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Cultural Pointers

India offers a diverse, varied, and fascinating culture.  It has a long history of tolerance, and has been able to accommodate tremendous variety in culture, religion and social levels.  Yet at heart, India is grounded in tradition.  Even among young Indian Yuppies there are distinctly Indian ways of doing things - ideas of fashion, gender roles, attitudes toward work, family, and life.

Having a basic awareness of some of the common perceptions and differences in attitudes in India will help visitors better understand what's going on around them, and perhaps reduce culture-based annoyances.  Here are a few points visitors may want to consider.

The basics of politeness

One's culture impresses from an early age that some actions are polite, others rude.  While there are some universally accepted standards of politeness (like don't spit on people) other standards may vary by culture.  Recognize that some behavior you may consider polite may not have the same emphasis in another culture, and vice versa.

Left hand right hand - A very important, yet subtle, factor in India is avoiding the use of your left hand when interacting with others.  In India, you use your left hand to clean yourself after using the toilet so it has extremely negative associations.  ALWAYS give and receive anything with your right hand, or at least with both hands together.  If you give change, accept something, or eat something with your left hand, it will be noticed, though politely not commented on.  Using your right hand only is one of the easiest things for Westerners to forget to do, but it makes a difference.   A friend who has been coming to India for more than a decade, but only recently made it a point to only use his right hand, said he really noticed how much people appreciated him making an attempt.  It may mean a bit of extra effort at first, but it will be appreciated, and will soon become automatic.  Even if you are left handed, try and adjust as much as possible.

Be careful of your shoes - Shoes, and to a lesser degree, feet, also have unclean associations.  Keep you shoes on the floor.  You can put bare feet up on a chair or train seat, but not your shoes.  And try not to touch others with your feet or shoes.  You'll notice Indians on the train making a simple gesture of apology if they accidentally touch someone with their feet.  It is a quick gesture where the right hand, palm out, is extended toward the point of contact and drawn back, palm in, toward the chin or chest.  Remove your shoes for places of worship, when visiting people's homes, and sometimes even in some shops and businesses.  Look about, and if you see shoes arranged near the door, assume you should take yours off too.

Staring is okay - Staring at strangers is a Western cultural taboo that does not carry the same weight here.  Many people feel quite free to stare at anything, or anyone, different.  Most Western visitors, at some point in their time here, will experience intense, and disconcerting, staring.  Interpreting this as rudeness is unproductive.  Remember, you are quite an unusual creature in this setting.  Many people on the streets will have had little contact with foreigners.  What you look like, what you do, and how you behave will generate intense interest.  Don't get angry or try to "educate" people on the idea that staring is rude.  It will only increase curiosity, and frustrate you.  Relax.  Let people look.  After all, you are doing your own exploration of the people and places here.  What you are reacting to is not so much the staring, but your cultural interpretation of the action.

Getting personal - People you meet may ask you questions that seem extremely personal from a Western perspective.  How old are you? How much money do you make? How much did that cost? These are questions Westerners are conditioned not to ask directly, though indirect queries often draw out the information.  Here, people who want to know are more likely to ask directly, and mean no rudeness in doing so.  Try not to get huffy.  In fact, conversations like these are great to turn around and ask details of the other person that you may not normally ask.  Find out the reality behind at least some of the many faces you'll encounter in your travels.

Subtleties of language - It is a feature of most cultures that indirect speech is the most polite form.  "Would you mind if I looked at this?" is considered more polite than "Show me that." This is also true in Indian languages but not all Indians speaking English are versed in the full form of the language and may inadvertently seem abrupt in their speech.  The touts that have only learned a bit of English on the street aren't intentionally putting tourists off by barking rudely at them.  Similarly, you may find it useful to simplify your English to get your point across.  Saying "Where is the post office" may be clearer to someone than asking" Could you please tell me where I could find the post office?"

