First time in India?- A guide to Indian social etiquette & customs

social etiquettes

India is such a complicated mix of old and new traditions, customs and outlooks, that it is difficult to sum up Indian culture in one article. It is sometimes a mix of Western and Asian cultures as well as conservative and modern at the same time. This vast and complex culture is best left to experience in person.

What stands out most about India is the there is an hierarchical structure in place for most relationships be it in business, family life, schools and so on. In other words Indians are very conscious of social order and their status relative to other people be it family, friends or outsiders. Respecting elders and people of higher social standing is taken quite seriously.

But at the same time Indians as a whole are very friendly and accommodating people, so if you are visiting India for the first time they won’t take offense because of cultural differences. But no one wants to unintentionally offend the people of a country they are just visitors in, so it’s good to know a little about Indian social and cultural etiquette that is in tune with general Indian mannerisms and behavior.

Here’s a guide to Indian Social Etiquette:

Dressing Etiquette

Attire is and important way of showing social stature and status in India.
Women: While in India you will see women dressed in more modern western attire, the overall dress code is more conservative. Short, revealing clothes for women should be avoided especially if you don’t want to get stared at. Rural parts of India call for loose cool clothing that covers up as much as possible. In the bigger cities jeans and western wear is perfectly acceptable and is widely worn by Indian’s themselves, however it is still advisable to stick to the more conservative length of dresses & skirts (knee length or longer preferably) and avoid plunging necklines and strappy tops. While in India it’s a good chance to try traditional Indian wear like the “salwar kameez” or “sari”.

Men: The usual attire of men in urban India is very similar to that in the west. Pant, shirts, jeans , t-shirts are worn mostly. Many men in rural parts of India opt for traditional Indian wear like Lungis (in the South) or Dhoti’s as they are more suitable to India’s hot climate. However, men don’t have much to worry about when it comes to dressing etiquette in India. Don’t be afraid of wearing bright colors while in India!

Introduction and Greetings

A traditional greeting in India is usually pressing your palms together at around chest level and saying, “Namaste” or “Namaskar” (which is more formal). People usually nod or bow slightly as well.

In the Hindu community when greeting an elder, there is also a touching of the feet of the elder, with the right hand, then touching your chest. After this, is the palms pressed together. Foreigners are not expected to do this, but should when meeting those of extremely high status like a religious leader or guru.

Light handshakes are common between men along with namaste. Men however avoid greeting women with handshakes unless she offers her hand. Many Indian women will avoid contact with men in public situations. The “Namaste” is the most common form of greeting between women and as well as men and women. Consequently, the left hand is considered unclean (as Indian people use the left hand as part of their toilet routine), and you should only offer your right hand when greeting someone.

If a person is a professional such as a doctor or professor etc. it is customary to use the person’s title wherever it is possible like Dr. or Professor. Use courtesy titles such as “Mr”, “Mrs”, or “Miss” for those without professional titles and wait to be invited to use first names. Try ‘Sir/ Ma’am’ for strangers and ‘Uncle/ Aunty’ for more familiar people older than you. The use of the Hindi words for brother and sister- “bhai/bhayya” and “behenji” is often used for strangers or people around your age or older. When “ji” is added to the end of a name it signifies a mark of respect.

Physical contact and Body language

Public physical contact between men and women is far less acceptable in India than in other parts of the world. Men and women hardly ever display any form of physical affection in public. Touching of any kind between men and women especially when not related can be interpreted as inappropriate behavior let alone kissing in public.

Indians generally allow an arm’s length space between themselves and others and don’t stand too close while talking with one another. They aren’t very touchy people. However, Indians are not too conscious of their personal space on trains & buses and public areas where everyone is usually squashed together. While Indians do not generally touch as part of communication, it is common to see male friends holding hands or with their arms around each other when they walk. This is usually a sign of friendship.

As the left hand is considered unclean, it is best to use your right hand only to touch someone, accept anything, pass money or pick up merchandise. Don’t touch a religious object with your feet or left hand. If you wish to put your feet up in a train or other form of public transport, take your shoes off first. If you inadvertently touch/kick someone or somebody’s belongings with your foot, it’s customary to extend an apology. In fact you will notice that in some parts of India, if an Indian accidentally touches you with their foot, they will immediately follow that up with a hand gesture that first lightly brushes you with the tips of the fingers and then brings that hand up towards their chest or forehead. Even if nothing is said, this constitutes an apology.

Guest & Gift giving etiquette

If you are invited into an Indian’s home you get a chance to experience Indian hospitality at it’s best. It’s customary to leave your shoes either outside or by the door before entering a home. Guests are always offered a glass of water , a cup of tea or cold drink in all homes and even in offices, sometimes shops too. If you are offered sweets it is rude to blatantly decline…you may instead break of a small piece (with your right hand) and eat it as it is considered as a goodwill gesture.

When invited to an Indian family home for dinner, it is considered good Indian etiquette to give a gift, such as a box of chocolates or flowers. If your host has children, a gift for the child [a toy or a book] is a good gesture and totally acceptable. If you are visiting during a festival, it is customary to carry a box of sweets. Alcohol is culturally not accepted in most parts of India and thus doesn’t make a very good gift as most homes don’t keep alcohol at home. Be cautious in giving a leather item as a gift. Since many Hindus are vegetarians, and part of a dead animal would definitely be an unsuitable gift.

If you’re invited for a meal, it is not unusual for the woman to cook and spend the entire evening serving. Don’t interfere with this custom, and don’t try to lend a hand by venturing into the kitchen — especially if you’re a man. Though this custom is more relaxed in modern homes it is prominent in the more conservative households. Here’s a more detailed guide on Indian Dinning Etiquette.

Indians love to discuss a lot of varied subjects, and more educated individuals will readily get into wonderfully heated debates. Cricket and politics are subjects of great interest for most men. Do exercise discretion, however, when trying to understand the enigma of India’s overwhelming poverty and the caste system. Don’t harshly judge or criticize things you don’t understand fully as Indians can be quite passionate about their nation and will defend it unequivocally. Words are seldom enough to offend an Indian, but avoid strong swear words in the context of an argument or insult.

Ask permission before smoking. It is considered rude to smoke in the presence of elders.

Don’t worry and ask questions

Like I’ve mentioned before Indian’s are very hospitable and accommodating so you really don’t have to worry to much if you are unsure of the social customs and norms. Mostly you won’t even notice if you breach any of the social etiquette’s as they are normally ignored and never brought to your attention. The best way of not offending your host or anyone is to simply ask them if you are unsure about what to do or what is expected of you. 98% of the time they will assure you that you are their guest and all is forgiven so you don’t have to worry about anything. They will however be impressed that you are considerate and want to know more about the country and customs they are so proud of.

Enjoy your stay in India!