Indian etiquette is quite formal, a mix of both Western and Asian culture. India was part of the British Commonwealth for many years and as a result of that connection a considerable volume of the Indian population have been influenced by the British style of etiquette - formal and somewhat conservative. But that is where the British influence ends in India - (other than the cricket of course!). Indian etiquette is quite unique!
India has a majority Hindu population, approximately 80%, about 14% Muslim, 2.4% Christian, 2% Sikh, 0.7% Buddhist, 0.5% Jains and 0.4% other. Of course we are aware of the enormous impact religion has in influencing the customs, etiquette and eating habits of its followers. For example, Hindus offer food to God first before consuming it themselves. Hindus believe that the food can have a profound impact on one's life, and appropriate diet can help in pursuing one's chosen lifestyle. The Hindu compassion for all living beings, leads Hindus to vegetarian practices.
Dining etiquette in India is quite different to Western countries. There it is considered proper Indian etiquette to eat with your hands; this is how the majority of the Indian people eat. It is tradition and part of the Indian culture, it is also an accepted part of Indian etiquette. Although very few people practice this part of Indian etiquette when dining in the 5 star Westernized hotels and restaurants - but try to remember, it is good etiquette to fit in with the culture wherever you may find yourself. If dining with Indian people who do not use cutlery, at least try to eat in the traditional Indian way and fit in with Indian etiquette.
However, if you really cannot participate, even the simplest restaurants will be able to provide a spoon for you to use.
Indian etiquette and good manners vary from region to region. For instance, in North India it is impolite to dirty more than the first two segments of your fingers. Since North Indians eat mostly rotis and drier curries, this isn’t too difficult. Whereas in the South, where they eat lots more rice, and enjoy very wet curries, it is permitted to use your whole hand. As you can see Indian etiquette differs from region to region, so if you are not sure what to do, just observe or ask.
If you do join in and eat with your hands, try not to use your left hand. In Indian etiquette this is usually considered ‘unclean’ and quite offensive.
Part of the traditional Indian etiquette and culture is to share food. Especially on long train journeys, Indian families will be carrying heaps of food and will invite you to have some. Even when only 2 people are dining in a restaurant it is customary to order two different dishes and in keeping with Indian etiquette, share the dishes between you.
While sharing is an important part of Indian etiquette, it is poor and offensive etiquette to share a fork or spoon or to drink from someone’s glass. This also applies to taking a bite of someone else’s sandwich, ice cream or chocolate too. Also, never, ever ‘double dip’!
It is not difficult to eat with your fingers, but there are a few rules of Indian etiquette that have to be observed:
1. The left hand is not used for eating, (even if you are left-handed,) this is considered offensive and unclean.
2. Wait to be served. Remember you are eating with your hands and your right hand will be messy, therefore you will leave the serving spoon all sticky and messy too. Don’t be tempted to use your left hand as it is bad Indian etiquette and considered offensive.
3. The hygiene of jootha:
While sharing is good Indian etiquette and manners, sharing a glass, spoon, drinking bottle etc., coming into contact with another’s spit is called jootha and is considered offensive in many parts of India.
4. In Indian etiquette never offer anyone food from your thali, even if it is in one of the little bowls and you haven't touched it. All the food that is placed on your thali becomes jootha:. There is no precise English equivalent of jootha. I suppose 'contaminated' comes closest in meaning.
Mostly Indian etiquette has the same basic rules as Western etiquette, for example:
5. Wash your hands before and after a meal.
6. Ask for whatever you want instead of reaching out directly or pointing at dishes.
7. Don’t make too much noise; don’t talk with food in your mouth.
8. Wait until everyone else is sitting down before starting to eat.
9. Help clear the dishes, unless it is not acceptable in that particular custom.
10. Don’t talk on your cell phone during the meal and if you must get up in-between, ask to be excused.
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.
Flower etiquette is a little complex. Different flowers have different connotations across India. If you are planning to give flowers, check with the florist as to what would be appropriate Indian etiquette.
Drinking alcohol is culturally not accepted in most parts of India. Many Indian families do not keep alcohol in the home.
However, if your host drinks and keeps drinks at home, a bottle of whisky or wine is an acceptable gift.
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.
Social & Family Etiquette
Before entering an Indian family home, take off your shoes/sandals and leave them outside.
It is considered good manners to arrive 15 to 30 minutes late.
