Important Indian etiquette
Your manners may be impeccable in your own culture, but remember that different cultures deem different things polite and rude. There are many small things that can offend someone. Just think, for instance, about how you feel when someone makes a rude hand gesture at you.
Indian culture can be a minefield of social faux pas, but keeping a few rules in mind and being sensitive to the customs of your guests can make the difference between them feeling as though they have been sworn at by their host or are treated like royalty.
One of the strictest sets of manners in Indian culture is that relating to food. These are a few of the key elements:
Never handle food with your left hand. The left hand is considered unclean (this also holds true for Middle Eastern cultures), as it is used for performing acts such as removing shoes and wiping your bottom. Thus, for your Indian guest handling his or her food with your left hand may be considered as rude as spitting in it. Depending on how traditional your guest is, he or she may not feel offended, but you really shouldn’t take the chance.
Many Indian people wash their hands before and after eating and, because they often eat with their hands, Indian people are conscious of keeping their fingernails short and clean. If you prepare or serve food to Indian guests, you may want to keep this in mind. When you bring their food to the table make sure that your hands and fingernails are impeccably clean. Your Indian guests who eat with their hands will probably also appreciate a finger bowl and plenty of serviettes.
Many Indians frown upon wasting food, but a Hindu household is also never supposed to allow their guest’s plate to become empty. Whether your Indian guest clears his plate or not should not be taken as an indication of how much he enjoyed the food, so always enquire as to whether they are satisfied and if there is anything else they would like.
Indian diners don’t eat particularly fast or particularly slowly, and usually they gauge how fast they eat based on the other diners’ eating pace. This is lucky for waiters and waitresses, as everyone at the table will usually finish eating at the same time. If they don’t, always wait for the last person to finish eating before you clear the plates (which is also a good idea for many other cultures).
If you usually provide a bottle of wine for guests, check first with you Indian visitors if they want one. Many Indian guests do not drink alcohol – orthodox Muslims don’t drink alcohol at all, and in some other Indian cultures consumption of alcohol is frowned upon.
If you are going to suggest an Indian restaurant to your guests, make sure it is a good one. Many Indians are discerning diners.
About 40% of the Indian population is vegetarian, and many non-vegetarians don’t eat pork or beef, so make sure there are a variety of other options on your menu, including several vegetarian dishes. If you offer a set menu, offer a vegetarian alternative for the dishes.
Body language and gestures vary between cultures, and many Indian body language rules are different from those in South African cultures. Be conscious of the subtle ways you use your body to communicate with your Indian guests.
Pointing your finger is often considered rude and offensive among Indians; rather gesture with your whole hand or thumb when around Indian guests.
Be aware of personal space. The distance that people leave between each other varies between cultures, and in Indian culture the distance considered polite is about an arm’s length away. Personal space is important to many Indians, so be mindful of this cultural norm.
For many of us the head gesture for yes is nodding. If you ask an Indian guest a question – such as whether they would like fresh towels – they may respond with one of the head gestures that mean yes in their culture. This may include smiling and jerking their head backwards or moving their head in a figure eight to indicate yes.
You probably don’t want to indicate “go away” to your guests. Unfortunately, the gesture of waving one’s hand back and forth, which to many of us looks like hello, might be interpreted by an Indian as “no” or “go away”.
Be aware of your feet and footwear around Indian guests. Feet are often considered unclean and for some holy men and women feet are sacred. Never point your shoes at an Indian guest – many consider this an insult.
Calling a person to you, something frequently done, especially in restaurants, is indicated differently among many Indians, and for many being beckoned rudely is quite an insult. The best way to call a person over, and the way that your guests may call you over, is by making a scratching motion with your fingers together and palm down.
Touching others is a sensitive matter among many Indians. Keep in mind that some of the rules might be different from your own.
Shaking hands is a usual greeting among South Africans, and in more informal settings we often hug others. These are probably not your best bet when greeting Indian guests. Shaking hands is acceptable among some Indian guests, but if your guest is a woman you should wait for her to offer her hand to you, as many women do not touch other people. If you are a woman and your male Indian guest refuses a handshake, don’t be offended as often more traditional Indian men will refrain from touching a woman. As a sign of respect for their culture, you may want to greet your guests with the Namaste gesture instead of a handshake, which is done by placing your palms together beneath your chin (as if praying) and bowing slightly.
Never touch an Indian guest’s head. Many Indian people consider the head a sensitive place on the body that should not be touched by others.
If you accidentally touch an Indian guest with your feet or shoes, apologise immediately and sincerely. Among some Indian people this is considered such an offence that if they accidentally touch someone, even a complete stranger, with their foot, they will kiss the part of a person that their foot accidentally touched.
Indian people can be very proper when it comes to the way they speak and the manner of speaking.
For instance, you will probably be best off if you address guests by their titles (Doctor, Professor, Mr, Miss, etc.) until invited to use their first names.
Likewise, Indian guests take swearing very seriously. You should try to refrain from bad language in front of any guest, but it is particularly important to be aware of your language around Indian visitors.
Don’t be shocked if your Indian guests ask you questions that may seem a bit nosey, for example about your family or what you earn. Showing this kind of interest in another person and his or her life is common in India, and asking your guests the same questions they ask you will show that you are interested in them as well.
Being respectful of your guests’ cultures can make a huge difference to their holiday, and affects how welcome they feel quite strongly. Try to take a moment to familiarise yourself with the customs of foreign visitors, follow their lead, and above all, be respectful and willing to learn from them.