The best way to illustrate the importance of understanding Indian culture and business etiquette is by using an ancient Indian story about a remote village where only blind people lived.
One day the blind people heard that the next day an elephant would arrive at the village. They were very excited because they had never seen an elephant before. They only knew that this was a beautiful, special animal.
The next day, when the elephant reached the village center, six blind people went out to meet the elephant.
Unable to see him, they touched him and felt him with great excitement.
Each one felt another part of the elephant; one touched the trunk, another the tusks, third the foot, fourth the ear, fifth the belly, and sixth the tail.
Why we can't really understand India?
After they had finished, they began sharing their experiences about the elephant, and each of them described the elephant differently.
The moral is clear. India is a big elephant, and we are blind. It is difficult to contain and fully understand such a large and ancient civilization.
Everyone experiences India from a different perspective, and each experiences India through his/her personal prism. The vibe in India is very different from modern Western countries. This is part of India’s charm and one of its main attraction secrets.
To do business in India or to enjoy a trip to India, you have to change a diskette in your head. You can not do business in India or take a trip to India as if you are in the USA, Europe, or one of Thailand’s islands. This is part of doing business in India or being a tourist in India.
Some things can greatly help to get into the right mood in India.
Indian Culture and Western Culture
Most business people and tourists from Western countries such as Israel, Europe, the US, Australia, and Canada come from a Judeo-Christian culture. Of course, the vast majority are not religious, but the values of this culture are based on modern Western culture.
One of the main elements of this culture is the judgment: the judgment of friends, parents, bosses, children, neighbors, and most of all, oneself.
Judgment is not only done by you, but you are judged by others all the time, for everything you do.
Therefore, you are generally unhappy, and inner peace is a rare commodity in this culture. The mind constantly thinks and judges, so happiness tends to fade.
India is not just a state in the modern Western sense of the word. It is a civilization, a very ancient civilization.
This is different from a regular modern country. Belgium is a country. Not a Civilization. It is part of civilization. Canada is a country, Australia is a country. These are not civilizations but part of Western civilization.
India is a civilization in itself, the Hindu civilization. It has a history that goes back thousands of years. It has an ancient urban history that goes back more than 3,500 years (developed towns of tens of thousands of inhabitants in the Indus valley).
Much of what happens today in India is rooted in very ancient heritage. Many of the things you see in India are not always easy to see, but do not rush to judge everything.
This does not mean that one has to be indifferent, but there is an intermediate way between not being indifferent and being very judgmental.
It is recommended to avoid being judgmental. It’s even more advisable to avoid condescending judicial comments if you are in the company of Indians or any business or tour. The concept of judicial and critical life comes from very different from the Indian concept of life.
This does not mean that Indians are not critical of themselves or social problems inside the Indian society, but if you want to understand the Indian culture and life, imagine yourself as one of the blind in the ancient story about the 6 blind people and the elephant.
Try to learn, feel, and “touch” this culture as much as you can, and this will be your key to understand Indian culture better. This is the first and most basic advice of etiquette in India.
Indian Gods as a Main Part of the Indian Culture
India is a religious state. It’s not religious in the Western sense of the word but religious in the sense of faith, worship, and rituals.
Indian people worship gods as a major part of Indian beliefs and customs. There are hundreds of millions of Hindu gods, but most religious faith and worship revolve around a small number of gods.
For those who come from a monotheistic culture, Indian culture and faith look like idol worship or worship in front of stone statues.
Do not rush to underestimate or judge Indian beliefs. Indian philosophy behind the daily religious worship of gods is very deep and also refers to one God from which everything begins.
The gods, for the most part, are different incarnations adapted to human needs. As part of Indian business etiquette (or Indian tourist etiquette), it is essential to avoid patronizing judgment but rather strongly advised not to make derogatory remarks instead of showing respect to the Indian faith. The Indians themselves are very patient and open to the beliefs of others.
The Importance of Cows in Indian Cultures
The cow is a sacred animal in India and it symbolizes the land of India and fertility. It is considered to contain all 330 million Hindu gods in its body, and therefore it is sacred and forbidden to eat.
You can see cows everywhere in India, on the streets, on the roads, and on the trails. They must not be harmed. This is a crucial part of Indian culture.
There have been deadly confrontations over incidents of slaughtering a cow. It is reasonable to assume that no western tourist will take out a knife and slaughter a cow, but it is not only about slaughtering. No harm to the cow will be welcomed or understood. This is a critical part of Indian etiquette.
When traveling or meeting with Indians, you must respect their culture, even if you are not in India. Just give up the beef dish in the restaurant.
Castes (or Varnas) in Indian Culture
Hindu society is divided into five different castes.
- Brahmins – The most senior caste, priestly people
- Kshatriyas – Rulers, administrators, and warriors
- Vaishyas – Artisans, merchants, tradesmen, and farmers
- Shudras – laboring classes and servants
- Dalit – Untouchables
The legacy of caste in India is very ancient, and its days begin well before more than 3,000 years ago.
Less than two thousand years ago, this structure was determined by a code of laws called Manu Smriti.
With India’s establishment in 1947, the Indian government initiated a law against the discrimination of the two lower castes. It adopted affirmative action in all government positions in their favor.
This structure still exists in India, especially in villages where everyone knows each other. This structure is one of the internal social challenges of India.
