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Like any distinct culture with a rich history, India has many nonverbal traits that it can call its own. In order to fully understand the scope and depth of any culture’s nonverbal communication, you need to be a part of that culture. As western outsiders looking at Indian culture, there is no way to completely understand the meaning of every piece of nonverbal communication. This understanding can only be gained from study and looking what other people have learned from watching Indians in their everyday culture. Here are a few components of Indian nonverbal culture that we have pinpointed as important to understanding the culture:

-Appearance and Dress

Dress in India varies in style according to regional location; however, the most common men apparel is the dhoti.  This is a long piece of white cotton wrapped around the waist for half its length and then drawn between the legs and tucked into the waist at the back.    In Southern India, the chest is usually left bare, while in the north a shirt may be worn.  Turbans or some form of headdress are common in northern India.  The style of the turban often identifies the wearer as a member of a particular community or as being from a particular region or village.  The kurta, a long tunic-like shirt, and the pyjama, loose baggy trousers are also commonly worn, especially in urban areas.  People wear leather sandals; varieties of locally made shoes, or even go barefoot.  Because leather is considered unclean, shoes are always taken off before entering a temple.  It is also polite to take off one’s shoes before entering an Indian home.       

                                                                                                           Women typically wear the sari, a length of cotton or silk cloth wrapped around the waist, with one end left free and thrown over the right shoulder.  With the times changing, most ladies do not use silk cloth, but rather synthetic fabrics.  The choli, a tight bodice that leaves the midriff bare, is worn under the sari.  Like the men, dress is determined on regional location.  Some rural women draw one end of the sari through the legs and tuck it into the waist at the small of the back.  In some other rural areas, women do not wear the bodice, using just the end of the sari to cover their upper body.   

Regional variations in dress occur throughout India, reflecting differences in caste, community, and locality.  In urban areas, however, Western-style clothing has become the norm, especially for males.  Although women in cities, especially the younger generation, wear Western fashions, the sari is till the preferred form of dress for most females.  Women are recommended to dress modestly unless they wish to invite unwelcome stares.  Since many of India's monuments are also places of worship bare heads and arms must be covered. It is important to understand the proper dress of a particular culture so an individual is not insensitive to their new environment.  

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-Kinesics- Body language and movement

Indian people are direct in conversation. It is not uncommon to be approached my someone and asked: How old are you?  How much do you earn? Are you married?  How many children do you have?  In their culture, it is not seen as too forward or insulting to ask questions.  It is also assumed that two people of the opposite traveling together are married, and any couples traveling together through India should refrain from showing any affectionate gestures because some gestures could be found offensive.  

Indians, like all cultures have distinct gestures and hand movements that mean different things. There are two types of gestures; illustrators, which accompany words, and emblems, which have a meaning all their own because they aren’t used with any words or sounds. One type of gesture is a ‘fight or flight’ gesture. In India, a particular fight or flight gesture is when you slide one hand over your wrist, indicating the use of a traditional Hindu woman’s bracelet called a bangle. If this is done to man, it questions his manhood and provokes him to a fight. Another distinctly Indian gesture is the suicide gesture. This gesture is done by having your palms facing your body then throwing them outward. This gesture evokes the meaning of throwing yourself off of a bridge in to a river. These two distinctly Indian gestures offer us a look at the uniqueness of Indian culture.

The traditional form of greeting is the namaste, where the hands are neatly folded together in a prayer-like gesture.  Handshakes are becoming more common, but women usually refrain from physical contact.  

Indians have have a curious non-verbal way of agreeing with you.  They shake their heads from side to side when they mean "yes," so be careful how you interpret their signals.  Indians are incredibly hospitable, and they are easily offended if refused.  For example, it is not uncommon for an Indian to invite someone in from off the street in which they will treat their guest with tea or coffee.  In such occasion, it is common for the individual to sit on the floor with their legs crossed.  

When sitting try to be as comfortable as possible, because you will be expected to eat with your fingers.  Not only do you eat with your fingers, but it is considered insulting if an individual eats with his/her left hand.  The right hand should only be used, because the left hand is seen as unclean.  Likewise, never receive or give anything with your left hand.  

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Haptics- Touch

In India, touching somebody is considered a special act. Only someone within the same caste system or family may touch you affectionately. The religious significance of touch is very high because there is a lot of touching involved with Hindu ceremonial acts. Touching somebody represents an bond with them and is reserved for family occasions.

Touching somebody on the head is considered an insult. This is especially true if this person is a foreigner or somebody who is foreign to the caste system or family. To the Hindu tradition, the head is the place where a person's soul resides. We can see the significance of honoring your head in the placement of red dots by Hindu females who have gone through some of the rites of passage. Touching somebody else's head without permission or in a wrongful way represents the tarnishing of their soul and should not be done. 

The feet hold the opposite importance for Indians. Feet are considered dirty and the worst part about a person. If you touch somebody with your feet then you have severely insulted them. Touching somebody else's feet is looked at as groveling and begging and again, a person insult to whomever is committing the act. Touching someone's feet is like licking the ground. 

 

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Source for this page:  

Gall, Timothy L., ed.  Worldmark encyclopedia of cultures and daily life.  Detroit:  Gale, c. 1998, pg 290-292.

 


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World View & Cultural Classification
Traditions, Holidays, Folklore, Myths
Values, Proverbs & Language
Nonverbal Issues
Communication within Business Contexts
Communication within Family Contexts
Improving Intercultural Competence

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E-mail questions or comments to mkfinney@depauw.edu
  May 11, 2001