  • Make sure to greet elders and superior are first. some Indians may reach down and touch the ground or the elder’s feet as a sign of respect.

  • Men should not attempt to shake hands with women.

  • Avoid hugs and kisses with people you don't know well as these actions are for people you know.

  • Muslims may greet by shaking hands accompanied by saying, “Salaam”. 

  • It is generally appropriate for men and women to shake hands. However, it is advisable to wait for a woman to extend her hand first. Some Muslim or Hindu men and women may not wish to touch a person of the opposite gender.

  • Verbal greetings vary between regions and also differ depending on people’s relationships.

  • It is advisable to address people by their title (Mr, Mrs, etc.) and last name until they have indicated that you may move on to a first-name basis.

  • It is common to add the gender-neutral honorific suffix ‘-ji’ onto a first name to show respect towards a person, a group of inanimate objects (for example, ‘Madhavji’).

  • Men will often also shake hands when meeting or leaving.



Visiting a home

  • Indians are generally hospitable, Complements on the hospitality of your Indian host are generally very appreciated.

  • People may not be strictly punctual when visiting someone’s home. Arriving 15 to 30 minutes after the time is appropriate.

  • Remove your shoes before entering someone’s home.

  • It is common to be offered a cup of tea (spiced tea) when visiting someone’s home or occasionally when visiting a shop. 

  • There is often an expectation that the guest will accept what is offered (especially chai). If you refuse something, it may be seen as a token protest made out of politeness. Thus, instead of accepting your refusal, an Indian may insist that you receive what has been offered. This can lead to awkward situations in which a guest can feel that the offer is being forced upon them.

  • A small token gift, such as chocolates or a gift for the host's children, is generally appreciated.

  • If you wish to leave someone’s home, it is considered polite and respectful to ask permission to leave (e.g. ‘It’s probably time for me to go’). This is especially important if you are visiting the house of an elder.

Giving gifts

  • Gifts are not usually given at the first meeting.

  • Once the relationship has developed gifts may be exchanged.

  • Personal gifts are appreciated-  especially if from your own country.

  • Give and receive gifts with both hands – never use the left as it is considered unclean.

  • Generally, gifts are not opened when you receive it.

  • Avoid giving black or white gifts; black denotes anger, evil, and negativity, while white is reserved for funerals and mourning.

  • Instead choose red, blue, yellow, or green for a gift or wrappings as they considered to be lucky.

  • Avoid gifts that are made from leather or pigskin.

  • It is advisable for men to say the gift is from both himself and his wife/mother/sister or some other female relative if offering it to a woman. This is to avoid the gift-giving act being interpreted as flirtatious.

  • Different flowers have different connotations. Therefore, make sure to be aware of the connotations certain flowers have if you give them as gifts. Importantly, avoid giving frangipanis or white flowers. These are typically reserved for funerals and times of mourning.

  • Some gifts will be inappropriate depending on one’s religious affiliation. For example, gifts made from leather may offend someone who identifies as Hindu. Gifts relating to pigs, such as pork or pigskin, would be inappropriate to give to someone who identifies as Muslim.


Dining & Food:

  • Many Muslims, and Hindu women, do not drink alcohol.

  • Wash your hands before eating or serving food to an Indian.

  • Everyone normally uses their right hand to serve themselves, scooping with the fingers or with a serving spoon.

  • Avoid using your left hand if you are encouraged to eat with your hands. The left hand is considered ‘unclean' since it is the hand people generally use for washing themselves.

  • Guests are generally served in an order; guests of honor, men, and then children (Women may eat later).

  • Meals often end with a variety of sweets (paan), betel nut served with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf.

  • A host will always serve their guests. Accept whatever you are offered but don’t feel obliged to finish everything on your plate.

  • If food is placed in communal dishes you have to help yourself.

  • Indian food often does not require utensils to eat. Therefore, there are various forms of eating etiquette relating to the use of one’s hands.

  • Bread can be used to scoop up food.

  • In a restaurant, the host will generally pay the bill.

  • An Indian may fill your plate for you, or they may expect you to serve yourself.

  • There is a general distinction between northern and southern Indian food. The southern is usually much spicier.

  • Some Indians may have dietary restrictions based on their religious faith. For example, Muslim Indians do not eat pork, Hindus, do not eat beef cause the consumption of beef will be avoided.

  • It is common for many Indians to avoid drinking alcohol for reasons such as religion (e.g. Islam, Buddhism) or their upbringing. Only serve or provide alcohol if you are certain that your Indian counterpart drinks it.




Communication style:

  • Avoid standing too close to others.

  • Communication may not be straightforward – you may have to read between the lines and interpret gestures/signs.

  • Differing relationships will determine how people interact with each other – watch what others do.

  • Indian men may often pat each other on the back as a sign of friendship.

  • Some gestures can be easily misinterpreted – a simple wave from side to side can mean ‘no’ or ‘go-away’ in India.

  • If an Indian says ‘I will try’ this can usually be interpreted as ‘no’.

  • On the whole, Indian people dislike refusing something, or someone, outright.

  • Use your right hand to touch, accept or give something.

  • Pointing, with either one or two fingers, is considered rude and used for inferiors only.

  • Chins, thumbs, and entire hands are used to point or direct someone’s attention.

  • When a head is jerked back or moved in a figure of eight, this usually means ‘yes’.




Tipping Etiquette

  • The general basis of tipping in restaurants in India is 10% for a huge tip, 5% for an average tip, or leave the change unless there is a service charge on the bill, in which case you do not need to leave more tip.



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