In many Indian homes, women remain mostly in the kitchen. They see their contribution to be - making the guest feel at home in terms of the food they cook [or cooked under their supervision]. Appreciating and praising the food are considered proper etiquette, since it is a compliment to the lady of the house.
It is not good manners to say 'thank you' at the end of the meal. This is considered as an inappropriate and impersonal gesture. However, it is good etiquette to show appreciation and invite your hosts out to dinner in the future.
If you are hosting a social event in India for mainly Indian people, it would be good etiquette to contact every person by
phone personally, even if you have already sent a printed invitation. Indian people do not normally 'R.S.V.P.
Invitations should be sent out early, and follow up phone calls should be made close to the day of the event.
In Western etiquette this would be considered extremely bad mannered, but be prepared for the fact that your guests will more than likely be late, since arriving punctually for a social invitation is considered bad manners in India. Don’t be
surprised if some of your guests do not turn up at all, even after promising they will be there.
Here’s another surprise, it is good etiquette if some of your Indian guests bring their own guests. Such behavior is considered as a sign of their close informal relationship with the host, and not bad manners. In such situations, the host is expected to remain warm, gracious and welcoming.
This surprising etiquette can make catering a nightmare! It is sensible to make arrangements for a buffet rather than a formal 'sit-down' meal and make sure there is plenty to go around.
Indian etiquette considers it important to use a person’s title wherever it is possible, titles such as doctor or professor etc. 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’ (or Chachaji, Mausiji etc) for familiar people. For a stranger who is not so old, it is better to suffix the name with ‘ji’, as a mark of respect.
Status is often determined by a person's age, university education, caste, and profession. Be aware that government employment is considered to be more prestigious than private business.
Traditional Hindus do not have family surnames.
Muslim names are usually derived from Arabic. A Muslim woman is known by her given name plus "binti" ("daughter of") plus her father's name.
Indian Sikhs will have their given name followed by either "Singh" for men or "Kaur" for women.
Some Westernized Indians drop the "bin" or "binti" from their name.
Some general rules of good manners and etiquette in India:
1. Indians of all ethnic groups disapprove of public displays of affection between men and women.
2. Most Hindus avoid public contact between men and women.
3. Other religions such as Sikhs and Christians, will also avoid public contact between the sexes.
4. In larger cities, men and Westernized Indian women may offer to shake hands with foreign men and sometimes with foreign women.
5. Never keep your purse or wallet in your back pocket.
6. Standing tall with your hands on your hips is perceived as aggressive.
7. Pointing with your finger is considered bad manners and rude.
8. Whistling in public is very bad etiquette and is not acceptable.
9. Never point your feet at another person as feet are considered unclean.
10. Stand up when an elder or a guest enters the room and don’t sit until you’ve offered them a seat.
11. Offer a glass of water (and preferably a cup of tea) to anyone who steps into your home/office.
12. Stand when the national anthem (of any country) is playing. Show respect to all flags and all religious symbols.
13. Do not comment on personal appearances or clothes in a negative way; if you cannot say something complimentary, do not say anything at all.
Touching - Public physical contact between men and women is far less acceptable in India than in other parts of the world.
Some Indians - particularly those who live in the larger cities and have traveled - understand that Western men and women may shake hands (or even kiss) as expressions of social friendship, but you should be cautious of casually touching an Indian woman, especially in small towns and villages. Even the slightest touch can have a sexual connotation.
Traditionally, Indian people use the left hand as part of their toilet routine. Consequently, the left hand is considered unclean, and you should only offer your right hand when greeting someone.
Don't touch a religious object with your feet or left hand.
When confronted with bureaucracy and IST (Indian "Stretchable" Time), maintain your cool. Schedules are bound to go awry and
government offices are notoriously inefficient, so there's simply no point in losing your temper. You'd be well advised to
adopt a similar attitude with wealthy and "important" Indian men who, as a matter of course, jump the line. Rather than fly into a rage, point out the lack of consideration firmly and earnestly, or better still, smile beatifically and practice a meditation technique.
Indian etiquette can be seen as a bit erratic when it comes to keeping appointments. But that would only be on Western etiquette standards. However, the Indian people do appreciate punctuality and keeping one's commitments. However, many visitors to India find it very disconcerting that often the Indian people themselves are quite casual in keeping their time
commitments. One of the reasons for this is that in their mind, time is generally not considered as the objective yardstick for planning and scheduling one's activities. Rather, for most, the plans and schedules are contingent on other people and events, and therefore can-and do-get changed and you won’t be kept informed.
