India is a colourful, multicultural country and your students will never forget this once-in-a-lifetime experience to explore a culture so different to their own. But there are some rules of etiquette they should be aware of, in order to avoid causing offence.
One of the biggest culture shocks your group is likely to come across in India is at the dining table.
Firstly, Indians don’t normally use cutlery and instead use their fingers. Here is a great guide to eating with your fingers.
The most important rule when it comes to dining is that you must only eat with your right hand. This is because in India the left hand is used for sanitation, cleaning feet and other ‘unclean’ tasks, as is the case in most of Asia.
You can get away with using your left hand to hold a utensil or a cup but you should never use it to eat, pass food or wipe your mouth as this will be considered unsavoury.
You should also avoid eating or drinking anything that has touched another person’s lips. If you are offered food or a drink that is to be passed around, you should not let it touch your lips.
And this is just basic hygiene, but it should be noted that washing hands before eating is customary.
You should also avoid asking for beef or pork if you do not see them on the menu – they’re likely not on the menu because of the restaurant owner’s (or their clientele’s) religious beliefs, as Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork.
India is in general a conservative society. Women should dress modestly – meaning legs and shoulders should be covered. Shorts and short skirts are certainly to be avoided. Men must always wear a top in public and should wear light trousers rather than shorts.
If you intend on entering a religious building, most will expect all visitors to cover their heads and legs. Women should also cover their limbs (and this is a good rule for men to follow too).
English is widely spoken in India. You may notice that a very formal register is used and you’re likely to be referred to as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. It’s worth being aware that the more relaxed register used in everyday life in Britain may seem rude to Indians. And swearing is taken very seriously and is likely to shock, so should be avoided at all times.
Haggling is expected in the markets and it can be good fun! Start by offering half the stated price. If you get to a point where the difference is minimal (e.g. 50 cents), you should relent and pay. However, if you’re not happy to pay the price, you are always free to walk away!
If you take a cab or rickshaw, you should always agree the price before getting in. You could write the price down in a notepad, to show the driver you have a record of what you’ve agreed.
Tipping is expected in India and you may find some people just come right out with it and for a tip! A good rule is to tip about 15% in restaurants.
A word about feet
If you enter a religious building or someone’s home, you will be expected to remove your shoes. If you’re also wearing socks, it is normally acceptable to keep these on.
You may also come across shops with a pile of shoes outside. In this case, you should also take your shoes off and leave them at the door.
You should never point the soles of your feet at a person, as this is considered very offensive (as is the case across most of Asia).
Any accidental contact with someone’s foot should be immediately followed by an apology.
Other things to note
It should be noted that kissing and embracing are not considered appropriate in public in India.
It’s considered rude to point with your finger in India. Instead you should gesture with your whole hand.
If you need to decline a request or invitation, you should not do so outright as this could cause the person to lose face. Instead, say something non-committal, such as ‘I’ll try’ or ‘maybe’.
It’s not common for women to touch men in India and it is best to avoid this in case it is misconstrued. Rather than shaking hands when greeting, putting your hands together as if praying, and saying ‘Namaste’ is a safe alternative.
And, as mentioned above, the left hand is considered unclean, so you should use your right hand to pass things to people (or with both hands if you wish to show a greater amount of respect) or shake hands.