Nepal cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
The Nepalese are generally very friendly and curious, and enjoy speaking to people from outside of their country. Good everyday conversation topics for Nepalese would include talking about family members, work, or entertainment such as movies or music, and hobbies. Be prepared to talk about yourself too. You will likely be asked about your family life and work, such as whether or not you are married, or how many kids you have. These kinds of questions may seem over-personal to Canadians, but are casual conversation topics for Nepalese. Nepalese love to talk about different types of cuisine as well, so any food-related topics are great conversation starters. Most Nepalese women are good cooks, so if you ask them about any Nepalese recipe, they will be more than happy to share it with you. Education is also a safe topic for discussion.
Topics to avoid in the beginning include politics, religion, gender and caste differences. Once people have warmed up to you, politics could be a good discussion topic. Even in the current political climate of Nepal, men in particular love to talk about politics at great length. Everyone has their own opinion about politics, and generally enjoy talking about their political views.
Each and every meeting in Nepal begins and ends with the traditional saying ‘Namaste’ with hands in prayer like gesture (palms together and fingers upright at chest level) and a slight head nod (translated, I salute the God in you). When meeting those of higher rank, the term Namaskar may also be used; this is much more formal and reverent. Hand shaking is not the norm in Nepal, particularly between members of the opposite sex. It is best to let any hand shaking be initiated by your Nepalese counterpart especially if you are a woman. The custom is also to use a very light touch when hand- shaking, as opposed to the normal firm grip westerners are used to.
Once formalities and introductions have been made, it is best to lead any discussion with pleasantries, asking after each other’s family as family is central to life in Nepal and about their health etc. (even if you have not met the family members). Conversation are usually carried-out over tea (chai) progressing slowly with ample banter. As status is also very important in Nepal, you may find that Nepalese will often begin new encounters by asking after your name, family and job profile. This helps determine the status of those in the conversation.
When building relationships, if you have met your colleagues’ family, it is expected to ask after them often! For women, your marital status and how many children you have will be asked about often, this is not considered intrusive, so feel free to ask after others marital status and family as well. The topics to avoid discussing with a new acquaintance include politics, the royal family, religion, poverty or any other topics which reflect negatively about Nepal.
Nepalese are generally very friendly people. Once they get to know you, Nepalese may stand close to you while speaking, hold your hand, pat you on the back and even give you a hug. However, maintain a bit of a distance while talking to the opposite sex. When you meet someone for the first time, it is important to say “Namaste” with both hands held together. It is also important to speak modestly as a sign of respect for the person you are speaking with. Do not speak in a loud or arrogant manner, which may come across as rude. Nepalese are very community-driven people and so respect for one another is very important. A lot of work is done through collaboration and agreement with colleagues. If there is a disagreement, it is important to sort it out over coffee or tea rather than to point it out during office meetings. Do not point a finger at someone, as it would be considered disrespectful.
Customs and etiquette are very important in Nepal. It is important to try to adhere to all the various etiquette rules so as not to appear rude. A few charming, though confusing communication styles include how to respond to yes/no. In Nepal, when someone is agreeing or stating yes, they were tilt/ shake their head side to side. Saying ‘no’ is done by nodding up and down. Be aware that to be polite Nepalese will respond ‘yes’ to most questions. To avoid confusion in the workplace, it is best to steer clear of using ‘yes/ no’ questions, but to ask for clarification or details. Pointing using your fingers is considered very rude, use your chin instead and point quickly with your chin in the direction you are referring to, with a tilt back of the head. The head is the most sacred part of the body for Buddhist, so avoid touching anyone’s head. The feet on the other hand are considered the dirtiest part of the body, so avoid pointing with them, having them around food or touching anyone with them. Always remove shoes before entering any home and the temple.
