What's an appropriate greeting for the Diwali festival?
October 15, 2010 11:54 PM   Subscribe

Diwali is coming up and I'd like to politely mention this to my close Indian coworkers, similar to a 'Happy Christmas' or 'Happy New Years' they would be likely to say to me. What's the best way, would a simple 'Happy Diwali' be appropriate? If so, what's the correct day for this as it's a 5 day festival from my understanding? This year (2010) it looks like November 5th is the main date.
posted by mikw to Human Relations (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you only know that Diwali exists because of that one The Office episode? Then you're like me. Almost a fifth of the world's population celebrates it, and it took a sitcom for me to find out about it.

I'd bring home-made Indian food to work, but then again I love to cook, and in my book Indian food is The. Best. Ever.

Tradition commands that you have to buy something for your home, regardless of price or size or actual value – it will bring good look to your home and its inhabitants. Mention it to your coworkers. Ask them what they bought for their homes/themselves.

Are you on good terms with your coworkers? Ask them. Ask about the significance of Diwali in their lives, ask about their celebrations, ask about what they do with their families, ask about what comments they would welcome from their coworkers.

Are you not on good terms with your coworkers? Stay out of their most sacred holidays.
posted by halogen at 12:06 AM on October 16, 2010

Thanks for your input. I'm familiar with major celebrations around the world without relying on sitcoms but was after more of a specific point of etiquette here. I'm on very good terms with my coworkers however there's still a cultural barrier, specifically with regards to religion, that I'd like to make sure I wasn't crossing a line with.
posted by mikw at 1:28 AM on October 16, 2010

Just ask, "Hey, I heard it's Diwali this week, are you celebrating?" People from different regions start their celebrations on different days, so the answers may vary. If your coworkers are celebrating, wish them a "Happy Diwali". Ask about their plans, whether they'll be seeing family, whether they have the day off. If you're in a position to fill in so they can have the day off, offer to do so.

If you want to be particularly friendly, stop by an Indian grocer and buy some sweets - laddus, barfi or jalebis would be all appropriate. Bring them to the office for everyone to share. Don't single anyone out or make a big deal of it - just offer sweets to everyone and wish a Happy Diwali to whoever is celebrating. The 5th of November is probably the best day to do this.

(Also, remember that some of your Indian coworkers may be Christian or Muslim, or of another faith for whom Diwali isn't really a big deal. It's fine to ask, but do your best not to assume.)
posted by embrangled at 1:42 AM on October 16, 2010 [13 favorites]

Also, this:

Tradition commands that you have to buy something for your home, regardless of price or size or actual value – it will bring good look to your home and its inhabitants. Mention it to your coworkers. Ask them what they bought for their homes/themselves.

...is a bit weird. Different people celebrate Diwali in different ways. Some wear new clothes, many visit friends and bring gifts, some go to temple, others just hang out with their families and eat till they burst. If you're not of a Diwali-celebrating faith, please don't embarrass your coworkers by telling them what "tradition commands" or claiming that their holiday is personally significant to you. Simply wish them a great day, and express polite interest in their plans -- just as you would for someone celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas.
posted by embrangled at 1:50 AM on October 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

If you don't want to bring in unhealthy sweets, you can bring some sparklers as these are synonymous with Diwali (the festival of lights).
One standard greeting would be "happy diwali and a prosperous new year."
posted by cynicalidealist at 6:49 AM on October 16, 2010

If you don't know about it, then I think showing polite interest in someone else culture and holidays is appropriate, more so than acting knowledgeable when you are not. Prashant, are you and Mrs. _ celebrating Diwali? Asok, I got some sparklers for Diwali, would little Asok like some? Does your family celebrate the holiday?
posted by theora55 at 9:22 AM on October 16, 2010

I'm of Asian descent and earlier this year one of my coworkers stopped by my desk to wish me a Happy Chinese New Year. I knew he meant well, but it was kind of awkward, mainly because I don't celebrate that holiday and I actually had no idea that it was Chinese New Year. For that reason I'd be a little careful on congratulating anybody south Asian looking in your office on Diwali. It could be a little presumptuous.
posted by pravit at 10:43 AM on October 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

do you know for sure that these people celebrate Diwali? I'd find it pretty annoying if someone assumed I celebrated a certain holiday or religious practice just because of where I was from or the color of my skin.

