15 things that travellers absolutely need to know about Indian culture

If you’re travelling to India, especially if you’re a woman, then these are 15 things that you need to know about India before starting your trip.

India is a big country, and the North and South are different in some ways, but I’ve included everything that I learned during the 3 months I spent travelling here so that you can feel prepared for every scenario before your trip begins.

Tourists in Varanasi in India
Tourists in Varanasi in India

I’ve been travelling since I was 18 and I’ve never encountered a country quite like India. It’s a rollercoaster and the differences can feel vast even though we do have so many similarities.

You’ll have so many experiences and learn so much about the world from visiting India and spending time there, and I certainly did. I really feel that there are things that I understand better from backpacking in India because this massive country has had such a big influence on the world.

I really believe in honesty about travel, so I wanted to collate my experiences in this post in order to give you feedback about some of the differences and potentially negative things that you may come up against. There are some cultural differences in India that can be misinterpreted by foreigners, and there were times when I felt really upset and stressed out, but if I’d known more about the Indian psyche I may not have felt that as much.

India can be difficult to travel in but also rewarding, so I’ve put together this list of things you need to know so that you can have the best possible time while you’re here. Many people in India are helpful and kind but there are many people here, that it is impossible to know what you will encounter when you’re exploring and how that will affect you.

The most important thing is to be safe and I’ve mentioned sexual harassment because I’ve heard a few stories about solo female travellers leaving India due to fear so I wanted to discuss how important it is to take steps to avoid that. I don’t like the fact that women have to take so many steps to be safe, but unfortunately, that is what women have to do in India.

Here are my top things that travellers need absolutely need to know before visiting India:

1. Directions and bargaining

Indian cities are massive, and there are hundreds of hotels, restaurants and businesses. Unless it’s a major tourist attraction then its unlikely that a tuk-tuk driver will know where it is, even though they will say they do and request an extortionate fare.

Bargaining with drivers is difficult as they would rather not take the fare than accept a reasonable price, so if that happens to you then you’re not alone. Ultimately, the onus is on you to get to the right place and not on them, which is frustrating as you’re paying over the odds for what is essentially a poor service. Download an offline map like as you will probably end up directing them at some point.

2. Change is a pain

The usual rules apply with change, if it’s a street seller then use your small notes and break big notes in hotels and attractions. The only problem in India is that people withhold change in India, even at tourist attractions and will sometimes stand and wait for you to magically produce the right notes.

After a few negative exchanges where people would try to argue me into submission, I would firmly apologise and say I didn’t have change in order to get it which usually worked. It’s not something I’ve encountered before, but sometimes you will have to take a stand on it.

3. Lying and scams

Lying is a word with negative connotations, but often it is done in order to save face if people don’t know the answer to your question. This can be frustrating but there is no ill-intent behind it. Sometimes people will lie in order to scam you as people can be very entrepreneurial about making money from confused tourists. Everyone gets scammed in India to some extent because tourists are charged so much more for things but here are some common scams and how to avoid them.

4. Sexism and harassment

Sexism and toxic masculinity are both problems in India and woman can really suffer as a result of that. Sometimes, men can get very angry and even aggressive which can be stressful for both female and male tourists. I actually cried after being shouted at by a man, purely because I’d come to the end of my tether with it, but it’s perfectly normal to feel this way.

If you are travelling with a man then people will defer to them as a mark of respect and you may be ignored as a woman. Very occasionally an Indian man may not want to interact with a lone foreign woman which happened to me when my boyfriend was ill. Also, don’t be surprised if the server walks away after the man has ordered, which happened to us quite a few times!

It’s very important to look after yourself as a woman in India as rape, sexual assault and harassment are a problem in some areas of India, especially in the North. It is truly abhorrent but less likely to happen to a tourist as the men know that there would be consequences. To find about how Indian women feel about rape culture in India and whether they feel safe then read this article.

In order to stay safe as a female traveller in India then you need to dress conservatively, avoid eye contact or speaking to men in the streets (both can be seen as a come-on) and by sitting at the front of the bus or next to women or a male companion. My friend who was travelling with her boyfriend for 3 weeks was assaulted 3 times during that period and one of those times she was grabbed by the crotch.

This isn’t to say that all men harass women, but there are certain individuals who will take the chance if they feel that they can and sometimes this is just down to bad luck. It’s important to call out these men if you can as the #metoo movement is gaining traction here.