Display of emotion
Nepalese are often smiling and are a friendly people. They do not like direct confrontation. Showing anger in public is not acceptable. Refrain from raising your voice and pointing a finger at someone with whom you are angry. If there is a disagreement, talk it out in private with the person in a humble way to solve the problem. Do not shout in public or call names, which would be considered extremely rude and may even damage your personal reputation among those who witness this kind of behaviour from you.
Laughing out loud is also very common among Nepalese. If someone shares a good joke, it is not uncommon for the whole office to laugh out loud.
Displays of any types of affection, anger or emotions in Nepal are discouraged. While you may notice that people of the same sex are very affectionate, men hugging or walking with arms or hands linked and the same for women, any displays of affection between the sexes is not done in public. As westerners, especially women, are generally viewed as much less conservative then Nepalese women, it is advisable to avoid any displays of affection in public.
Dress, punctuality & formality
People dress formally in work environments. Men wear shirts and pants, and most Nepalese women wear a kurta (long tunic, pants and shawl draped over the shoulders or chest). Kurtas are worn both as casual everyday wear and as formal dress.Women can also be seen wearing shirts and pants. Short skirts are usually avoided, especially if you are visiting rural areas. A sleeveless top is acceptable at work.
In the cities of the hills, dress in the workplace is semi-formal, that is to say, shirt and slacks, but not necessarily a tie for men and longer skirt or trousers for women. Short sleeves shirts are fine, however, nothing which shows the shoulders. In the lowlands, the same rules apply, thought for women, dress should be even more conservative. In the workplace, Hindu women may also be wearing a sari or Kurta pajamas, and Buddhist women may also be wearing the traditional Tibetan clothes (those this is rare in more urban settings). As a westerner, you can feel free to adopt these customs if you so choose. Hindu men also wear the Kurta pajamas and western men can follow suit if desired.
Punctuality is a fluid notion in Nepal. In the cities, when working with western counterparts, punctuality is being adhered to more. However, when meeting national colleagues or local government officials, it is not uncommon for workshops or meetings to begin well after the stated time.
There is a high level of formality in the workplace in Nepal. It is important to emphasize the hierarchy and status of your colleagues. When conversing with a supervisor or superior, it is custom to add the suffix ‘ji’ to their name and they will do the same for you. In order to show respect, it is important to understand and show the respect that is require for the status of each of your colleagues or superiors.
Preferred managerial qualities
Being friendly, respectful and a team player is highly regarded by colleagues. Local superiors or managers will value your education, work experience and knowledge in the area in which you are working. Good writing skills are highly valued as well.
If staff like you, they will be willing to cooperate and work with you. Relationships are very important, and if you behave in a friendly and respectful manner, both staff and your manager will view you in a positive light.
The most highly regarded qualities in the workplace in Nepal are education and experience. As in Canada, being hard working is also highly regarded. It is very difficult to determine how your staff may view you, as Nepalese will not directly share their feelings with you. However, if your staff are very cooperative, it is usually assumed they respect you and will provide you with their best work. As you build relationships with colleagues at work, they will be your best source of information on what is happening in the office.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In the workplace, senior management, including Directors and CEOs, make majority of the decisions. Input will be sought from Managers, but ultimately final decisions are often made according to the senior management hierarchy of the organization.
It is certainly acceptable to go to your immediate supervisor for answers or feedback. It will depend on the personality of your supervisor and how comfortable he or she is in giving you time. Generally, immediate supervisors are available to mentor their supervisees, but again this depends on a case-by-case basis and how much you get along with him or her.
As outlined above, hierarchy is very important in Nepal. Because of this strong adherence to hierarchy, it is common for decisions to be discussed and made by those in the higher ranks. The idea of having inputs from staff, or taking part in bottom-up participatory decision making is beginning to be practiced by organized with higher number of westerners, however, it is not yet the norm. It is acceptable to go to your immediate supervisor for answer and feedback, as this adheres to the levels of hierarchy in the workplace.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Nepalese society is traditional in nature. However the norms of gender relations are changing rapidly among younger generations. In a traditional setting, men are breadwinners and married women are homemakers. In Kathmandu (the capital), women are increasingly seen as breadwinners as well. In rural settings, women typically take care of household duties such as cooking, washing and taking care of children.