I want to be alone - At times, most travelers in India feel a bit like Greta Garbo and just "vant to be alone".  It is hard to do, sometimes, especially when you are moving around.  Solitude is not a common desire for many except sadhus.  Indians are social, gregarious people, as a rule, and train cars are often buzzing with conversations among passengers who are relative strangers to each other.  Inevitably a traveling foreigner gets approached, and it is often the same old questions.  "Where are you from?" "How do you like India?" It is hard not to get snippy sometimes.  Try and be polite, and, if possible, turn the conversation towards something that does interest you.  Often a few questions will satisfy the inquiring party and if not, you may be able to minimize conversation by excusing yourself to read, stare out the window, or retreat to your berth if its an upper one.

Gestures don't always translate - Tourists quickly realize that the head wobble so common here means "yes" and not "no".  Similarly, some Western gestures can be misinterpreted.  The Western gesture for come here palm face up and moving as if you are throwing salt over your shoulder would be considered rude in India.  The comparable Indian gesture is with the palm facing down and moving like you're doing the 'dog paddle'.


Don't get too hung up on 'principle'

Some Western travelers have a tendency to focus on the principle of something.  Being overcharged by a vendor even if the amount is small drives some people to fury.  "It's the principle of the thing." Its not that the person trying to take advantage of you is unprincipled or lacks a sense of morality, it is just that sometimes things are relative.

Among merchants there may be a pride in getting the best of a customer.  (In the same way, consumers take pride in their ability to shrewdly bargain.) If your culture says all customers should pay the same price and you feel it is crass to bargain you will find yourself in conflict here.

Similarly, there are many areas of conflict or aggravation that may stem from cultural differences.  Try not to spend your time getting angry when things don't work the way you expected (from your cultural perspective).  It would be more constructive to try and understand the motivations acting around you.  Try not to label actions of others too quickly from your cultural bias.  Try and understand the perspective of those you are dealing with.  An auto driver who tries to get a higher fare than the meter is not driving home in a Porche.  Most of them are living in some hovel in a part of town you'll never see, struggling to feed, clothe and educate their kids.  They are exploited daily by the owners of the autos, the cops and other officials, and have to spend their waking hours driving in hellish traffic and polluted air.  Their interest in the "principle" of using the meter is limited.

Don't assume that only foreigners get ripped off occasionally.  Indians also have to haggle constantly over prices, and when they are out of their "home turf" they are cheated almost as much as foreign travelers.


Respectful mistrust

Trust is an important "cultural fiction" in the West.  Westerners like to trust others, even strangers up to a point - and consider trust to be a crucial element of a business or consumer relationship.  If trust is destroyed, the relationship is damaged.

For many in India, the default mode in business dealings with others, especially with strangers, is respectful mistrust.  It is a given assumption in India that the milkman will water the milk, that honey is adulterated, that oranges are overpriced.  Similarly, the consumer will try and squeeze the best price from the vendor.   The basic assumption is that others will cheat you if you are not careful, and the onus is on you to protect yourself.  Since no trust is assumed, the relationship is not seriously damaged by one party trying to get an advantage over the other.

The ideal to strive for in dealings as a traveler here, is a good humored respectful mistrust.  For some transactions, you can safely assume that the other person is interested in his or her own advantage, say, the highest price.  You, of course, are interested in your own advantage.  If you can, at least occasionally, work through the process of reaching an acceptable compromise with humor and mutual respect, you've arrived.

Don't forget to listen to explanations.  There are often quirky little payments or requirements where you might not expect them.  Ask why, and if the explanation makes sense, accept it.  Do not assume each and every transaction is an attempted rip-off.  Most people you interact with will be dealing honestly with you.


Keep things in perspective

This will make a big difference to your interactions in India.  Remember that you're a traveler from a wealthier country.  You may not feel you have much money but, to many here, you will seem well off.   You don't want to get ripped off (who does?), but you won't always know the prices or what you should do so you'll occasionally get taken advantage of.  It's part of the experience.  Try not to take it personally.   Indian travelers also get taken advantage of when they are out of their own area.

Remember that the world as defined by your own culture is only one manifestation of reality.  Other perspectives are also valid, and certain elements of a different culture may actually suit your personality better than those you were raised with.  Try and be aware of the positive aspects of the cultures you travel through.  These could be the most valuable souvenir you return home with.


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