People are people, but if you’re not used to the Indian way you could think these particular people are bonkers. Even worse, you could have a frustrating Indian trip only for not knowing a few cultural differences. Here’s a few.
1. THE FIRST RULE OF INDIA IS THAT THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM
This is from the fabulous British film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and it sums up the optimistic resilience of Indians. India has a population of over 1.2 billion and growing. Take public transport in India and you’ll see this rule in action. Go on, give it a try and enjoy an all over body massage for free.
If you see a sign on your local bus saying “12 standing” – don’ t worry. The first rule of India always applies.
2. INDIAN STRETCHABLE TIME (IST)
IST is a bit of an in joke in India. The long and the short of it is that Indians generally don’t keep time well. In fact some Indians might even go as far as calling punctuality a colonial virus. You just need to know that the standard response “I’ll be there in 5 minutes” could, in reality, mean 30 or 40 mins. As Westerners increasingly see time wasting as disrespectful this can create tension. But there is a positive side. If you turn up unannounced Indians will almost certainly make to time for you and insist on showing you full hospitality. If your flight is delayed by hours the chances are your driver will wait and think nothing of it.
In our experience if you make clear the importance of an agreed time you will not have problems.
3. NEGOTIATION IS A WAY OF LIFE
Although, slowly changing, items for sale are usually priced according to who is buying. As a white man I generally stay out of view when my Indian wife is buying. Just being there increases the starting price. Of course, this is less true in my local shops, but even then the habit is so ingrained that some may risk losing my long term custom for a short term gain.
In India you’re expected to barter, but don’t go too far and keep it friendly. In tourist areas the facilities just won’t be there if everyone pays the lowest local price.
4. EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE
Indians are not comfortable saying “No”. It’s partly about “saving face”, but Indians also just want to be seen to be helpful and capable. They will certainly go to great lengths for you, but ultimately may not deliver what you expected. You need to be extra aware who you are asking.
When stopping a stranger for directions remember you are unlikely to hear the words “I don’t know” so consider who you are asking.
5. SHARING IS CARING
The individual is much less important than the group in India. Sharing here is to some extent a survival strategy. If you can, be polite and accept any small hospitalities. Certainly, if you are eating out with Indians please don’t be a Joey Tribbiani.
Joey doesn’t share food
Cultural differences can lead to all sorts of frustrations, but understanding them can be incredibly life enriching. India is a magical place for those who learn to go with the flow.