5. Conservative dress

If you’re a man, you can basically wear what you want and you will still be treated well. I know this because I travelled to India with a man. As a woman, showing thighs, shoulders and chest are all frowned upon. The stomach is less of an issue as many women wear saris.

The onus is on women to be responsible for a man’s lust which is why they cover up, especially young women. I dressed conservatively for my entire time in India, as I received so much attention in India that I couldn’t deal with any more. Be aware that men film female tourists wearing swimwear on beaches. Goa and Kerala are some of the few places in India where its seen as acceptable for women to wear a bikini. Indian women wear a t-shirt and shorts in the sea.

6. Public displays of affection

If you hold hands or kiss your partner in public, then that is considered foreplay by many Indians and they strongly disapprove of public affection between men and women regardless of whether you’re married or not.

People of the same gender can still be tactile and hold hands in the street as part of Indian culture. Gay sex was only legalised in 2018, even though it’s common for male friends to be sexual together. The LGBTQ+ movement is strong in India and I highly recommend the Nomadic Boys blog for more reasons why gay is ok in India.

7. Small talk

If someone walks off during a conversation, it isn’t out of rudeness, but because they have run out of things to talk about or that they want to know. Conversations in India can be very abrupt and sometimes people will hang up or drive away if they don’t know something or have nothing to gain from the conversation. It’s not personal, but small talk doesn’t exist and people don’t always have the patience for it.

8. Staring

There isn’t a lot you can do about the staring as if you feel uncomfortable, or even if you cover your face then people may still continue to stare. Asking people to stop staring doesn’t necessarily stop people, especially if you’re a woman, but you can try.

9. Privacy and selfies

Indians live life quite publicly and have less of an expectation of privacy than many foreign tourists. Don’t expect privacy in any public place, if people want to talk to you, stare at you or photograph you then they may well do so. Don’t be surprised if people line up for selfies as foreigners are fascinating to them. When you’re in your room then lock the door as people can get the wrong room and accidentally walk in on you in your pants!

10. Overfamiliarity

There are certain formalities that are still adhered to in India, so don’t refer to people as your mate or be informal with strangers as that is considered overfamiliar. Expect to be referred to as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ even if you tell people it isn’t necessary. Once other people drop their formalities then so can you.

11. Nobody says ‘I don’t know’

To save face people will give a wrong answer instead of telling you that they don’t know. It’s worth asking a few people about something in order to get to the right answer, as it will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. Sometimes people will get agitated if they don’t know so it’s better to say thank you and walk away than to cause them to ‘lose face’.

12. You need to be assertive

If you’re not assertive in India then people may not respect you and Brits are often considered overly polite. Don’t be surprised if people argue with you as arguing is social currency in India and it isn’t as negative as it seems. If you’re not firm then people may pester or ignore you so you will need to take an assertive stance on the things that you want or need.

13. Communication is loud

People talk loudly in India, and sometimes an everyday conversation can seem like a shouting match. India is a loud and busy place so there is constant noise as everyone tries to make themselves heard. If you’re in bed then don’t expect that people will be quiet to avoid waking you, as that won’t necessarily be the case.

14. If in doubt, remove your shoes

It is considered very disrespectful to touch people with your feet or shoes, so take off shoes if you’re in any doubt. Look out for the pile of shoes at the door and try to keep your feet clean if at all possible!

15. Save your sarcasm

While some people in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh enjoy a dry sense of humour, it usually falls very flat in India. The Indian sense of humour is very funny and you’ll grow to absolutely love it, but sarcasm can be taken the wrong way!

Overall, I would say that India is a fairly safe place to travel apart from sexual harassment and petty crime like when my boyfriend had his bus stolen on a bus during our trip which caused a lot of problems for us. Serious crime like muggings is uncommon and usually the most unpleasant thing you’ll experience is a bout of food poisoning. I was here for 3 months without one stomach complaint so the good news is that not everyone gets ill.

I hope that this advice will help you on your trip to India because it would have caused me much less distress if I’d known all this in advance! The trick is to never take things personally and avoid getting wound up when things go wrong as it can make things worse. India has some fascinating sights and festivals that you can experience and whether you’re here for 3 days or 3 weeks then you’re guaranteed to have a story to tell!

Check out my India page for travel guides for all over India, and I have them for other countries in South Asia too, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Maldives.

How did you experience India? Were you aware of the cultural differences and did that affect your trip? Let me know in the comments below as I would love to hear from you.

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15 things that travellers absolutely need to know about Indian culture
15 things that travellers absolutely need to know about Indian culture
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