A few years ago, I attended a business meeting in Mumbai, India, with several colleagues from India. The client we met was of Persian origin, meaning that he is outside the castes structure.
During the meeting, the client picked up and spoke disrespectfully to one of the colleagues who were with me for no apparent reason. At that moment, I did not understand the situation but later saw it from a completely different perspective.
In Indian society, they know how to identify the lower or higher castes by early acquaintances, skin color, or surnames.
One way to escape from this structure is to flee from the village to the big cities and assimilate into the crowd. Another way is to convert to Islam, the most available social system in India, besides the Hindu society.
The Indian government has been fighting this for decades and is trying to change this reality. If you experience it somehow, it is not your job as a businessman or tourist to interfere or change this reality. This is a very delicate part of Indian etiquette.
Indian Etiquette - Stay Away from Political Arguments
India is the largest democracy in the world. There are two major political camps there, and in recent years India has experienced a great change when Prime Minister Modi, who belongs to the Indian right-wing, won the election.
In general, this is a relevant recommendation wherever you go, but especially for someone who is working with Indians and trying to establish business relationships with them.
Both businessmen and tourists are not supposed to go on a journey to re-educate the residents of the country they visit. When you are a guest, act like a guest.
The Significance of Time in Indian Culture
One of the most difficult things to practice in India is the attitude toward time. People who come from cultures that take every minute seriously come to India and find that time has no meaning, certainly not as they know.
Making an appointment with someone and finding out that he/she is late for an hour or two or more, and doing it nonchalantly, is certainly something that can upset the most peaceful people. The anger will turn into frustration when you find that he/she does not give it too much importance, and worse than that, the indifferent attitude to time is characteristic of most people you meet.
So the best advice at this part of etiquette for India is simple: In India, take time easily, whether you are a businessman or tourist.
The reference to time in India is not as binding as it is in the West. For better and for worse.
There is no reason to get excited about or angry about delays that you will surely experience when you are in India. The reference to the time dimension is much calmer and less stressful than the West.
Languages in Indian Cultures
The number of spoken languages in India is close to 1,000! Research shows that in some areas in India, and sometimes in a few dozen square kilometers, dozens of languages are used.
- The Indian money bill has 13 different languages (see the image below)
- The most spoken language is Hindi.
- The two official influences of India as a whole are Hindi and English.
- There is a group of 22 additional official languages uses by the various countries within India
If you are traveling to major cities or tourist spots, you will definitely get along with English. If you are a businessman in India (or coming for any work purpose), most likely you will get along with English. If you walk around rural India, do not assume they will understand you. Be prepared with a translator
Indian street food
Personally, Indian Street food is my favorite food (after Israeli food). I eat Indian food almost every week. It is a tasty, healthy, and nutritious food. In both India and Nepal, eating street-food is one of my favorites.
But… The worst thing in this regard is to eat animal products (meat, eggs, and milk). I know several people that their trip to India ended in two to three weeks of hospitalization in a local hospital due to food poisoning.
It is impossible to maintain eggs or meat in proper conditions at 30 or 40 degrees in the streets. There is simply no way. Such food is prone to trouble, and the main danger is salmonella. I would not recommend not consuming street food because it is definitely part of India’s experience but be sure to pay attention to where you choose to eat and what you choose to eat.
Here are some rules to help you maintain an optimal hygiene level and significantly reduce your chances of getting stomach poisoning.
- Drink only bottled water
- Always wash your hands before eating.
- Always clean your hands after eating.
- Do not buy animal products on the street (there is no proper storage)
- Buy in places where there is traffic, such as places where food has not been able to stand for too long.
This part of etiquette in India will keep you safe while traveling or having meetings in India.
Drugs in India
There are places in India like Kasol, for example, where people smoke hashish, and everything seems to be all right. I personally will never smoke hashish in India. This can be very dangerous, especially because it is not always clear what is legally permitted and not permitted.
Hashish residues in the bag can lead to your arrest and a stay in an Indian prison. Should you take the risk? If you ask yourself: “What should I not do in India?” put this at the top of your list. You do not want to get into trouble.
Help people on the Streets
A few years ago, I was in Mumbai on a work trip. I had some free time, and I used it to walk around in Mumbai.
When I was walking down one of the main streets, a young man clung to me and began to speak to me in good English.
Because I answered him, he just kept on walking with me and told me he wanted to start a shoe polish business, and all he needed was about 2,000 rupees to buy a shoe shine kit with everything he needs.
This is only what he needed to set up his small business and gain financial independence and the possibility of making a living. The story certainly touched my heart. I thought that for me, it is almost negligible; I can change a person’s life. It’s worth taking the gamble.
That’s what I thought, at least.
I questioned him a little more with few more questions and eventually gave him the money to promise that he would send me a picture of the kit he bought and, of course, that he would update me if he could manage.
I never got a picture.
A year later, a minute before I entered an important meeting, I got a phone call from India. I answered the call and on the line was the guy I helped a year earlier.
I wish I could say that he did well and got along with the 2,000 rupees I gave him, but I think I fell into a trap.
In a conversation with him, he asked for more money. At that moment, I realized that his story was his livelihood. That’s how he manages to make a living, from tourists like me.
I’m really not sorry. I gave some money to the young man. I would have been pleased to find out that I had helped someone and changed his life, even a little bit.
But I think the lesson from this story is not to refuse to help people on the street. I always did it and always did it, but pay attention as much as possible, helping the right people.