13 Tips to Help Avoid Culture Shock in India

What to Expect in India

Cow in India.
Maremagnum/Getty Images  

If you're visiting India for the first time, you're probably feeling a bit apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. This is completely understandable and is something that everyone who travels to India experiences. India is quite unlike anywhere else in the world and is an assault on all senses, so culture shock is unavoidable! It's part of what makes India such an astonishing, life-changing place.

However, the culture shock can be minimized somewhat if you know beforehand what you'll be in for. The information in this article will help. Also, read up on these common problems to expect in India, etiquette mistakes to avoid in India, and stereotypes about India.

1. Leaving the Airport in India

Stepping out of the airport can be a disorientating experience. You'll probably be struck by two things at the same time -- the heat and the swarm of people. Unless you come from a warm and humid country, you'll definitely notice a change in the weather in most places in India. The amount of people in India is what really takes some getting used to though. There are just so many of them! They're everywhere, and you can't help but wonder where they all came from and where they're going. What's more, you'll notice that most of them are men.

2. Roads in India

Chaos is the word that best describes Indian roads! A trip in a taxi can be a hair-raising experience, let alone trying to cross a road as a pedestrian. There's a system in place whereby smaller vehicles usually give way to larger vehicles, and the largest vehicles rule the road. Drivers weave all over the road, overtake from both sides, and cut other vehicles off on roundabouts rather than give way. To actually cross a road, you'll have to brace yourself to walk out in front of oncoming traffic. However, don't be too concerned as drivers are used to this and will stop. The best thing to do is go with the flow and follow everyone else who's crossing the road at the same time. Hold you hand up towards the traffic an look confident. The roads themselves are in various states of repair. Unsealed roads, roads full of potholes, and partially dug up roads are common. However, in contrast, India also has some excellent highways.

3. Cows and Other Animals in India

Similar to how some people wonder if kangaroos can be found in cities in Australia, they also wonder if cows really roam the streets in India. Actually, it's true about the cows. You'll find these fearless creatures meandering along all over the place, even on the beach. They're huge too, but mostly quite harmless (although there have been reports of cows randomly going berserk and attacking people). Depending on where you travel in India, it's likely that cows won't be the only animals you'll see on the roads. Donkeys and bullock carts are also common. If you go to the desert state of Rajasthan, you're almost guaranteed to see camels pulling carts through the cities.

4. Sounds in India

India is not a quiet country. Indians love to use their horns when driving. They'll honk when turning corners, when overtaking, and incessantly when there are vehicles in the way. The constant noise is one of the most draining things about being in India. The Mumbai government once tried to implement a "No Honking Day" but it was met with shock and disbelief from many drivers. There are other loud noises to contend with too -- construction noise, street processions, loud speakers and bands blaring during festivals, and calls to prayer from mosques. Even the people are often loud and noisy! If you can't understand what they're saying, there are times you may think they're having a fight due to the volume and tone of the conversation. If you think the sound will be an issue for you, do bring earplugs or noise canceling headphones.

5. Smells in India

The smells of India can be the best and worst things about the country. The stench of garbage and urine is common, but so too are the heady rich aromas of spices and incense. Evenings are a wonderful time to explore India's streets as the smell of fresh spices wafts up from the roadside snack stalls, and people burn incense for the gods during their evening prayers.

6. People in India

Ask tourists who've been to India what they liked most and one thing they'll commonly say is the people. Indian society is very close-knit, and Indians are warmhearted and curious. They'll frequently go out of their way to befriend and help foreigners. However, personal space and privacy are unfamiliar concepts to most Indians. The down side of this is that they tend to stare and ask lots of questions, many of them personal in nature. It can be confronting if you don't expect it, but don't be afraid to ask the same questions in return. You won't cause offense. In fact, people will be happy that you've taken an interest in them.

What can be more annoying are the repetitive requests to pose for photos and selfies, especially by groups of young guys. Do be aware that their intentions aren't always honorable (for example, they may use the photos to make up stories about sexual encounters with foreign females) and that you should decline if you don't feel comfortable.

In addition, one thing you'll see a lot is the head wobble or bobble. It can be confusing if you're not used to it!

7. Dirt in India

It's likely that you'll be shocked by the lack of sanitation, and the amount of dirt and garbage lying around in India. Unfortunately, civic sense isn't widespread in India. As far as most Indians are concerned, the most important thing is to keep their homes clean. As long as the garbage isn't in their home, they're generally not bothered. They're content knowing that a sweeper or rag picker will usually come and clean it up. Most things get recycled in India, and picking through trash is one way to make money.

8. Poverty in India

The glaring poverty and begging in India are the most confronting, and hardest things, to accept. The contrast between rich and poor is so obvious, and you never really get used to it. On one side of the street you may see palatial apartments, while on the other side people live in makeshift houses on the sidewalk. It's natural, as a relatively well-off foreigner, to feel like you want to do something to help. However, it can do more harm than good despite good intentions. It's important to keep in mind that Indians want tourists to enjoy exploring their country, not solve its problems.

9. Scenery in India

The great thing about India is that there's a photo opportunity around every corner, so keep your camera handy! The scenery is so stunning and foreign, and full of history, that every photo you take will be interesting. Street photographers especially will love it.

10. Development in India

The booming economy and flourishing development have made India a lot more traveler-friendly in recent years. The influence of the west is being felt across most cities, with supermarkets and shopping malls coming up everywhere. India's middle class is growing and has more disposable income to spend. Most people now have cell phones. Many have computers and the Internet. Cities such as Mumbai and Delhi have become quite cosmopolitan, with an increasing number of modern restaurants, bars, and clubs.

11. Day to Day Activities in India

Expect that it will take a lot more time to get things done than what it would back at home. There are inefficient processes to deal with, conflicting information that's given, and closures due to lunch breaks to contend with. Oh, and of course, the crowds! It can be a challenge to figure out how and where to get things done. Things that make sense back home don't make sense in India, and vice-versa. One of the worst things you can do is ask, "Why?" because often there's no logical answer. India's a great country for building (and testing) patience. However, if you're persistent it will pay off. There's a saying that anything is possible in India, it just takes time (and a bit of money on the side!).

12. Pricing in India

As a foreigner in India, do be aware that the price you're quoted for items will usually be much higher (commonly up to three times more) than the price Indians would pay. Hence, it's important to negotiate. Never accept the first price given. Start with these tips for bargaining at markets..

13. Safety in India

You may have heard of India being referred to as "unsafe". In reality, for foreign tourists, India isn't really any more unsafe than anywhere else. However, it can be undeniably uncomfortable. Women can expect to receive unwanted attention from men, and this may include being harassed or groped. If you're a female who's traveling solo, give consideration to visiting South India first, especially Tamil Nadu where harassment is much less prevalent.

All in all, it does take a while to adjust to India. Before long though, you'll find yourself falling into a love-hate relationship with the country, its frustrations and its strange intangible appeal.