If you are actually wanting to get closer to the personal lives of your coworkers, politely ask about their lives when it comes up naturally. or just bring some Indian sweets in and share them with the entire office on November 5th. For those who know and celebrate Diwali, they'll probably recognize the significance, and the rest of your coworkers can ask if they want to know why you're providing delicious sweets. but I wouldn't go out of my way or make a big deal about the holiday if you're not sure how seriously people take it. I for one would be made rather uncomfortable if someone brought in sparklers for me without asking me about it first.
posted by custard heart at 10:43 AM on October 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

First of all make sure you know what religion your co-workers actually are. Don't assume all people of Indian origin are Hindus, or even that all people who nominally describe themselves as Hindus are equally immersed in the culture and traditions of India. People vary from being almost entirely Westernized to almost entirely traditional.

If you are clear that a person is at least nominally Hindu, and you are on friendly terms with them, it is completely appropriate to start a conversation along the lines of "I hear Diwali's coming up... do you celebrate it?" And then if they seem happy to talk about it you can ask follow up questions like what what they're planning to do, and when.

I don't think it is appropriate for you to bring in Indian sweets for the office. That would be like you bringing in cake for the office when one of your co-workers got married. It's not your place to do it, it's their place, if they feel so inclined. (And they may feel much more inclined if you have shown a friendly interest in Diwali beforehand.)

Equally, I think it is not your place to wish them "Happy Diwali" out of the blue. But you can prepare the ground for it so that it either becomes a natural thing to do by the time the occasion comes around... or... you know by then that it would be unwelcome and you should not do it at all.

Overall it sounds like you are in a good place, where you will naturally take a friendly interest in your co-workers lives, be sensitive to their wishes, and provide them with an opening to share their celebrations with their colleagues if they want to do that.

I think many of them would be very pleased that you showed that interest, so go ahead... just be sensitive that it's "many" not necessarily "all".
posted by philipy at 11:56 AM on October 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you're not of a Diwali-celebrating faith

And even if you are... don't tell other people what "tradition commands".

For one thing Indian traditions by and large don't "command" anything, for another, not everyone is interested in being traditional, and most important of all... Indian culture is at least as diverse as European culture.

What is traditional to do at Christmas in Holland is not the same as what's traditional in Greece, and the same is true for different Indian regions and communities.

I guess if you only know about Diwali from sitcoms then you might also not know that India has many languages and many cultures. It might help to think if of it as being in many ways more akin to a continent than to a single country.
posted by philipy at 12:19 PM on October 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think philipy gives some great advice there. It is important to know that the people even celebrate the festival in the first place and that your taking indian sweets to the office would be a bit strange.

I am a hindu and diwali isn't a five day festival or anything. It is on a certain day, the 5th of November this year, but people celebrate the days leading to it and so they end up becoming minor festivals in their own right.

The 3rd is the day when people buy new clothes, utensils etc. and the 9th is a festival called bhaidooj where brothers n sisters feel gratitude for having each other. Diwali itself is hard to describe as people have so many different versions of celebrating it. My family alone does so many things every year that describing them all would take up a bit of space here.

So the point is, that at least in India, people wish each other 'happy diwali', just like, I guess, people would wish each other 'Merry christmas', but there is a culture of exchanging gifts with close friends. So if you're really really close to these people, and visit them often, then buying them a present for the home or some sweets would be appropriate. In case you go with buying sweets, I think it would be smarter to let them share them with other people.
posted by niyati182 at 12:27 PM on October 16, 2010

None of my Indian friends, including my partner, is Hindu but this might be more of an issue in Canada. Sunni and Shia Muslim, Ismaili, Sikh, Christian- not one Hindu among them. I'd never presume to wish them a happy Diwali any more than I'd wish them a happy Eid.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2010

coworkers stopped by my desk to wish me a Happy Chinese New Year.

