In the last part of this series, we’d like to address the topic of table manners in India. In the process, we’ll answer the following questions: How should I behave at the table in India, and what should I avoid?
As you already learned in the first part of our series, you’re expected to leave your shoes at the door. On a related note, you should be mindful that the soles of your feet should never face another person when sitting, and they should never touch anything, as feet are considered unclean in India.
You should always wash your hands before and after eating, as food is traditionally eaten with the hands in India. Don’t be afraid to use your hands or bread in place of silverware. Eating utensils are especially rarely used when eating vegetarian dishes. In private households and better restaurants, a bowl full of warm water will be provided after eating to wash your hands.
If you eat with your hands, only use your right hand. The left hand is considered unclean, as this is used for toilet hygiene. It’s consequently best to keep it under the table. You should also avoid handing anything over with your left hand [e.g., gifts, business cards, etc.]. If you happen to be left-handed, feel free to tell a confidant that your left hand is your clean one.
Regarding the consumption of food, you’d be on the safer side to eat only things that are peeled, boiled and well-done. Be especially careful when it comes to tap water and ice cubes, as drinking water there typically has much more bacteria than you might be used to. A lot of Indians subsist on a vegetarian diet for religious reasons, and they adhere to strict rules with regard to nutritional issues. Hindus, for instance, never eat beef. Jains avoid all animal products, and the Sikh faith prohibits the consumption of alcohol.
Also due to religious reasons, alcohol is rarely consumed out in the open. This is why there are so few beer gardens, street cafés and restaurant patios in India. When selecting a drink, simply orient yourself according to the oldest person in the group and order the same, whether it’s alcoholic or nonalcoholic.
When you’re sitting in a restaurant with your business partner, avoid thanking your waiter. This would indicate that you’re thankful for their work, and Indians generally consider this work nothing to be thankful for. Service is usually already included in the bill, but it’s nevertheless recommended to give an extra 10-15% tip. If you found the service especially good, feel free to give more. This is the money that allows the service staff to make a living.
This blog post ends our series on how to behave when being hosted by your Indian business partner. You can find further helpful information for your business contacts with India in our cross-cultural training on India.