India is one country where cultural norms and customs are vastly different from what many Western travelers are familiar with. Indian society is generally conservative, importance is given to hierarchy, there are strict ideas about impurity, and social divisions and inequalities are glaringly apparent. At the same time, Indians are extremely hospitable and the country's cultural differences and unfamiliar customs are part of what makes India such a fascinating and eye-opening place to visit. Indians don't expect foreigners to be familiar with local customs and etiquette and are generally graciously tolerant and forgiving of any unintended slips. But its always a good idea to be tuned into cultural cues and the basic "do's and don'ts" before you travel there. Here are 10 pointers on what you shouldn't do in India.
1. Don't keep your shoes on when entering a home or temple.
In India, footwear that's worn outside is considered unclean and impure and is always removed before entering a home or left just inside the doorway. The same is true of temples and other places considered to be sacred. Some other more unexpected places I've had to remove my footwear include the dentist's office, the office of a courier company, and even at some shops. In any case, you'll know you need to remove your shoes when you see a motley collection of footwear scattered outside the door. For this reason, when traveling in India it's practical to wear slip-on shoes or sandals that can be easily removed. Indoors, people are generally barefoot or sometimes wear indoor footwear like flip flops or slippers. If you're not comfortable being barefoot it's okay to wear socks.
2. Don't use your left hand to hand over things.
The left hand is considered impure in India because this is the hand reserved for ablutions, while the right hand is used for eating. Avoid handing over objects -- including money, and especially food -- with your left hand. Some people may refuse to accept anything given with the left hand while others may not make a fuss even though they may find it off-putting. People also avoid touching footwear with the right hand.
3. Avoid PDA.
India is a conservative society where public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon. Avoid cuddling or kissing your significant other in public, because this is sure to raise eyebrows. Even men and women holding hands is a rare sight -- except maybe on park benches! On the other hand (pun intended), you'll often see members of the same sex -- especially young men -- holding hands in a gesture of friendship which can be surprising for Westerners.
4. Don't wear revealing clothes.
In India, a lot of importance is given to personal appearance and presentation, and judgments are easily made based on appearances. People of all walks of life are careful to be neatly groomed and dressed in clean and well-ironed clothes.
Different unwritten dress codes often apply depending on where you're going, especially for women. People dress in traditional Indian clothing if they're going to a wedding, the temple, and even a concert of classical music. But in bars and high-end restaurants, western wear seems to be more appropriate, especially in big cities.
As a foreigner you'll already stand out and be subject to curious stares, and you won't want to draw even more attention to yourself. For women, dressing conservatively means making sure your legs and shoulders are completely covered. Tight, revealing clothing and showing too much skin are considered to be “shameful” and for this reason, the traditional “salwaar kameez” -- a three-piece outfit made up of a long tunic, baggy pants, and a “dupatta” (a scarf draped over the chest) -- is as modest as Indian clothing gets. That said, you will see Indian women wearing shorts, tank tops, and short skirts but only in very specific environments and situations like at trendy bars and nightclubs, and in hotels and resorts.
At beaches, people tend to bathe fully clothed and for this reason a woman wearing a swimsuit (even a one piece) will attract unwanted attention. The vibe at swimming pools and beaches at high-end hotels and resorts is a lot more relaxed and bathing suits are expected.
Men have less of a dress code to be aware of, but shorts are deemed to be informal wear to be worn only at home or in vacation settings. Also, in formal or business settings, sandals or open shoes are considered too casual.
5. Don't sit with the soles of your feet facing others.
Sitting on the floor is very common in India and people will almost always sit cross-legged. Avoid sitting with your legs stretched out in front of you and the soles of your feet facing towards others. This is seen as rude and disrespectful behavior because of the belief that the feet are impure.
6. Women should avoid being too friendly to men.
In India, relations between men and women in public tend to be very formal. Observe Indian women and you'll see that they interact with men they don't know in a very businesslike and impersonal way. While in some cultures offering a smile and small talk is simply part of being polite and friendly, smiling and being overly friendly can be easily misinterpreted by Indian men who aren't used to such behavior.
7. Think before giving to beggars.
Dealing with beggars can be a challenge. Networks of professional beggars organized by ringleaders are more common than you might imagine, and for this reason, giving handouts should not be encouraged. Giving to a trusted charity is a better way of trying to make a contribution. Many travelers have found that innocently handing out candy, coins or the ever -solicited “school pen” to groups of children can become easily overwhelming when a small group quickly grows into a small insistent crowd.
8. Women should avoid smoking in public.
Smoking is considered taboo in India, especially for women. Unfortunately quick (and unpleasant) judgments are made about a woman who smokes. It's rare to see someone (both men and women) light up in public, except in very specific places like bars, nightclubs, upscale restaurants, and Western cafe chains like Starbucks.
9. Don't call older people by their first name.
In a country that loves formalities and has a great respect for elders, calling older people or people in authority, like teachers or a boss, by their first name is seen as disrespectful. “Sir” and “madam” are the default terms to address people you don't know, while “auntie” and “uncle” are what young people call those who are their parents' age or older. In North India, tacking on “ji” to someone's name is a way of showing respect.
10. Avoid commenting about social issues.
Indians are very sensitive about how they're perceived in the world and don't appreciate foreigners telling them how they should deal with social issues like poverty, the caste system, and arranged marriage, which are a lot more complex than they appear. Instead of preaching, get insights into these issues by asking people for their opinion and perspectives.
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