“I’m very sorry,” I told my husband’s aunt over our long-distance call. “I wish I could make it to India for your 25th-anniversary party, but there’s no way I can take time off from work now.” Right after the call, a bystander relative enlightened me that my RSVP, polite by American standards, could be perceived as too forthright by desis. Perplexed, I asked, “So how am I supposed to decline an invitation?” The answer was that there really is no polite way to refuse overtly. You say that you’ll try your best to make it.
Some invitees will even lie outright when they know they have a nil chance of showing up for an occasion. This is considered more decorous than hurting the host’s sentiments with a negative response.
As is the case with many desis born and raised in the diaspora, I imbibed the basics of South Asian manners from my parents. For example, like Gogol Ganguli, who prepares his girlfriend Maxine to meet his Indian parents in the film The Namesake, I instinctively knew that there’s “no kissing, no holding hands” with a significant other in front of family. My parents taught me to eat only with my right hand, to remove my shoes upon entering a home, and other similar rules of conduct. These fundamentals sufficed when I was young, or perhaps I was simply less self-aware.
As I have grown older and more self-conscious, though, I have realized how unfamiliar I am with many subtleties of South Asian decorum. What I find most challenging are the few situations in which what is considered good manners for Westerners flies in the face of South Asian sensibilities. Just as trial-and-error taught me how to decline invitations the desi way, I will surely commit and then learn from many more faux pas in the years ahead. For now, I will share three of the lessons I have learned with the hope that I may spare at least one reader from at least one social gaffe someday. These are based on my personal experiences, so I do not presume that they apply to everyone or all social contexts.
1. American etiquette: As a guest, you are expected to be punctual for social commitments, whether you are a guest to an anniversary party or even when meeting a friend casually. Arriving fashionably late to a party means coming approximately half an hour late.
South Asian perspective: Even coming thirty minutes “late” can be too early. On many occasions, I showed up on time to meet an Indian friend only to discover that she was still at home and had not gotten dressed yet. I have also arrived at parties where the host was still putting up party decorations or was still en route to the venue. Though my intention was to respect the host’s or my friend’s time, my unexpected punctual arrival actually inconvenienced them.
2. American etiquette: When greeting someone whom you know well, it is common to hug him/her.
South Asian perspective: Other than children, it is usually inappropriate to hug anyone of the opposite sex, even if it’s a relative or good friend. All through my childhood I would excitedly hug my uncle every time he came to visit, until one day my mother’s disapproving eye told me it was no longer okay and could send the wrong message. I disagree with her view, but I respect it. So while I still hug my aunt, I now greet my uncle without physical contact.
3. American etiquette: With the exception of your wedding, when you receive a gift from a guest, you should open it and express appreciation right then. For occasions like baby showers and children’s birthdays, gift opening is usually an important item on the agenda.
South Asian perspective: Opening gifts in front of others could embarrass your guests. You should keep them aside and open them after your guests have left. As a child, the first time I invited American friends to my birthday party, they expected me to open my presents. Until I was older, I did not understand why my parents insisted that I wait until the party was over.
For those of us who grew up in the West and regularly interact with South Asian family and friends, occasional misconstruals like mine are an inevitability of life. Of course, this goes both ways. There are many instances when good desi etiquette offends American rules of conduct, but that is the subject of another article altogether. By large, though, I believe that good manners are fairly universal, and most people will forgive and forget our honest mistakes.
Suravi Changlani lives in Baltimore, MD and works as an advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. She loves solving jigsaw puzzles and watching and then over-analyzing Hindi films with her husband. You can follow her on Twitter @suravichanglani.