India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. It is a
sophisticated, modern, industrial leader that is home to many
primitive tribes and millions of poor people. Religion and language
separate people. The caste system limits social mobility (600,000
people belong to the lowest caste). Because of disparities in
distribution of wealth, a wide gap separates the few wealthy from
the many poor.
Meeting and Greeting
- Westerners may shake hands, however, greeting with 'namaste'
(na-mas-TAY) (placing both hands together with a slight bow) is
appreciated and shows respect for Indian customs.
- Men shake hands with men when meeting or leaving. Men do not
touch women when meeting or greeting. Western women may offer
their hand to a westernized Indian man, but not normally to
others. Traditional Indian women may shake hands with foreign
women but not usually with men.
- Public displays of affection are not proper.
- Indians generally allow an arm's length space between
themselves and others. Don't stand close to Indians. Indians value
- Indian men may engage in friendly back patting merely as a
sign of friendship.
- When an Indian smiles and jerks his/her head backward -- a
gesture that looks somewhat like a Western "no" -- or moves his
head in a figure 8, this means "yes."
- The Western side-to-side hand wave for "hello" is frequently
interpreted by Indians as "no" or "go away."
- Use your right hand only to touch someone, pass money or pick
up merchandise. The left hand is considered unclean.
- Do not touch anyone's head. The head is considered sensitive.
- Feet are considered unclean. Feet are sacred for holy men and
women. Pointing footwear at people is considered an insult.
- Indians are very sensitive to being beckoned rudely. Hand and
arm waved up and down (Western "good-bye") means "come here." To
beckon, extend your arm, palm down and make a scratching motion
with fingers kept together.
- Never point with a single finger or two fingers (used only
with inferiors). Point with your chin, whole hand or thumb. The
chin is not used to point at superiors.
- Business cards are exchanged and Indians are very conscious of
the protocol. Always present business cards when introduced.
English is appropriate for business cards.
- Decisions are strongly influenced from the top. Usually one
person makes all major decisions. Attempt to deal with the
highest-level person available.
- It is considered rude to plunge into business discussions
immediately. Ask about your counterpart’s family, interests,
hobbies, etc. before beginning business discussions.
- Business is slow and difficult in India. Be polite, but
persistent. Do not get angry if you are told something "can't be
done." Instead, restate your request firmly but with a smile. Plan
on several visits before you reach an agreement.
- You may be offered a sugary, milky tea, coffee or a soft
drink. Don’t refuse. Note that your glass or cup may be refilled
as soon as it is emptied.
- Indian counterparts may not show up for scheduled meetings. Be
prepared to reschedule.
Dining and Entertainment
- Initial business entertainment is done in restaurants in
prestigious hotels. Business can be discussed during meals. Allow
your host to initiate business conversation.
- Never flatly refuse an invitation to a home or dinner of a
business counterpart; if you can’t make it, offer a plausible
- Spouses are often included in social/business functions.
- Strict orthodox Muslims don't drink any alcohol. Most Hindus,
especially women, do not consume alcohol.
- Arrive 15-30 minutes later than the stated time for a dinner
- At a social gathering a garland of flowers is often placed
around a guest's neck. Remove it after a few minutes and carry it
in your hand to show humility.
- Allow hosts to serve you. Never refuse food, but don’t feel
obligated to empty your plate. Hindu hosts are never supposed to
let their guests’ plates be empty.
- If hosts eat with hands, assure them you enjoy doing the same.
If utensils are not used, use your right hand and your first three
fingers and thumb only.
- Take food from communal dish with a spoon; never your fingers.
Use chappati or poori (bread) torn into small chunks to scoop up
- The host pays for guests in a restaurant.
- Guests give gifts to the host and the host's children as a
- You should reciprocate invitations with a meal of comparable
value. Never invite someone to a far more lavish dinner -- it
might embarrass them.
- For business, men should wear suits and ties. During summer
months, you may omit the jacket.
- Women should wear conservative pantsuits or dresses.
- Give gifts with both hands. Gifts are not normally opened in
the presence of the giver.
- Gifts from your country are appreciated (perfume, chocolates,
small china or crystal objects).
- Gifts are not normally expected at the first meeting. Gifts
may be given once a relationship develops.
- When an Indian answers, "I will try," he or she generally
means "no." This is considered a polite "no."
- Many Indians do not wear shoes inside a home. Follow your
host. Make sure your socks are clean and do not have holes.
- Apologize immediately if your feet or shoes touch another
- Ask permission before smoking. It is considered rude to smoke
in the presence of elders.
- Do not show anger.
Especially for Women
- India is a difficult place to do business, but particularly
tough for women. India is a male-dominated society. Western women
may be accepted, but must establish their position and title
immediately to warrant acceptance.
- Women might not be included in social events or conversation.
- Western women may invite an Indian man to a business lunch and
pay the tab without embarrassment.