Hindus are a very socially tolerant and forgiving people. Many alongsiders can tell endless stories of how they have been forgiven for a major faux pas.
However, like all people, there are certain things that are harder to swallow than others. Most of these will look like simple cultural differences on the outside, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious and can’t impact a long-term relationship.
1. Repeatedly Refusing Invitations
The clearest currency of relationship for most Indians is time spent at significant events. At the high end, this includes weddings, funerals, festivals, birthday parties, etc. However, it also includes invitations to dinner, for coffee, or for a family get-together.
If you find yourself repeatedly saying “Oh I wish I could, but I just can’t,” you are in great danger of communicating that you really have no interest a friendship.
This also applies to spontaneous invitations. Say you are dropping off your Hindu friend’s children after an event and she invites you to stay for tea. If you refuse over and over again for fear of imposing, this communicates that you don’t value the relationship or want it to extend further. True friends drop in each other’s homes unannounced and stay invited through dinner.
Relationships are give and take, and they often begin by taking. Start by inviting your Hindu friends to attend your important life events (weddings, funerals, birthdays, etc.). Ask for favors and food often.
2. Misinterpreting Indirect Communication Cues
Sometimes Indians feel uncomfortable when put into a yes/no social situation. When asked, “Are you coming to my party?” they don’t want to say “no” to your face and may give an answer that you interpret as a yes, when it is really a no.
Learn to pick up on small cues that suggest there is more to the conversation that you hear. Also, learn to invite in better ways, such as “I am having a party. I know you have a lot going on, but if you have time I would love to see you there.” The answer to this invitation will be much more clear to you.
Similarly, you should be careful to not give direct answers in socially important situations. If you directly reject food or hospitality, even with a “No, thank you”, you are likely damaging the relationship. “I’d love to, but can’t now. Can we make plans for later?” is a much better response.
Every Indian must know the story of the two Indian students at a meal with an American family. When offered ice cream, the newer of the two students politely said, “No, thank you.” The older said (rudely, by Indian standards), “Yes, please.” The newcomer was shocked at not getting a second chance, but immediately learned the new system!
3. Untranslated Humor Attempts
Humor is extremely cultural. If you come from a background appreciates satire and sarcasm, you need to be extremely careful. These humor forms are not appreciated by a lot of Hindus and you will undoubtedly open yourself up to misinterpretation.
Try to keep your communication free of any attempts at slight humor until you really know each other well. While you are at it, also limit the use of idioms that are usually culturally based and often refer to sports many Indians are unfamiliar with. (“That came out of left field!”)
4. Not Being Able to Eat Together
As an alongsider, you need to have a malleable palette. The more you like (or learn to like) food from different regions of India, the better. Always be willing to try something new and accept second helpings when offered.
When a guest “just doesn’t like Indian food”, many Indians will feel depressed, if not slightly insulted. While it may sound trite, if you won’t eat the food offered in a Hindu’s home, you’ve put up a huge barrier to friendship.
On the other side, when entertaining your Hindu friends, be sensitive to their dietary preferences. You will find people on every side of the spectrum – from Hindus who love a nice rare steak, to people who wouldn’t like to eat at your home knowing that you probably cook eggs in your frying pans (the latter is an extreme, but possible case).
If you don’t know, it’s safest to assume that your Hindu friend is vegetarian. Ask ahead of time if you can. If you are preparing a meal, restrict the food to only vegetarian items and make sure there are plenty of hot, cooked dishes rather than just a random veggie tray from the supermarket.
Your Hindu friends will always be happy to teach you how to make Indian food and you can get most ingredients at the nearby Indian grocery store.
5. Always Talking About Religion Comparatively
Avoid comparing Christianity and Hinduism, especially if you have an agenda or intend to show the weaknesses of Hinduism. Simple comparisons about Hinduism are not possible, and you do not know enough about the Hinduism that your friend belongs to. Your comparative discussion will be seen as combative and uninformed. Even “factual” discussions about the historicity of the Bible or the uniqueness of Christianity are likely too confrontational. .
Hindus value openness and respect and expect you to show that towards them.
Take It Easy
Remember, most social mistakes you can make are easily forgiven. However, these can cause more damage than you may be aware.
Image credit – Wikimedia Commons