We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in India

India’s rich and multi-layered cultures are dominated by religious and spiritual themes. While it is a mistake to assume that there is a single unified Indian culture, there certainly are unifying themes that link the various cultures. India’s cultural heritage is expressed through its myriad of languages in which much great literature and poetry has been written. It can be seen in its music – both in its classical (Carnatic and Hindustani) forms and in modern Bollywood music. India also has a vast tradition of classical and folk dances. Art and theater flourish amongst the bustling cities of the country, against the backdrop of the ever expanding western influences.

Indians value their family system a lot. Typically, an Indian’s family encompasses what would be called the extended family in the West. It is routine for Indians to live as part of the paternal family unit throughout their lives – i.e. sons live together with their parents all their lives, and daughters live with their parents till they get married. The relationship is mutually self-supporting. Parents may support their children for longer than is common in the West, brothers and sisters may support each other, and sons are expected to take care of their parents in their old age.

“Living with parents” does not carry the same stigma as it does in the US. Naturally, the arrangements are not perfect and there are strains and breakups, especially by the time the third generation grows up. Also, it has now become common for children to move away from the parental house for education and employment. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the joint family is still seen as the norm and an ideal to aspire to, and Indians continue to care about their family’s honour, achievements and failures even while they are not living together.

Despite the weakening of the caste system, India remains a fairly stratified society. Indians care more about a person’s background and position in society than is the norm in the individualist US. This attitude, when combined with the legacy of colonial rule, results in some rather interesting, if unfortunate consequences. People with white skin are placed high on the societal totem pole. People with dark skin, however may find that they are discriminated against. If it is any consolation, Indians display similar prejudices based on skin colour and ethnicity among themselves and not just towards foreigners. (See more in the Stay Safe and Respect sections)

With this, you had the primer on key facts about India, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on India food and drinks:

Local food you should try in India and No miss drinks in India.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in India? Please comment below.