Q. I am planning a backpacking trip through India, what kind of dress and manners am I expected to upkeep when visiting, specifically the Taj Mahal and places of worship? – Francine Blonjeaux, Montreal, Quebec
A. Different countries can have varying customs, with many steeped in hundreds of years of tradition. Though leeway is often granted to tourists and foreigners. Brushing up on some general etiquette beforehand will help keep faux pas to a minimum (and the effort will show that you respect the culture of your hosts).
How to Dress
When visiting places of worship—Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques; even homes—it is important to remove your shoes before entering. Dress should be modest and respectful. For women this means covering hair, arms, shoulders and legs. If possible, men should not wear shorts.
Because the Taj Mahal is a large international tourist attraction, visitors aren’t expected to follow a specific dress code, however discretion is advised.
For women, short skirts and bare arms might attract unwanted attention from locals, while others will be quizzical at the sight of a wealthy Western man in shorts, which are traditionally worn by lower castes.
For other attractions, such as the Sun Temple in Konark or the Bodhgaya, a site of immense religious importance for Hindus and Buddhists (where Gautama Buddha attained nirvana), a modest dress code is strictly advised.
It’s also disrespectful to take a picture of yourself in front of a deity statue, including Buddha.
In India, as well as Southeast Asia and the Middle East, public displays of affection are frowned upon (or illegal) and couples should keep a comfortable distance from each other. This means no hugging, kissing or even hand-holding.
However, it is a common sight in India to see men who are close friends walking down the street holding hands, or with their pinky-fingers hooked.
In many countries the head is seen as the highest part of the body, literally and figuratively, so avoid making any sort of contact with someone’s head. Likewise, the feet are the lowliest part of the body and should never be pointed towards anyone.
Also, avoid touching people or gesturing with your left hand, which is traditionally used for hygienic purposes, and women must never touch a monk. Don’t be turned off by the custom of eating curries with your hands, but remember to only use your right.
Pointing with a finger is considered rude; use an outstretched palm instead. Standing with your hands on your hips is also seen as a sign of aggression.
Every country will have its quirks in terms of dos and don’ts, like in Bangladesh, where a “thumbs up” is an extremely obscene gesture, or in Turkey, where the “OK” sign is a grave insult.
Check out www.traveletiquette.co.uk for a comprehensive rundown of most cultural mores, while www.hellobackpacker.com has a handy list of obscene hand gestures from around the world.