Marty was a bit nervous about his first trip to India. He was visiting a team he had worked with for a few months, and was delivering some additional training to them.
A driver with Marty’s name greeted him at the airport and tried to take Marty’s bags. Marty felt a mix of suspicion and do-it-yourself-ness, and got into a small tug-of-war match to take his bags away from the driver.
When he walked into the office after freshening up, the entire office stood up with smiles to greet him. Marty gave a mostly blank look and tried to quickly find a place to set his things down. The head of the office came and asked if he’d like to join him for tea. “No thank you, I’ve got to get a few things organized here first,” Marty said.
After getting settled, the team took Marty out to lunch. On the way, Marty said he was still feeling a little jet-lagged and wasn’t very hungry. After looking over the menu, Marty selected a single bowl of soup. “Don’t you want some rice or Indian breads?”, the team asked. “No thank you, I’m trying to watch my carbs and my wife says I need to eat less gluten.”
Atithi Devo Bava
Nothing is more central to the Indian view of hospitality than atithi devo bhava, ‘the guest is god’. And any trip to a Hindu temple or pooja closet will show you that they treat their gods very well.
However, some guests like Marty don’t turn out to be very gracious gods in return. They reject gifts, go into seclusion, and seem to dislike their time in India. Westerners in general turn out to be very bad ‘gods’. We think we don’t deserve better treatment than others. We try to carry our own bags, open our own doors, and pay for our own food.
This kind of behavior threatens to really damage your relationship with your India team. If you don’t act like a good guest, you will leave a bad impression.
The best advice I’ve learned about being a gracious guest is to play the role of the god. Pretend that you have a role to play. Indian culture demands that someone be honored in this way, and you have been chosen to play the part. Rejecting that role for the sake of your own personal comfort or trying to change the culture is not the path you want to walk. We should spend more time thinking about how to be a good guest in India.
13 steps to being a better guest (‘god’):
1. Bring a gift. I put this first because I always forget it. A gracious god rewards devotees with small blessings. If you are visiting an office, bring a bag or two of small chocolates from your home country for everyone to share. If you are visiting a friend, bring a simple home decoration, some of your favorite music, or some alcohol if you know that they drink.
2. Eat a lot. Indian gods are known for eating well and Indians love to fill your stomach. Visiting India is not the time to start a diet. The gods would never say “I’m full” just as dessert is coming out. Some additional thoughts:
- Don’t be picky about the food. Just because you think you don’t like ‘Indian food’ doesn’t mean you won’t find something you love.
- Eat lots of small portions. Better to eat a little bit of everything than leave something untouched.
- Pick one food to ask for seconds. This is very important because it shows that you really liked something.
- Order local food. Even if they offer it to you, stay away from pizza, pastas, and ‘burgers’.
- Praise the food. Vocalize your enjoyment of the food several times.
3. Never refuse tea/coffee. If time is a currency of relationships, then tea/coffee is a way to get rich quick. Order it ‘regular’ (with milk and sugar) as often as you can. Don’t request a refill as you’ll likely have some more very soon.
4. Never say “thank you”. When you say thank you, you trivialize the relationship and turn it into a simple transaction. Indian gods never give a simple “Thanks.” Instead, say things like, “What a wonderful meal!”, “This was fabulous!”, “I feel so blessed to have friends/colleagues like you!” or “You are magnificent hosts!”
5. Don’t expect to pay. 95% of the time, it is inappropriate for you to offer to pay if you are a guest. The only time this doesn’t apply is if you are already good friends with someone, you are at about the same perceived economic level, and there are multiple chances to pay.
6. Greet everyone in the family. If you meet someone’s family (friend or colleague), get to know all the people living in their home and greet them respectfully.
7. Relinquish your schedule. If you are someone’s guest, you are on their time. Don’t fret about the schedule and check your watch constantly. Let them handle everything. Don’t try to make short meetings with other people without informing your host. If you get really nervous about the time of a flight, just inform them that it is leaving 30 minutes ahead of schedule. #TimeIsEternal
8. Stop comparing everything to your home country. Cultural discussions and comparisons are natural and are fun. What is annoying is when every sentence out of your mouth starts with “Well, in my country…”. Learn the right small talk topics to focus on.
9. Be especially gracious and honoring to the highest-ranking person you meet. This can be in the business context (CEO, HOD), or the family (Grandfather/mother). The better impression this person has of your respectfulness, the better it looks for your host. #Powerplays
10. Don’t criticize anything. Even small comments about the dirt on the roads or the insane traffic can come across as offensive if you say them wrong.
11. Be familiar with some formalities. You won’t be expected to do everything perfectly, but it goes a long way to be comfortable taking your shoes off when you enter a house, presenting your visiting card with two hands, or giving the namaste to elders in the family.
12. Learn one phrase in the local language. This will go a long, long way.
13. Follow up about their family by name. After you return to your home, stay in good contact. Asking about ‘Auntie’ or someone’s son will definitely endear you more.
Being a god isn’t easy, especially when you are in a new culture. Take these tips and practice them the next time you are trying to figure out how to be a good guest in India, and live up to the honor that you will be given!
Image Credit: Nevil Zaveri on Flickr