In the workplace, few women are in management level positions. Men occupy most of the top jobs in the workplace, especially in private and government sectors. Management structures at non-governmental organizations may be different, and have more men and women working in similar positions.
Although more than 80% of Nepalese are Hindus, people of different religions live harmoniously with each other. Religion is not a source of tension, as in neighbouring countries like India or Pakistan.
Ethnicity is one of the main topics of conversation in the current political climate. Upper caste people known as ‘Bahuns’ hold most of the higher positions in the government, yet other marginalized ethnic groups are demanding an equal share in decision-making processes.
Nepal is a patriarchal society. While strides are being made, it is not uncommon to observe sexism in the office, with regards to levels of authority and promotions. The workplace is still very male-dominated and this has translated into very few women in positions of power. Note that Nepal has The Right Honourable Bidhya Devi Bhandari as its first female President in office (2015).
Ethnicity and class
Ethnicity and class are intertwined in Nepal and they are very important to Nepalese life. While the caste system was officially abolished in the 1960’s, it is still pervasive throughout the country. The class system includes both Hindu and Buddhists (Newar) and is very stratified. Each person’s class is designated by their family lineage and each Hindu name designates a caste level. In the current society it is possible for people to move up the class system through new-found social status. When in the workplace it is important to be conscious of this class system so as to make sure to hire, staff positions properly. This is particularly important when working in rural areas.
The two larger religions in Nepal are Hindu and Buddhism. Though Nepal is now officially a secular state, it was previously a Hindu nation and as such, there are many religious holidays to be enjoyed throughout the year.
The establishment of trust and confidence is a precondition for the development of close working relationships with your colleagues or clients. Canadians’ tendency to separate professional and private life may be misinterpreted as a dislike of someone. A personal relationship may consist of sharing information about your family life, stories about travel, children, etc. It is not uncommon to mix personal and professional life with your colleagues or clients.
In Nepal, it is important to establish a personal relationship with colleagues or to re-ignite this relationship at each meeting before moving onto business. This effort to establish a personal relationship with colleagues is key to all good working relationships. As family is central to life in Nepal, as outlined above, sharing pleasantries about one’s family with colleagues should be adhered to at the beginning of each and every meeting as this will assist with building trust between you and your colleagues.
As you continue working with colleagues and as time progresses, they will introduce you into their lives. This includes introducing you to their family, and inviting you to festivities and family events. This will in term help with all your business workings with these colleagues as well.
Privileges and favouritism
Long-term colleagues usually establish an informal relationship in the workplace. Personal details are shared and bonds are formed. As a result it is not uncommon to see special considerations given to people due to friendship, connections or relationships. If you form such relationships, it will not be a surprise if your colleagues expect special considerations from you in return.
As family is central to life in Nepal, and much of the workplace are also intertwined with family networks and connections. A colleague or employee may expect special privileges due to your friendship. This would be particularly true if your position was one of authority. It is for this reason, that it is important to remain fair and impartial with all work dealings and to adhere to your organization’s HR policies so as to avoid any difficult situations. For larger organizations, this may be less of an issue. If working in smaller organizations in rural areas or with any level of government agencies, expect privileges for family and friends to remain a key workplace reality.
Conflicts in the workplace
Nepalese are generally non-confrontational people. If you have a work-related problem, sort it out privately over a cup of tea or coffee in private, and in a friendly way. Confronting a colleague directly in public regarding work problems would be seen as a personal attack.
If there is a work-related problem with a colleague, it is advisable to not approach your colleague directly, but to attempt to discuss the issue in a round- about manner, usually through another work colleague. As you begin to build relationships, using a colleague which you have a stronger bond with is preferable. By avoiding a direct confrontation, you can discuss the issue through this third-party to understand what the issue is and how best to resolve it. Once this is established, you can privately and discreetly work to modify the problem if necessary.
