China: Etiquette

Avoid talking about any form of politics or any form of religion.   Good topics: Chinese food, sports or places to visit. Follow the feeling of the person you are talking too. If the Chinese side initiates the discussion, it’s OK to follow. Do not try too hard to “go Chinese”. Chinese do not expect you to know all of their etiquette, and they make allowances for foreigners. Keep the guidelines in mind, but above all, be yourself.

You need to expect problems, and have patience in solving them. Expect the unexpected, and have patience.

The Basics

Crowding

Being such a crowded culture used to living together in tight quarters, the Chinese comfort zone of personal space is much tighter than those of Westerners. There’s almost no concept of personal privacy, especially same-gender privacy. The concept of lining up, or queuing, is not known to most Chinese. Frequently, a Chinese person will walk to the front of a crowd to ask for what they want. No one will complain. People will push in large crowds and do not mind being crowded, or bumped. Chinese people are used to being crowded in stores, buses, elevators, etc.

Touching

The Chinese are not comfortable with physical contact, so refrain from any back-slapping or arm-touching. They will be uncomfortable with your touches, hugs, back slaps or other types of contact. Once you are familiar with a Chinese person, they may feel very comfortable to take your hand or arm when guiding you along the street or talking to you. The exception is with close same-sex friends: You might see women walking arm-in-arm or holding hands or a guy with his arm draped around his buddy.

Hands & Pointing

Never point with your index finger.   The Chinese point at objects with an open hand instead of the index finger. Beckoning to someone is done with a palm facing down and move your fingers in a scratching motion. Never use your index finger to beckon anyone.   Snapping fingers is considered very rude.

Feet

In China, people are more aware of the fact that the public ground is dirty and unhealthy. One of the reasons for this is because spitting is a common hygienic habit amongst traditional Chinese people. Most Chinese remove their shoes before entering their home and would request you do the same. Consequently, it is easy to understand that shoes are considered dirty. Therefore, never put your feet up on a desk or a chair and never cross your leg so as to have the bottom of your foot toward a person.

Noses

Blowing one’s nose in a handkerchief and returning it to one’s pocket is considered vulgar by the Chinese. It is common for Chinese to spit and blow their nose (without a handkerchief) on a public street. This is not considered rude in traditional China. In the modernized cities, there are public awareness efforts to stop these habits.

Noises

Chinese may suck air in quickly and loudly through lips and teeth to express distress or surprise at a proposed request. Attempt to change your request to allow them to save face.

Meeting & greeting

These days, there’s plenty of exposure to the ways of the West (via pirated DVDs mostly) and most people will be ready for a handshake from a laowai. They might even be proactive in offering one first. But it’s best to avoid hugs, especially different-gender hugs.

Introductions

Chinese introductions can be friendly and relaxed or very formal, even austere.  Chinese may not smile when introduced, as they are taught to not show emotions openly. When you are introduced to a Chinese group, they may greet you with applause to show appreciation and respect for your presence with them. Applaud back.

Vocal Greeting

A common greeting is ni hao ma? (nee HOW ma), which means, “How are you?”. You can simply say ni hao which means “Hello”

Business Cards exchange

Business cards in China are referred to as “Name Cards” (pinyin: “ming pian” and phonetically “min pen”).   Exchanging cards is a ritual, always done with both hands accepting any name card given, study it, look at it, cherish it, then IF you have a name card, return the ritual by using both hands to present your card (Chinese side face up toward them), and while they look at your card, continuing cherishing the name card you received.

Respecting Seniority

The Chinese show great respect for the wisdom and experience of its seniors.  The senior people present will initiate the greetings. Greet the oldest, most senior person before any others. Paying attention to and making an effort to communicate with the senior members of the group will be greatly appreciated.  In group introductions, line up according to seniority with the senior people at the head of the line.

