The cultural differences between Europeans and Neapli are so vast that one could write a book about them. Below you will find an overview of the most important points to take into account when interacting with the local population.
Yes and no: Maybe the most confusing cultural difference between Nepali (and Indians) and Europeans is the usage of the words yes and no. To begin with, ‘yes’ is not indicated by nodding but by quickly moving the chin to and fro, which causes 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 a Nepali therefore doesn’t give you a clue as to what they mean. ‘No’ is a word Nepali do not like to say too often, for example when asked if the bus to Pokhara stops here. When offered a piece of liquorice, nine out of ten Nepali will find the taste foul but the chances of them saying ‘no’ when asked if they like it are very slim.
Courtesy rules: Nepali traditionally greet with a namasté, with the palms of the hands pressed together and held upright in front of the face. The higher you hold your hands, the more respect you express. Alternatively, members of the same sex often shake hands. Address everyone with ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. Do not raise your voice, even if something does not go the way you want it to. It is better to ask for someone higher in rank to come and deal with a problem, as delegation of decisions is not a strong point in Nepali 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 fact, in Nepal showing eagerness towards gifts is seen as a sign of greed and is not at all appreciated.
Dress: Adult men wearing shorts are seen as ridiculous by Nepali, and women wearing shorts are perceived as outrageous. The local population likes to dress formally for important events. Should you be invited to a wedding, ask about any dress precepts. Swimming naked or topless is prohibited. Also in a bikini, you look a fool. Nepali women bathe mostly in their sari. If you were to wear a bikini, it results in persistent stares from men. A bathing suit will make sunbathing a 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 Nepali using your hands, remember to only use your right hand. Nepali consider changing hands foul. Do not touch anyone with your left hand.
Appointments: We are from a highly hectic culture in which time equals money and appointments tend to be met punctually, or the day’s schedule will be messed up. Nepali 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 Nepali do not have the sense of privacy 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 Nepal, 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 Nepali women. For western women, it is particularly important to take into account behavioural codes vis-à-vis Nepali men. As a western woman, it is better not to look Nepali 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 headdress. 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 Nepal 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 has 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.
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.