Nepalese Culture

Etiquette

There is a strong emphasis on cleanliness in Nepal, influenced by social and religious customs. Certain actions, objects and body parts are considered particularly pure or impure. For example, the head is understood to be the purest part of the body, whilst the feet are the dirtiest. ‘Jutho’ (impurity) refers to food or objects that are ritually polluted or excluded and are therefore inedible. Something becomes jutho when it comes into contact – directly or indirectly – with the mouth of someone else (see Eating below for more information on this). As these ideas of purity are deeply entrenched in people’s diet and personal practice, many of the guidelines surrounding etiquette below relate to respecting them.


Basic Etiquette

  • Elders are always shown a heightened amount of respect and are treated more formally.
  • Objects should be passed, offered and received with the right hand only or both hands together. The left hand is considered ‘unclean’ and is reserved for performing unhygienic activities, like cleaning. It is considered disrespectful to use your left hand when communicating with somebody; all gestures should also be made with the right hand primarily.
  • It is considered deeply disrespectful to step over any kind of representation of a god or deity, or any item used for worship. If someone is coming up a flight of stairs carrying these objects, do not descend the steps until they have passed you, as this is similarly perceived as stepping over the item.
  • Avoid stepping over someone’s outstretched legs.
  • Do not take another person’s hat (topi) off their head, even playfully. It is rude to touch other people’s heads.
  • If you accidentally do something (i.e. bump into someone or accidentally touch someone with your foot), it is good to apologise and pay back respect by touching the other person’s shoulder or your own foot. Following this, touch your own forehead, giving a slight bow.
  • It is offensive to touch other people with your feet. One of the most humiliating, degrading actions in Nepal is to be hit with someone’s shoe.
  • Take off your shoes before putting your feet up anywhere.
  • One should always sit in a way that avoids the soles of their feet pointing at another person.
  • Do not keep your shoes or sandals upside down. It is thought to mean bad luck.
  • Avoid spilling rice and walking on it. This is an insult to the Hindu goddess of food.
  • Education is highly prized, so avoid touching or kicking books, stationery, paper or other reading and writing materials with your feet. This is considered an insult to Saraswati (the goddess of education).
  • Spitting in public is common as people often chew betel nut and spit out the residue.
  • By “Nepali time”, people are far less punctual than what is the norm in Western culture. However, one’s required level of promptness will change depending on the relationship one has with the person. It is best to be punctual yourself and understand that you are likely to be kept waiting in social contexts. Nepalis are generally more punctual in professional settings.


Visiting

  • Being hospitable is a very important quality in Nepal, and being a guest should not be approached too casually. As it is an honour to host, people are regularly invited to have tea with someone in their house or shop. The common Nepalese saying demonstrates the generous approach to hosting: “Guests are our god.”
  • Nepalis like surprises and may drop in on each other unannounced. They may be led to think that Australians also like surprise visits. However, it is considered rude to invite yourself to join pre-made plans between other people. Wait to be invited to join others.
  • It is common for Nepalis to give invitations to people at the last moment. Therefore, if this happens, avoid interpreting this as meaning your invite was an afterthought. It likely happens to everyone.
  • If you are given an invitation to a specific occasion, it is polite to make time for a short appearance even if you’re busy.
  • Expect to be offered tea and accept it as a gracious gesture, even if you do not drink it.
  • Check at the entrance of a person’s home to see whether they have left shoes outside, indicating you should take yours off. It’s polite to always offer to do so before entering the home.
  • As a guest, you will rarely be allowed to help your host prepare or clean up.
  • Nepalis usually socialise most before eating. When the meal is finished, people usually leave quickly afterward.
  • Some highlanders consider the hearth in a household sacred. Do not throw rubbish or scraps into it.
  • It is polite not to walk into someone else’s kitchen until they have invited you to.


Eating

  • Always wash your hands and mouth prior to eating and again when finished.
  • It is best not to help yourself to a common dish or drink. Wait for the host to serve you instead of serving yourself.
  • Once you’ve touched something with your lips, it is considered polluted (jutho) for others. Do not sip others’ water bottles, eat off others’ plates or offer someone else food you’ve taken a bite of. Similarly, food should not come into contact with a used plate or utensil before eating.
  • Do not use your personal utensil to serve food. There should be utensils reserved for serving everyone provided.
  • When drinking from a common water source, do not touch your lips to the actual rim of the faucet or bottle. If that is too difficult, ask for a glass.
  • If you are the guest, expect to be asked to eat first.
  • Try and eat less on your first serving so that you can ask for a second serving. This is a great compliment to the host.
  • People usually eat with their hands, scooping and serving themselves with the right hand.
  • Only pass food and wipe your mouth with your right hand. The left should only be used to stabilise plates.
  • Hindus do not eat beef out of veneration for the cow. The whole of Nepal has generally followed suit. While it is usually okay to eat it in front of a Nepali, do not offer beef to them.
  • Many Nepalis also abstain from drinking alcohol.
  • If you are eating in view of others, it is a customary gesture to ask anyone around you if they would like some.


Gifts

  • Nepalis tend not to give gifts often or make a big fuss about them. It is polite to bring fruit or sweets as a small gift when visiting someone’s home; however, anticipate that gesture is unlikely to be received with profuse gratitude.
  • Receive and offer any gifts with the right hand only.
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