While many articles have been written about cross-cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications between foreigners and Chinese, often times, these articles are written from the perspective of the expat. The following article, which recently appeared on wenxuecity.com, follows similar ground but from a Chinese perspective, and for a Chinese audience (hence all of references to “foreigners” which in this case, generally means “Westerners”). While we may think that some of the explanations are a bit odd, it is nonetheless an interesting piece of cultural anthropology. With no further ado, here are the top ten misunderstands according to Chinese.
1. Praise (赞美)
Foreigners take delight in praising others, and are also happy to receive praise, but Chinese will often refuse another person’s praise in order to demonstrate their modesty. This refusal will likely baffle foreigners, as it seems to them that you don’t accept their sentiment. Meanwhile, Chinese will often say kind words to another person with whom they are trying to curry favour. One way we ingratiate ourselves is by telling guests things like: “You must be tired? You should go and have a good rest” (您应该很累吧？好好休息一下). However foreigners will misunderstand this common greeting, and instead think that you are commenting on the state of their physical appearance. Foreigners really like it when others exaggerate their youthfulness or strength, and if you question their physical heath (as in the above example), they may get upset.
2. Saying “Thank you” (致谢)
Chinese believe that you needn’t say “thank you” to family members or good friends after they help you, and that saying such a thing actually implies an unfriendly or estranged relationship. But foreigners are accustomed to saying “thank you” when a family member or good friend helps them, and they are taught to use polite language such as “thanks” and “please”. So, when you’re hanging out with foreigners, you definitely don’t want to be ungenerous with your “thank yous”. Not saying “thanks” will cause foreigners to assume that you are shy or impolite.
3. Travelling with a friend (出游)
When Chinese travel with friends, if someone wants to buy some souvenir, they will generally first calculate how many people are in the group, and then purchase accordingly. Even if someone politely declined, Chinese will still buy one for him or her. But when travelling with a foreigner, if you decline a souvenir, don’t expect to get one anyway. Foreigners believe that they are respecting your decision by not buying you something after you’ve declined it. So, if you really want something, you should directly say so. And afterwards, be sure to sincerely thank them (see #2); in their eyes, that’s the polite way of doing it.
4. Addressing (称呼)
When foreigners hear Chinese referring to them as laowai (老外), they’re unhappy, because they don’t think of themselves as being old, but as young and healthy. It’s only after they hear Chinese call a small child laowai that they realise that it has nothing to do with age, that it’s just a respectful form of address for foreigners.
5. Seeing someone off (送别)
The manner in which Chinese express emotions is relatively restrained. When seeing somebody off, choking back your tears, being stingy in your embrace and other “indifferent” displays of affection will deeply shock foreigners. So, if you’re saying goodbye to a foreigner, your manner should be a bit more unrestrained, lest they think of you as cold-hearted.
6. Give yourself a round of applause (鼓掌)
During Chinese public speeches, if others start applauding something the speaker has said, to express his or her gratitude, the speaker will generally pause the speech and start clapping along with the audience. Foreigners don’t understand why you’d want to applaud yourself, which they see as very immodest. So, if your giving a speech in front of a bunch of foreigners, it’d be better to bow or wave instead of applause. Of course, just smiling and standing there is an option as well.
7. Eye contact (眼神)
For many Chinese, when talking with others or giving a public speech, we shy away from making eye contact with the audience, as it’s considered quite rude. But when foreigners give public speeches, they are sure to keep near-constant eye contact with the audience, and it’s unlikely that you’ll see a public speaker who buries their head in their manuscript while talking. If you don’t have the courage to keep eye contact with your audience during your public speech, then don’t expect the audience to interact or fully engage in what you’re saying.
8. Gift giving (送礼)
Chinese like to give gifts in pairs, such as two bottles of wine, two cigarettes etc. This is done both to show that we are not stingy, and because two is a culturally auspicious number. Also, when visiting a friend or a relative’s house, it’s very common for us to bring them some fruit. But in the West, when someone gives someone else a bottle of wine as a gift, it is always a single bottle. Perhaps this is because it is custom to drink the bottle of wine that the guest brings with the meal, and if the guest brings two bottles of wine, it would seem as if they are a bit of an alcoholic. It’s also uncommon for foreigners to bring fruit to a friend or relative’s house – fruit is generally the kind of gift that you’d bring someone staying in a hospital. Also, when Chinese receive gifts from others, it’s custom to take the gift and quietly set it aside and wait to open the gift until after the guests have left (lest they come off as greedy). Conversely, foreigners hope that you’ll open the gift in front of them, and then thank you for the gift afterward.
9. Being a guest in someone’s home (做客)
When Chinese visit someone’s house, they like to roam about and peek around at everything. But how will foreigners look upon these acts? Although it’s hospitable to make a guest feel at home, for foreigners, it’s still taboo for guests to meander around their house nonchalantly invading their privacy. Similarly, we should refrain from asking them about private matters such as their salary, age etc.
10. Eating (吃饭)
Many misunderstandings with foreigners take place at the dinner table. When Chinese invite foreigners to eat at their house, they will likely prepare 8-10 dishes. It’s best to mentally prepare the foreigners for the size of the meal to come, otherwise they will probably not have any room left by the time the final dishes come out. If you go to a foreigner’s house for a meal, there may only be one or two dishes on the table. Also, the way foreigners will comment on the meal (“These dishes are all so tasty”) are completely different from the way Chinese people comment on the meal (“this dish is too [X]…I’ll make do with it and eat a little bit.”).Chinese express their interest in others by giving them bits of food to eat, which foreigners never do – they’re most happy to let people pick and choose what they want to eat by themselves. Also, when dining with a foreigner, don’t act humble or subtle about what you want to eat – most foreigners are very direct, and if they ask you if you like eating something and you politely decline, they’ll respect your decision and won’t try to give it to you again. So, when dining with foreigners, if you’re hungry, let them know!
I hope you've enjoyed this article. It should help both cultures better understand one another. In short, foreigners’ expressions and methods of dealing with people are very direct, and Chinese are more tactful.