In Indian business etiquette there is a distinct difference in the cultures of the government departments and business organizations. Compared to a business organization, it is normally more difficult to get an appointment with officials in a government department. Also, in the government departments, there is a greater likelihood that your appointment may be
rescheduled or that you may be kept waiting for many hours before you are actually seen.
Normal office hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. However, in some large cities [e.g., Mumbai], some places of business start working earlier to avoid congested traffic while commuting. Increasingly, among the business organizations, there is also a
trend towards a longer working day, which can start as early as 7:30 a.m. and last till 8:00 p.m.
Business Card Etiquette
Presenting and exchanging business cards are a necessary part of Indian etiquette when doing business in India. You must bring plenty since people exchange business cards even in non-business situations.
Indian dress etiquette for women: your attire will often signal your status, and casual dress will make it more difficult for you to elicit respect. Loose, cool clothing that covers up as much as possible. Exposed flesh suggests that you're too poor to dress properly, or that you're shameless about flaunting your body.
Tight clothes are also considered shameless in Indian etiquette and culture; the more you can disguise your shape, the better.
Women visiting public beaches should be as discreet as possible and avoid sunbathing on empty beaches. In mosques you need to make sure your shoulders are covered -- it's worth purchasing a scarf for this and keeping it in your bag at all times -- and
in Sikh gurudwaras you need to keep your head covered. To avoid offending people who are of a totally different culture to yours it is wise to do a quick study of Eastern and Asian culture if you are visiting or doing business in their country. In this case, a brief study of Indian etiquette will certainly save you a lot of time and embarrassment. It is wise to be informed and prepared.
Men should avoid shorts, which are considered quite bizarre in Indian etiquette and culture.
In certain Hindu temples - particularly in South India a man may be required to wear a lungi (a long piece of cloth worn like a kilt) and remove his shirt. Always check what is appropriate in Indian etiquette, check what others are wearing before venturing in, and approach slowly so that someone can intervene before you offend the sanctity of the holy sanctuary.
Shoes are never worn in places of worship - you are even required to remove your shoes when entering certain churches.
Some museums and historical monuments may also require you to remove your shoes, and you should extend a similar courtesy when
entering someone's home - this is a normal way of life in Indian etiquette.
In Sikh gurudwaras you are expected to wash your feet after removing your shoes.
Normal business dress for men is a suit and tie. However, since India has a warm climate, often just a full-sleeved shirt with a tie is also acceptable. It is also important to select neutral colors, which are subdued and not very bright.
In most companies, particularly in the IT sector, however, the dress code is much more casual. It is not unusual to find people wearing T-shirts and jeans with sneakers.
However, as a visitor, conservative, though not formal, dress is advisable.
For foreign women, pant-suits or long skirts, which cover the knees, are more acceptable to wear. The neckline of the blouse or the top should be high.
For women, a salwar-suit is also acceptable for business dress.
Jeans with a T-shirt or short-sleeved shirt are acceptable as casual wear in informal situations for both men and women.
You can wear casual dress if invited to a social gathering. However, if a foreigner wears an Indian costume [kurta-pajama for men, and sari or salwar-suit for women], this kind of dress is also appreciated, and often seen as a gesture of friendship.
It is good manners and etiquette, to observe the hierarchy in business and social situations. It can also prove to be time-saving! As a sign of respect, the subordinates will stand up when the boss enters the meeting room. Your best option is to follow suit and greet the boss personally. Generally there is a great respect for age, loyalty to one’s family, community or group. The practice of certain religious rituals are still observed in some Indian work places.
In a business meeting it is considered rude and poor etiquette to just jump in with work related conversation. Meetings usually start with small talk about non-work related topics. Personal questions about your family, children, trip etc., are
not considered rude and prying, it is just part of the friendly, Indian social etiquette.
Hospitality is a key value in Indian etiquette and the guest is always considered first. The host normally goes out of his or her way to accommodate the requirements of the guests. Any breach of etiquette by the guest is normally ignored and never
brought to his or her attention.
Even though Indian etiquette is somewhat formal in a lot of areas, the social etiquette can be quite casual. When they say ‘drop in any time,’ they mean just that. Don’t be surprised if they just pop in to visit without letting you know first.
Try to remember that Indian people are very sensitive to refusals of their hospitality; it will be good manners and etiquette to let them down gently with a promise to accept any future invitation.
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