I guess this is a derail but my (Asian) coworkers just grimace when people say this. Neither one is Chinese. If it's someone they feel a need to be very polite to they say "thank you," but everyone else gets, "You mean LUNAR NEW YEAR?!"
posted by small_ruminant at 3:26 PM on October 16, 2010

Diwali is also an important holiday in Sikhism and Jainism, not just Hinduism.

To clarify, I don't think it would be particularly strange to bring in Indian sweets to the office, just because. It's nice when coworkers bring in treats for everyone on any occasion. But don't make a big deal about it, don't go about educating everyone on Diwali, don't bring them in to make some sort of a bridge between you and your coworkers of unknown religious provenance. If you want to get to know them, then get to know them.
posted by custard heart at 3:27 PM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since my answer was marked 'best', I wanted to add that I actually agree with philipy. Bringing sweets to the office could be inappropriate - it is sort of your colleagues' place to do so, and they may or may not want to.

I suggested sweets as a sort of, "for extra brownie points, I suppose you could do this..." thing. But since we have people in the thread who only know about Diwali from sitcoms, I should probably have spelled out more clearly what I meant.

[Disclaimer: I'm not Indian. My partner and his family are, though and they've spent the best part of a decade including me in cultural stuff and generally making sure I know how not to make a giant gora ass out of myself.]

So, although I'll defer to the Indians in the thread, I think it might be okay for you to bring sweets in the following situation:

- Your office has a large contingent of staff from Indian backgrounds, such that there's no one 'Indian Guy' who would feel embarrassed and singled out by your gesture.


- You know that many of them actually are Hindu/Jain/Sikh and that they are celebrating Diwali, (because you asked, politely, without bailing up or demanding they explain their particular cultural practices to you).


- You're already friendly with your colleagues and your office is a generally convivial place where people regularly bring in cake or sweets to celebrate birthdays or babies or other cultural and religious holidays.

If any of those things aren't the case, then I agree with philipy - express polite interest, but let your colleagues decide whether to bring sweets. (And secretly hope that they do, because hey, jalebis are great!)

"Asok, I got some sparklers for Diwali, would little Asok like some? Does your family celebrate the holiday?"

Yeah, I wouldn't do this. It's weird to give a consumable like sparklers as a gift. It'd be like saying, "Hey, I heard it was Hanukkah, so um, here, have some candles I bought at the grocery store. They're for your menorah." Weird, and a bit intrusive.

I can imagine a possible exception to this if you live in a jurisdiction where fireworks are legal all year round, but difficult to buy outside of whatever fireworks holiday is sanctioned by the state. In that case, it might be appropriate to mention to a colleague you're already friends with that you have some fireworks left over, and do they want them? (To take home and set off with their families, not to use at work!).

But yeah, if you need to ask what's appropriate, you're probably not quite that close to your colleagues just yet.

In general, the following rules have served me pretty well:

It's SOMETIMES okay to generalise about a group of people, if you have spent a lot of time getting to know individuals who happen to be members of that group: "Many Indian Hindus celebrate Diwali with sweets and sparklers...at least, that's what my in-laws do."

It's NEVER okay to take a generalisation about a group and apply it as an assumption about what a particular person does/believes/prefers: "Asok is Indian, so he must be Hindu, so of course he'll want sweets and sparklers, so I'll bring them to the office and then he'll like me.'

Please, don't be that guy.
posted by embrangled at 4:48 PM on October 16, 2010

Indian here, Happy Diwali is fine. I would skip the sweets and sparklers stuff, if anything the ones celebrating should be handing out sweets!
posted by dhruva at 9:11 PM on October 17, 2010

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