Every country has a different way to say hello. In France, you give kisses. In America, you shake hands or hug. In Japan, you bow. In India, the traditional way to say hello is “Namaste.” Pronounced “na-mah-stay,” this greeting is said while pressing your palms together in front of your chest and slightly bowing your head. It comes from Sanskrit and means “reverential greetings to you.”
Greeting someone with a kiss is generally frowned upon, particularly if it is a man greeting a woman other than his wife. Shaking hands is sometimes practiced. To avoid social blunders, say “Namaste” – it is the safest, most socially acceptable way to greet someone.
Niceties and Politeness
Mumbai is a big, busy city and people – millions of them – are in a rush. Perhaps this is why so many Mumbaikars are curt and direct; they don’t fill their sentences with “Pleases” and “Would you minds.” This might come as a shock to expats accustomed to more polite exchanges, particularly when requests come out sounding more like commands. Try not to take it personally. In time, you might even find yourself dropping pleases and thank yous from your vocabulary.
Standing in queue in the United Kingdom is almost a tradition. The British don’t seem to mind waiting at all, but they certainly don’t like queue jumpers. Mumbai, regardless of its British colonial past, has no such respect for queueing. Lines, rather squiggly ones, do form at shops and banks, but you’ll find Mumbaikars elbowing their way right in front of you without warning. You’ll need to hold to your place firmly and speak up if someone cuts. If you are passive, you’ll never be waited on.
Even if they are frank and cut you in line, Indians are generally warm, friendly, and helpful people. If you are lost, feel free to ask for directions – just be aware that it is more polite in India to give made up directions than to say, “Sorry, I don’t know.” In shops and stores, the employees might seem too eager to help you and tend to hover over you while you shop. This can be a nuisance, though the worker just feels he or she is simply doing his or her job.
Clothing for Women
The vast majority of women dress in saris or salwar kameez, but younger women and Indians from the middle-class also wear western style shirts and jeans. As a female expat, feel free to wear your usual summer clothing so long as it is modest. Spaghetti straps, short shorts, and tight and/or revealing clothing will cause people to stare. Since you’ll probably be stared at a lot in the first place, don’t compound the issue with distracting outfits. Save the skimpy clothes for nightclubs. Loose, cotton clothing will be the most comfortable in the heat, anyway.
Clothing for Men
Local men in Mumbai invariably wear jeans or trousers and t-shirts or button-down shirts. In the office, a shirt, tie, and slacks are the norm. For important business meetings, a suit would be suitable. While there are some men who wear kurtas in Mumbai, by and large men dress in “western” style clothing, so you won’t need to go on a shopping spree upon arrival.
Both men and women should wear long sleeves and pants when entering religious sites. Shoes might need to be removed. Head coverings (a scarf or handkerchief will do) are required for mosques and Sikh temples. It is respectful to speak softly. Smoking and drinking are prohibited.
In India, people do not use forks, knives, spoons, or any other kind of utensil for eating. They simply use their right hands. Most meals involve some sort of meat or vegetable in a gravy, accompanied with a scoop of rice or a piece of naan – a type of flat bread. Indians have perfected the art of mixing a bit of rice with a bit of curry, gathering a mouthful with their four fingers, and then pushing the food into their mouths with their thumbs. If naan is involved, they will tear off a piece of bread and use it to pinch up some food before popping it in. It’s messy, but it’s fun. Eating with your hand adds another sensory dimension to dining and also lets you know if the food is too hot (but not too spicy!) to eat. Don’t worry if you’d rather stay tidy because restaurants and eateries can provide you with cutlery.
If you do eat with your hand, make sure you only use your right hand. Indians reserve their left hands for all the dirty work, such as removing footwear and using the toilet. Therefore, touching food with your left hand is a faux pas, as is presenting your left hand for a hand shake.
Status and Caste
India is famous for its caste system, a social hierarchy which dictated rankings in society for centuries. It still exists, though it is not nearly as strong as it once was. The Indian government is trying to get rid of the caste system completely. By doing so, it will allow the “Dalits,” once called the “Untouchables,” to move up the social ladder.
The caste rankings are as follows:
- Brahmins, or priests
- Kshatriyas, or soldiers
- Vaishyas, or merchants
- Shudras, or labourers
As an expat, you will see the effects of the caste system. It is noticeable in the degrading way in which some middle and upper class Indians treat waiters, drivers, and other “low caste” workers.
Foreigners will not fall into any place in the caste system. They are treated by Indians with respect, most likely because they equate expats with wealth. (Wealth is admired and strived toward in India.) Out of politeness and respect, you will be addressed as “madam” or as “sir.”
In addition to the caste system, status is often determined by a person’s age, education and profession. Government employment is considered to be more prestigious than private business employment. Elders are revered. Educated people are respected more than the uneducated.
What is Considered Rude
- Pointing your finger
- Winking (Usually interpreted as a sexual advance)
- Pointing your feet at someone
- Presenting your left hand; eating with your left hand
- Pulling or hitting someone on the ears