The cultural differences between Europeans and Indians are so vast that one could write a book about them. Below is an overview of some points to take into account when mixing with the locals.
"Yes and no": Maybe the most confusing cultural difference is the usage of yes and no. To begin with, ‘yes’ is not indicated by nodding but by quickly moving the chin to and fro, causing the head to ‘wobble’ (you should try it!). Secondly, whether spoken or ‘wobbled’, ‘yes’ has a much broader meaning. Besides ‘yes’, it can indicate ‘eh’, or ‘understood’, or even something like ‘that’s probably right’, or ‘I have heard you, but I’m not interested in what you are saying’. ‘Yes’ when uttered by an Indian hence doesn’t give you a clue as to what they mean. ‘No’ is a word Indians do not like to say too often, for example when asked if the bus to Colombo stops here. If offered a piece of liquorice, nine out of ten Indians will find the taste foul but the chances of them saying ‘no’ when asked if they like it are very slim.
Courtesy rules: Indians traditionally greet with a namasté, hand palms pressed together and held upright in front of the face. The higher you hold your hands, the more respect you express. In addition, with members of the same sex, you can often shake hands. Address everyone with ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. Do not raise your voice, even if something does not go the way you like. It is better to ask for someone higher in rank, as delegation of decisions is not a strong point in Indian organisations. Presents are not unpacked immediately, but put aside. Showing eagerness is seen as a bad habit.
Gifts: Do not be surprised or offended if you are not immediately thanked upon presenting a gift. The gift will usually be put to one side, unopened. This is not a sign of ingratitude. In India showing eagerness towards gifts is seen as a sign of greed, and not at all appreciated.
Dress: Adult men wearing shorts are seen as ridiculous by Indians, and women wearing shorts as outrageous. The local population likes to dress formally for important events. Should you be invited to a wedding, ask about any dress code. Swimming naked or topless is prohibited. In a bikini, you will look foolish. Indian women bathe mostly in their sari. In practice, wearing a bikini results in persistent stares from Indian men. A bathing suit will make sunbathing a far more relaxed experience.
Left and right: The right hand is used to eat, while the left hand is reserved for cleaning one’s behind. Should you be eating a meal with Indians using your hands, remember to only use your right hand. Changing hands is considered foul by Indians. Do not touch anyone with your left hand.
Appointments: We are from a hectic culture in which time equals money and appointments tend to be met punctually, or the day’s schedule will be messed up. Indians do not have this problem. Not that they will always be late: it is possible that they didn’t have anything else to do and that they decide to arrive an hour early.
Privacy: Staring is not impolite and most Indians do not have the sense of space as we know it. They will come nearer to you than Europeans, like to join you when reading your book and they will study it meticulously as soon as you put it down. They may enter the room without knocking and they may stay around when they are done. It is up to you to indicate your boundaries.
Men and women: In India, men and women treat each other differently than westerners. You will hardly ever see a man and a woman walking with their arms around each other. Physical contact in public between men and women is being limited as much as possible. To show your affection in public is likewise viewed as highly inappropriate. In stations and some cinemas, there are even separate cash tills for women and in trains there are separate compartments. However, the rules for the contacts between the sexes are rather liberal. As a man it is better not to sit next to a woman and not to talk to her. This rule applies in particular to women in their fertile age. Female tourists are free to make contact with Indian women. For western women, it is particularly important to take into account behavioural codes vis-à-vis Indian men. As a western woman, it is better not to look Indian men in the eye. Many men will think you are after something.
Visiting holy places: Holy places must be entered barefoot, with the exception of churches. Hindu temples you must enter without head dress. In some temples, and always in the garbha griha, the holiest place of a temple, you are not welcome. To visit a mosque, wear clothes that cover you up. Sometimes you are asked to cover your head. During a service, men are separated from the women. When walking around a Buddhist stupa, walk to the left, so clockwise. It is not appreciated when tourists make pictures in front of a Buddha statue. In Jain monuments it is not permitted to take leather objects inside (shoes, bags, belts etc). Sikh temples should be entered covered up and with something to cover your head.
Begging: Begging is partly a socially accepted activity. Through giving alms, Hindus can improve their karma and well-to-do Muslims according to the Koran are required to give 4% of their income to the less well off. However, most inhabitants of India will loudly show that they disapprove of the same practice. Beggars are called ‘bone-idle’; ‘those people that want to get their daily handful of rice without working for it’. Shoestring has the rule never to give money to children, if anything some fruit or something else to eat. (Preferably not sweets, there are hardly any dentists in these parts.) It is accepted to give to elderly people or invalids. The truth behind each beggar can be very different. One or two indeed have to beg for their food, but most are forced to pay for their place in a house with this activity. Besides, the number of drug and alcohol addicts is on the increase. It is wisest to give to a well-reputed charity. It is legitimate for beggars to sit near the exit door of temples and mosques and wait for baksheesh (alms). Both Hindus and Muslims have a system similar to our way of giving indulgences.
Prices and haggling: Find out the real price of something. Paying too much leads to inflation and paying too little harms the seller. In practice, the price of an item will always be set higher than what you are expected to pay for it. It is better to see it as a game, which can be fun to play. In the eyes of the local population, westerners are always on holiday and earn loads of money. This can give them the feeling of being underdeveloped and poor. Try to give them a more balanced picture by describing daily life in the west. A cup of tea in a simple Indian street stall costs some 5 rupees, while we would easily pay 100 rupees at home.
Be aware at all times that you are a guest in a country with different social customs than you are used to. Particularly during the festivals, it is important to adapt to the local standards, however strange you may find them.