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The People

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.

Body Language

  • 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 personal space.
  • 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.

Corporate Culture

  • 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 counterpartís 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. Donít 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 canít make it, offer a plausible excuse.
  • 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 party.
  • 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 donít feel obligated to empty your plate. Hindu hosts are never supposed to let their guestsí 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 food.
  • The host pays for guests in a restaurant.
  • Guests give gifts to the host and the host's children as a "thank you."
  • 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.

Helpful Hints

  • 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 person.
  • 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.
Adapted from material compiled by Window on the World, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. Originally based on material contained in the "Put Your Best Foot Forward" series of books by Mary Murray Bosrock.
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