If you’re travelling to India, it is essential to acknowledge some of the key aspects of the culture to ensure an immersive and pleasant stay. Culture shock, a term devised in the 60’s by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, can be very real and at times overwhelming. It can be described as a wave of strong feelings, such as depression and anxiety, affecting the travellers exposed to new, striking cultures. By better understanding the cultural differences before you land, you can ready yourself for the adjustment and focus on enjoying your trip.
India is a country with cultural diversity and people from varied backgrounds – a place where many different faiths are followed, dialects and languages are spoken. There are also diverse dressing styles and unique celebrations for the many festivals hosted in every state that reflects this rich, multi-cultural society. At the crux of the Indian community are gatherings and get togethers for special occasions. These events are where families, friends, and neighbours share in each other’s lives, festivities, and crucial moments.
Indian culture and tradition can be traced back to historical times with famous Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, Ayurveda, meditation, and yoga – directly linked to Indian spirituality and Indian classical music. India is also the Land of Spices where many delicious foods are regarded for their medicinal values and are infused by centuries of culture.
Welcome to India
Weather, Hospitality, and Jetlag
First, landing in India can bring a lot of surprises, especially if you are from the Western world –such as Canada. Our countries, both unique and special in their own ways, carry vast dissimilarities in terms of culture, weather, and day-to-day norms.
The weather in India, for example, greatly differs from what we would experience in Canada. The sun is strong, and India has a hot climate throughout most of the year, making it imperative to stay hydrated and dress appropriately for the weather. Sun and heat stroke can hit quickly, especially for those who aren’t frequently exposed to more extreme temperatures and are exhausted from jetlag.
Looking for wonderful people, great food, and exposure to culture? The sense of family, the food, conversations, and the warm welcoming you will receive make India truly unique. Fully expect to be brought into homes with open arms and to be treated like family.
On the Road…
Ready to experience traffic like no other? The traffic in India can be staggering for new comers, with less traffic rules and bustling roads with vehicles, bikes, and Tuk-Tuks. Fun fact, Richard Gere (Hollywood actor), once mentioned in an interview that he would never dare drive on the roads in Mumbai.
India, on top of lesser rules and crowded streets, drives on the opposite side of the road as we do here in Canada. Additionally, traffic signals and controllers are only majorly seen in large cities with populations of more than one million, making driving in India a different process and experience. Check out this guide for foreigners driving in India.
Carry Cash, Not Plastic
Heading to a major shopping area? Big malls, hotels, supermarkets, and community clubs will happily accept plastic. However, If you are touring around the streets in India, you’ll be sure to notice a host of delightful vendors and local stores. The most prevalent payment method for these places will be cash, as most of them will not or cannot accept other forms of money. So, be prepared and make sure to carry cash so that you can easily enjoy the local amenities, shopping, and food.
It’s Nice to Meet You
In India, everyone is greeted with the famous Namaste, a Hindi word meaning hello. While there may be different languages spoken, Indians have the same gestures for greeting throughout the country. You will either be received by hands folded in front of them, or a handshake, followed by Namaste.
Greeting gestures for festivals are another variation of greeting formalities. People will hug each other as a form of greeting one another; a more open and an even friendlier atmosphere will be abundant. Younger people will also touch the feet of their elders, or bow in respect, for blessings.
I’m late, I’m late for a …
Worried about arriving on time for a meeting or gathering? Cultural etiquette for these occasions is for the guest to arrive a bit late. If you’re running a few minutes behind, you’ll actually be considered right on time! For formal meetings, people tend to reach shortly after the designated time.
Business Hierarchy + Conduct for Initial Meetings
In business, people address each other based on the various levels and positions within the company hierarchy. In meetings, it is custom that the person of the highest authority arrives first, followed by the team. Typically, business meetings will begin with casual conversations; some meetings may even be conducted over drinks and/or dinner.
Settling a dispute? Disagreements are handled in a diplomatic manner. Negotiating is a longer and more patient process than what we would experience in Canadian business dealings. Meeting by the phone? Uncommon to Canadian business practice, most phone meetings will commonly be held by the senior authority(ies) in the company.
Doing Business: Trust Required
Trust is the key to good business in India, as making strong connections and building an extended network are vital. Third-party introductions will be important for progressing business deals, joint-ventures, and interactions. Partiality is highly practiced in the Indian business culture in terms of family members and business. Many companies will run their business with family members, or close acquaintances/friends. Indians value this practice because it brings more trust and honesty into their business dealings.
The Cultural Differences
India, vast with various cultural practices, traditions, and views is as a whole very tolerant and accepting – making the people more curious and inquisitive. Within their personal spheres, Indians are very welcoming and pleased to share their insights and views on their practices. Key cultural differences practiced in India (that may be completely new for Canadians) can be seen as potentially insensitive or intrusive to tourists; however, it comes from a place of desire to learn and connect.
There are striking differences when it comes to the street structure and social culture in India compared with Canada. Women travelling in India should note that they may feel a bit ‘put on the spot’ by some people they may encounter by having people stare or having people come up to ask you questions. This is due to cultural constructs, infused with a great deal of curiosity and friendliness – a societal norm.
Noticing a lot of wondering looks? Having a lot of inquisitive (and potentially forward) questions asked? Indian acquaintances and friends may ask you a plethora of rather direct questions, but this is typically just friendly, overt, interest in getting to know you.
When you’re looking at the incredible street vendors in India, it’s important to remember how different shopping is compared to North American. In India it is customary to bargain with vendors in order to get a price that works for both you and the merchant. The vendor will set a price, then you would routinely provide a counter offer, and then work towards a negotiation – this will become so habitual to you, that’ll you’ll probably bring this tactic home with you!
Almost Too Helpful!
Indians are very warm people, they love showing affection to their loved ones and people they like. However, this also means that some won’t hesitate in hugging you at the end of your first meeting. Or, similarly, holding your hand to help you cross the street. In a country with so many people, there’s a lack of privacy among the teeming millions of India – the concept of personal space can appear to be foreign.
Inability to say “No”
Indian society, as a whole, have a strong sense of ‘face,’ handling business dealings with honour and pride. An Indian person will often find being direct difficult, a straight ‘no’ being nearly impossible. They feel the pressure of pleasing those around them, and like to avoid the awkwardness of declining. However, understanding body language is imperative to navigate interactions and read between the lines. Answers like ‘we will try’ or ‘maybe’ will usually translate as a ‘no.’
The Head Bobble
This is unique to the Indian culture. It is important to learn to interpret the Indian head-wobble, which has many meanings. When an Indian repeatedly nods (up and down) means ‘yes,’ and a shake (usually sideways) means ‘no.’ But, wobbling one’s head while listening to someone (a loose movement of the neck) can be a sign of being attentive and paying respect. Finally, tilting repeatedly from side-to-side can mean ‘maybe.’ Confused? Don’t be! You’ll pick up the body language in no time.
Canadians usually refer to each other using first names. In India, however, there is the custom of addressing others using a suffix combined with their first or last name. A friend’s parent, or a person belonging to that age, are referred to as aunt or uncle.
To avoid culture shock, it is important to understand a distant country when travelling. Especially a country that has a rich blend of traditions, like India. Understanding the complex country, customs, and practices in India will have you better-suited to immerse yourself, and skillfully navigate business dealings. Use our Welcome to India: Avoiding Culture Shock blog as a handy beginner's guide for your arrival in India.
This is our first edition of our India Series Blogs. Stay tuned for the next edition as we dive into policies and business in India to help you prepare for international business.