Motivating local colleagues
A good relationship with colleagues, job satisfaction, compensation, positive working conditions and a good human resources plan such as training or travel may be good motivational factors. Local colleagues will also be motivated if they are assured that their voices will be heard in the case of work dissatisfaction. This holds true especially in the non-governmental sector.
The best motivation is the chance for job advancement or a pay raise. As family is central to Nepalese life, moving up in business could reap benefits for other family members, which is also a motivation.
Recommended books, films & foods
Lost in Transition, by Kul Chandra Gautam, Forget Kathmandu by Manjushree Thapa, Palpasa Café by Narayan Wagle, Customs and Etiquette of Nepal and A Simple Guide to Nepal by Sunil Kumar Jha are good books to explore the history and culture of Nepal.
Food in Nepal is somewhat similar to North Indian food, including rice, lentils, vegetables and meat cooked with similar spices. Most people’s staple foods are dal, bhat and tarkari (rice, lentil and vegetables) which are eaten two times a day – for lunch and dinner, with snacks in between. Momos (Tibetan dumplings) are a very famous dish of Nepal and people enjoy them with chicken, buffalo or pork meat. Newari (of the Newar cultural community) cuisine is especially famous for a variety of different types of food. A book called Taste of Nepal by Jyoti Pathak is a great way to get accustomed to various types of Nepalese food and its recipes.
With more than fifty ethnic groups, the music of the country is highly diverse. Genres like pop, rock, folk and classical are widely found. Rap also sometimes appears on the Nepalese music charts. Many of the country's musical bands are based in Kathmandu, especially the recent ones focused on pop and rock.
Palpasa Cafe (Narayan Wagle), Karnali Blues (Buddhisagar), Massacre at the Palace (Jon Gregson), Into Thin Air (Jon Jon Krakauer), Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season (Nick Heil), The Waiting Land (Dervla Murphy), A History of Nepal (John Whelpton), Snake Lake (Jeff Greenwald).
Himalaya (Caravan), Lahure
TV is centered around cricket and news. Nepal TV is a key station in the country.
While there are countless traditional music genres, the most common type of music will be from India or western influences.
There are many taboos associated with food. As once you have touched food, it is considered unclean, as such, some rules to follow are to avoid touching food on anyone else’s plate, when drinking from a shared water bottle, don’t let it touch your lips. Remember to only eat with the right hand. As Nepalese use the left hand for cleaning after defecation, it is considered unclean.
Dal Bhat is the national dish of Nepal. Dal is lentil soup and Bhat is rice. In smaller rural lowland areas, this is eaten three times a day. Momos, or traditional Tibetan dumplings are also very popular. In the hills, all types of Indian and Tibetan food are also prevalent. As a large majority of Nepalese are Hindu, beef is not eaten, but you may see buffalo meat often.
There are many historic architectural buildings and sites you can visit to learn more about Nepalese culture. The palaces and temples of Bhaktapur, Basantapur, Patan and Hanuman Dhoka are great places to visit to learn about the country’s history. Hire a local tour guide who will give you an interesting history lesson about each piece of architecture. There are several art galleries across the city of Kathmandu, such as the National Art Gallery, which provide insights into Nepali culture as well.
Learning to cook Nepalese food will win many hearts. If you can find a local person who will teach you a few dishes, that will be a bonus. Sports such as soccer and cricket are very popular in Nepal. Most men follow world tournaments in both of these sports on television. There are a few local sports teams that you can join if you are interested – this will also help you to make local friends.
You can also visit museums such as the Royal Palace, Patan Museum, National History Museum of Nepal, Tribhuvan Museum and National Museum of Nepal. There are many temples across the capital city, several of which are ranked as UNESCO heritage sites. A few personal favourites are Swoyanbhunath temple, Pashupati temple, Boudhanath square and Krishna Mandir in Mangabazar.