Formality

Use family names and appropriate titles until specifically invited by your Chinese host or colleagues to use their given names. You are unlikely to be on a first-name basis with your Chinese counterparts until your relationship is established.  Do not try to become too friendly too soon, and do not insist that your Chinese counterparts address you by your given name. The Western pattern of quick informality should be resisted.

Names

Address a person using his or her family name only, such as Ms. Chen or Mr. Wong. The Chinese family name comes first and is usually one syllable. Westernized Chinese might reverse their names when visiting and sending correspondence abroad. Therefore, it is always a good idea to ask a native speaker which name is the family name.  Chinese may call close friends and family members by their given names. “Yao Ming”so he’d be addressed as Mr. Yao. But these days, many Chinese — especially younger ones and those in tourism — have adopted an English name to make life easier for everyone.

Professional Titles

For business purposes, it is traditionally acceptable to call a Chinese person by the surname, together with a title, such as “Director Wang” or “Chairman Li.” Avoid using someone’s given name unless you have known him or her for a long period of time. Formality is a sign of respect, and it is advisable to clarify how you will address someone very early in a relationship, generally during your first meeting.

Women’s Names

You cannot tell women’s names from men’s names.   Chinese women continue using their maiden names even after marriage, but may indicate marital status by using Madam, Mrs., Taitai or Furen with their maiden name.  “Mrs. Wang” may be married to “Mr. Li.”   Chinese will often address foreign women by using “Miss” plus their first name.  “Mrs. Sarah Jones” might be addressed as “Miss Sarah.”

Western Style names

Some Chinese use their names in Western order (family name last) on business cards. Those who frequently work with foreigners may take a Western-style given name-for example, David Li.   My personal favorite at Starbucks in Shanghai – I order my coffee and pay my money to a guy with a name tag of “Satan”, and pickup my coffee from the barista name “God”.

“Lao Wai”

Among themselves, Chinese may call you “lao wai” (“foreign devil” or “barbarian”) or perhaps “mei guo lao”(“Yankee”). If you happen to notice this, don’t take it personally. While these terms for foreigners are condescending, they are applied to foreigners generally and reflect China’s traditional view of itself as the “Middle Kingdom,” or center of the world. So, again, if you are referred to as “lao wai” you are not being insulted.  It’s a good-humored nickname for foreigners, particularly for westerners; and has become an unconscious way to address foreigners in China.

Banquet Seniority

Circumstances

Yes/No

The culture is entirely different within China – saying yes to a foreigner typically means no (Chinese abstain from using the word no wherever possible, and certainly with foreigners).  Often you will have people tell you “absolutely yes, no problem, 100% guaranteed“, when really there is zero chance of this happening.

Compliments

If a Chinese person gives you a compliment, it is polite to deny it graciously. Modesty is highly valued in China. Similarly, you should, in most cases, attempt to find a way to compliment them too.

Standing

When you’re being introduced to someone, stand up and remain standing for a while if you’re seated.

Seniority

In China, seniority matters: the oldest person gets the most respect so address them first when first meeting (or saying goodbye).

Discussion

Don’t be surprised (or offended) if conversation suddenly turns to topics that you feel are too personal. For instance, from personal experience, don’t be surprised or offended by comments or questions about:

  • how much money you make; or
  • your personal appearance (such as your weight); or
  • the size of your penis (yes, it’s asked); or
  • why you’re not married; or
  • why you don’t have kids.

In China, these types of questions aren’t considered rude, indeed, the opposite — they are meant to bring friendship closer. Try not to be offended.

Criticism of China

You should avoid making any criticism about China, or against the government. I’ve found that most Chinese have pretty thin skin when foreigners make comments comparing China with their own countries. It’s almost as if there’s a collective angst about their past and recent history (being exploited by foreign powers, portrayed in the Western media in an unflattering way, etc) that makes for any discussion a no-win situation. Even if they ask you to share your personal opinion, avoid the topic wherever possible.

