I find that the more I travel to countries around the world and am exposed to the many different cultures, the more fascinated I become with understanding the origins and the traditions. India is a captivating country and I have been fortunate to have been given the opportunity of spending an extended period of time living in Mumbai, and soaking up this culture.
Setting aside my Westerners preconceived notions of what my experience would be like, together with my own prejudices of what I consider right and wrong (born out of my own cultural upbringing) can sometimes be a more difficult task than I had anticipated. I find India to be quite polarizing. Having experiences that are truly enlightening and life changing are contrasted with times of utter despair at what I am witnessing, and make me want to run to the nearest airport.
There are so many subtle differences on display everyday that I thought I would share a few of my observations. When I tell my stories to my girlfriends living in the US, I am always surprised at how enthralled they are and so full of questions. Sometimes we take for granted experiences that others find all too difficult to imagine.
Understanding the why behind the behaviors I am observing helps me comprehend and process what I am experiencing. Let me share a few of my discoveries and ask for your opinions to further my own understanding. Thankfully, Indians are very forgiving towards guests who aren’t always aware of the traditions and cultures as long as they are seen to be making an effort to be respectful.
India has a very hierarchical culture, in part due to the prevalence of Hinduism and the caste system.. Indians seem very conscious of social order and status relative to other people. As such, the eldest, or most senior person in a group should be greeted first. A handshake between men is still a common sight although the more traditional ‘namaste’ greeting where you place both hands together at chest height and do a slight bow is also quite a common sight.
I was surprised, however, to find that men are very reluctant to shake a woman’s hand and will offer a Namaste greeting almost exclusively. It is considered taboo for a man to touch a woman, which I find hard to understand considering other issues going on in India surrounding men touching women. That said, many Indian business people are now used to us Western women automatically proffering our hands. As a general rule, women should wait for the man to take the lead (I cant quite believe I just wrote that last sentence in 2015, but I did).
I am sure that dining etiquette in the larger cities such as Mumbai or Delhi might differ from that on display in the rural villages. However there are a couple of fundamentals that are worth explaining. Indians eat with their hands. Utensils are usually on offer, but typically only a tablespoon and fork. You will notice that only the right hand is used for picking up and eating food. Never use your left hand to eat or even pass food, and ideally keep the left hand off the table at your side. Oprah got herself into a pickle when she made a huge faux pas with this issue when visiting India in 2012. Indians consider the left hand unclean, as it is associated with matters concerned with going to the bathroom (need I say more).
Serving order always makes me feel slighted as everywhere I have visited around the world the wait staff have always served the women at the table first. Not so in India. The honored guest would be served first, then the eldest man, then the rest of the men, then the children, and finally the women. Yes, that explains a lot now!
While it is common to order a number of dishes for the entire table to share, family style is not how I would describe the way it is done in India. The servers seem to be very protective of their dishes and will want to serve each person individually. Even when you try to reach for a dish to refill your own plate, the server will rush to your side and try and grapple the dish from your hands. This has taken me a lot of time to get used to as it means you are constantly being scrutinized by the wait staff who are desperate to anticipate your needs. It is considered rude to refuse food and the servers will certainly not want to see an empty plate so never feel obliged to eat all the food you are served. An empty plate means you are still hungry so leave a small amount to show that you are now satisfied.
Similarly when refilling your glass, if the wait staff are not doing this you should never refill your own but it is acceptable to refill your neighbors glass. I’m not sure why, and would love to find out if anyone knows?
Most weeks when I am in India I will attend a group meeting of fellow expats, usually held at an expats home. When searching for the apartment, it is generally easy to find where the group is meeting due to the pile of shoes just outside the main door. It is considered good manners to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home, although some expats are more relaxed about this rule. Some Indian households will have shoes that are only worn inside their home. My dentist and doctor will make me put a protective covering over my shoes instead of making me walk barefoot in their office. However, you should note that when visiting temples you will always be required to remove your shoes.
Feet are considered to be unclean in a spiritual way although in a practical manner they often are, as you will see quite a few people walking barefoot in the streets. It is also considered bad form to point your feet at someone and you should not touch another person with your feet. I find this last statement quite interesting as it fascinates me how many times I am in a waiting room, an airport lounge, or even a coffee shop and notice a man without shoes half sitting on one foot while using his hands to play with the other foot?
When I first arrived in India I was given one day of cultural training. One of the items that stands out from this meeting was the fact that I was told not to hold hands with my husband and never to kiss him in public (I had asked about a peck on the cheek to say goodbye, nothing more than PG rated). The reason given was that it would cause offence, plus I was too old!
There are a couple of issues I have with this. For one, you see men holding hands all the time. This is evidently a sign of ‘brotherliness’ nothing more. Kissing and/or embracing in India are culturally seen as part of sex and therefore should never be done in public. However, in my ‘liberal’ city of Bandra in Mumbai there are many couples that congregate on the Bandstand area to ‘illicitly’ hold hands, but just not as old as me! I should point out that I am not that ancient, just made to feel that way sometimes.
As you can imagine, this can be a very frustrating issue, so please be aware of this potential problem. Indians really do not like to say no, either verbally or non verbally. Fear of disappointing is at the root of this issue. So if you ask an Indian a question and they simply answer yes, please never assume that means what you think it does. Yes could mean that they don’t understand what you have just said and so yes is the quickest way to stop the conversation. Yes could mean that they will try and do what you have asked, but offer no guarantee. Yes could mean that they have no intention of doing what you have just asked but they do not wish to disappoint you with a negative answer. I must say that this issue is probably the single biggest reason my husbands blood pressure remains higher when we are in India.
This brings me onto the famous Indian head wobble. Studying this is fascinating, and I have noticed that a couple of my husbands western colleagues have now started to adopt the movement, albeit subconsciously. Watch the video above to learn more.
Thank you for reading my post about the Indian customs I have observed, and tried to understand, from my time spent in Mumbai. I hope you have found the information useful, and not at all offensive. I try my best to be a global citizen and respect cultures around the world, even when they are so very different from my own.