To taste Nepalese food, there are many authentic restaurants in places like Thamel, Durbar Marg, Jhamsikhel and Mangabazar that will provide you with a wide variety of Nepalese food. Newari and Thakali cuisines are particular favourites among many Nepalese.
As national/ religious/ family events are weekly events, they are one of the best means of learning about the local culture or about your colleagues. The best way to learn about the local culture and people is to travel around the cities and the countryside. Kathmandu is full of ancient sites such as Swayambhunath and Boudhanath. Outside the Kathmandu valley, there is the lowland holy city of Janakpurdham, the wildlife game reserve at Chitwan National Park, or of course, hiking the Himalayas. Some of the best treks are out of Pokhara (such as the Annapurna circuit). For the braver out there, there is the hike to Everest base camp (or alternatively, a short flight over the mountain to see the peak from the air).
Tenzing Sherpa is regarded as one of the country’s National Heroes, as he was the first Nepalese to climb Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary. Nepalese also consider historical martyrs such as Ganga Lal Shrestha and Dasrath Chand as National Heroes because they fought for independence from the Rana Regime. Every year on January 30, Nepal celebrates Martyrs' Day to honour these individuals. Ganga Path, a road in central Kathmandu, has been named after one of these National Heroes. Shahid Ganga Lal Hospital in Kathmandu is named after him as well. Ganga Lal's statue is installed on Shahid Gate, a monument to the martyrs of Nepal.
While there are countless gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion, some key National Heroes in Nepal include; King Janaka (one of the great ancient kings), Prithvi Narayan Shah (1700’s, first king of unified Nepal), Tribhuwan Bir Bikram Shah (King in the early 1900’s, solidified power in the country), Tenzing Sherpa climbed Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary (the first to summit)
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no significant shared historical events between Canada and Nepal that may affect work or social relations. Most Nepalese generally consider Canadians to be friendly.
There are no specific shared history events between Canada and Nepal. However, as Canadian organization and businesses have been working for years in Nepal, there is large recognition of Canada and its people. At the same time, there is a large Nepalese diaspora in Canada, particularly Toronto, which also increases the links between Nepal and Canada.
Stereotypes may include Nepalese not being able to speak English properly. In reality, many educated people in Kathmandu can communicate effectively in the English language. Other stereotypes may include Nepalese having a strict caste system. The caste system in modern cities and amongst educated people is not practiced rigidly in Nepal. Nepalese are very hard working, so any stereotypes around considering them to be lazy would be harmful for effective relations.
One of the largest misconception about Nepal is that the economy, lifestyle, and country is based around its mountaineering activities. In truth, Sherpas are a small minority in Nepal and hiking is only one of the key drivers of tourism.
About the cultural interpreters
SME has eight years of experience in research, monitoring, evaluation and program management in Nepal and Canada. With two Masters degrees in Public Policy and Gender Studies, she has expertise in managing, evaluating and reporting on multi-million dollar projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Department for International Development (DFID) and United Nations in Nepal. While working with the Federal Government of Canada, she has evaluated and produced analysis reports on the impact of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Tribunal on Canadian society. She has also developed a monitoring and evaluation manual for projects funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) for their international partners and has trained the trainers on M&E approaches. She is currently researching and conducting evidence based monitoring and trend analysis on Canada's intake of refugees from Eastern Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and South America.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a Masters’ degree in International Development Studies. I have been working in the international development field since 1998 and have worked with conflict- affected communities, focusing on youth in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In that time, I’ve lived and worked in the Philippines, Tajikistan, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Nepal, Cuba, the DRC, Northern Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Burkina Faso. My areas of expertise include education, community development and livelihoods. I have had the opportunity to work extensively with small local community development organization abroad as well as with the UN. Now based in Canada I have been working with both small and large Canadian NGO’s with projects overseas.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.