Paying the bill

In China, coffee shop, bar or restaurant bills are never shared (they don’t “go Dutch”). The person hosting will order all of the drinks or dishes — which are shared by everyone— and pay for everything. It’s okay to make a token effort to grab the bill but you’ll embarrass them if you do end up actually chipping in some cash. Most likely, you won’t even realize that they (or their assistant) slipped away and paid the check.

Entering a home

It’s probably obvious, but if you’re invited into someone’s home, take your shoes off. They’ll give you a pair of slippers (which will likely be 3 sizes too small for your gargantuan feet).

Toby hosted at typical small banquet business meeting lunch

Eating

This is where the cultural differences really begin to show. To the average Westerner eating out in China, it seems that there are no rules governing table manners. But Chinese table manners do exist….they’re just not as evident to the Western eye. So some tips & thoughts if you’re invited out for food:
  • Wait for your host to tell you where to sit. Especially in more formal events, age and seniority are important in seating arrangements. The “most honored” guest will usually be seated to the right of the host, facing the door.
  • Probably the biggest faux pas you can make at the table is to stick your chopsticks straight up in your rice (bad luck because it resembles incense stick offerings to the dead).
  • Also, don’t lick your chopsticks. And don’t use them to gesture or point at someone. Drumming your chopsticks on your bowl is another no-no (only beggars do it). Finally, use communal chopsticks, if provided, to take portions onto your dish. If you’re chopsticks-challenged, it’s okay to ask for silverware (or better yet, travel with your own, since many will not have knives and forks).
  • Don’t be surprised if your host puts some food on your plate (a way of honoring you with the choicest morsels).
  • It’s polite to sample at least a little of everything. The host will often wait for guests to grab something from a dish before they dig in. Don’t forget to pepper in some comments about how tasty everything is.
  • Feel free to bring your bowl up to your mouth, slurp or even burp loudly if you’re so inclined. Live a little!
  • A random fish tip: Don’t flip over a fish to get to the meat on the other side. In the fishing villages of ancient China, this meant that someone’s boat would be overturned but today it’s just another “bad luck” superstition (they have a lot).
  • Formal banquets (e.g. business meeting) tend to have a marathon number of dishes so pace yourself.
  • It is common practice to spit things out on the table or the floor. In more upper-market restaurants people usually refrain from spitting on the floor and prefer to drop onto the plate.
  • Don’t leave an empty plate at the end of the meal. Otherwise, your host loses face (“Oh no! I didn’t order enough food!”). Similarly, don’t polish off the last remaining bits of food on any of shared dishes. But also don’t leave too much leftover either because it indicates that the food wasn’t good.
  • When using a toothpick, use your free hand to cover your mouth.

Toby in a ‘drinking competition’ with the GM of the DongFang Grand Theatre, Changchun

Drinking

Alcohol is a big part of the dining experience. I personally think that China — like many Asian cultures — go overboard. There’s an almost college mentality at work: The more your guests drink, the better. I think a big reason is that Asian cultures tend to be less expressive and more formal – getting wasted with your new friend is not only a bonding experience, but is the only way that some feel comfortable enough to let their hair down and just relax.
  • Wait for host to make the first toast before drinking. But pace yourself, because afterwards, everyone takes turns making toasts (a seemingly never-ending round of toasts). You’ll notice that every time your glass is getting close to being empty, someone will have already filled it up.
  • It’s also considered rude to not raise your glass and join in a toast. The result is that you can find yourself completely bombed quickly. If you’re not a big drinker or not in the mood, you can claim that you’re allergic to alcohol. But join in the toasts by raising your tea or soft drink or water glass.
  • Be forewarned that if you’re talked into a first alcoholic drink, you can be sure it’ll be followed by more peer pressure than a fraternity pledge week (and also complete with drinking games).
  • To avoid getting totally plastered, use an old Chinese trick: Just take tiny sips or pretend to drink by raising your glass to your closed lips.
May 17th, 2008|

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