The last time I visited my Kolkata home, there was a large crowd of people bidding goodbye to one person at the airport. Goodbyes are significant events and often extended families and even neighbours will come to see people off at airports and railway stations.
I thought of writing this post about deciphering Indian courtesies because of several recent conversations on Cultural Intelligence that I have had with colleagues. It will be interesting to learn which other cultures around the world follow similar practices. Since India is so culturally diverse, its amazing to see how some courtesies and traditions are the same across India.
For example, guests are highly valued in all Indian contexts. “Athithi devo bhava” meaning guest is god is accepted seriously across all people groups in India. As a result, guests are often not allowed to do anything that could count as a chore. Hosts will insist on serving something to everyone who visits their home, even if it’s just water. If you’re the guest, be polite and take a few sips even if you are not thirsty.
Guests can show up unannounced, sometimes during mid afternoon nap hours (nap times exist in several Indian cities) or even late at night. Hosts will demonstrate warm hospitality and serve snacks and beverages. Indian homes will keep sweets and snacks available for such surprise visits. If a guest ever showed up unannounced and our fridge wasn’t well stocked, it would cause some serious stress at home. But as an unannounced guest, your job is to convince your host not to worry about serving anything. “Just water is fine. I just ate”, is a well accepted excuse.
It is good manners to take something for your host – whether you were invited or showing up unannounced. Something simple like a box of good quality sweets or a bag of fruits is a good gift.
It is considered polite to arrive a little late when you are invited to a meal. Being late by 5 or 10 minutes is a good idea but try to keep it less than 15 minutes. Being a little late implies that although you are excited about the invitation, you are not desperate to eat and have some self-esteem.
Most Indian hosts will wait till all guests have eaten before they sit down to eat. Sometimes, hosts will wait till after the guests have left. This can feel uncomfortable if you’re unfamiliar with having a host wait on you and serve you multiple portions without themselves sitting down to eat. As a guest you can try convincing them to eat with you but it’s hard for people to change this belief.
After a meal, the host may pack some of the leftovers for guests. Its important that any reusable container is returned to the host as soon as possible. It is impolite to return an empty container. People will typically add some special sweets before returning it. I love this tradition – you never what delicacy you will find.
Some of my family members are left handed but since it’s improper to use your left hand to eat, they eat using their right hand, at least in public. The left hand is considered unclean and is therefore not used to give or accept anything. I have had vendors decline payment if I mistakenly extended it with my left hand.
This one applies not just to guests: Most Indians will offer the last leftovers from a delicacy to someone else. It’s a strange mindset but if there’s only one sweet left, families will split it or they will offer it to a visitor. I guess we have all heard this and believe it to be true that“the last bite carries the most blessing”.
Unless you invite someone in person or over the phone (if you live in different cities), an invitation card has no meaning. In fact, mailing an invitation without following it up with a phone call is considered as rude as not inviting someone at all. Personal connections are highly valued and emphasized.
This is almost the funniest thing about Indian families but goodbyes can be a lengthy affair…even when you will meet the person again the very next day. You can spend hours at someone’s house but when it’s time to leave, it’s natural to stand at the door and talk for a looong time! Some goodbye conversations at our house have lasted 45 minutes. Maybe it is our way of saying. I enjoy your company so much that it’s hard to leave.
What are some other Indian courtesies that I missed highlighting? Do you know if any of these are practiced in other world cultures?
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