Ten Things Never to Do in China, and Chiafu’s comments

October 24, 2010Chiafu Chen 陳家福4 Comments, , , , ,

Chiafu: I came across a great article on dummies.com that lists out ten things that foreigners should avoid doing while interacting with native Chinese, in order to save them from “certain embarrassment and possibly even outright humiliation”. It is a very useful article and all the ten things it points out are very common and worth paying attention to. As a Chinese who grew up in China, I’d like to go deeper into each of them and offer my own insights.

Never accept a compliment graciously

The virtue of being “qianxu”, or modest and self-effacing, is highly valued in Chinese culture. It is so deeply rooted into the social norm that since a young age, many of us have developed knee-jerking reaction to counter whatever complements are given to us. On the other hand, arrogant behaviors are generally frowned up and looked down on much more than in Western cultures. It is always a good idea to play it safe by never qualifying oneself after receiving complements. However, this is not to say that one should refrain from giving complements to Chinese people at all — as human beings, we all love complements! If you feel your complement is genuine and sincere, do not hesitate to reaffirm it even the other person “denied” or “rebuffed” it. It’s not likely that yo get a “thank you” in return, but I assure you the other person loves hearing your complements.

Never make someone lose face

I completely agree with the original article. “Publicly shaming” is the worst thing that one could do to a Chinese person. That is why you probably would see a much stronger (if not obvious or immediate) reaction from them.

Never get angry in public

I believe being tactful in dealing with conflicts and frustration is a universal thing that people value. This is also related to the previous item: by publicly displaying anger towards a Chinese person, you make them lose face in the worst way possible. Simply calm yourself down if you have the urge of letting it out.

Never address people by their first names first

This is not completely true, especially among younger Chinese generations. My generalization is that majority of people below the age of 35 would not mind if you call them by their first name, even though some might get a bit weirded out, but seldom offended. However, in the case of elders (50+), this can be impolite as the original article pointed out.

Never take food with the wrong end of your chopsticks

There are a lot of particularities surrounding the use of chopsticks. Some others include: avoid using two unmatched chopsticks (in terms of color, length, etc.), never suck on chopsticks, never stick chopsticks into a bow of rice and make it stand vertically (because it reminds people of incense used to sacrifice the dead).

Never drink alcohol without first offering a toast

I get this question a lot from my non-Chinese friends: why don’t Chinese people like going to the bars? While this is not completely true among some of the younger Chinese, the majority of Chinese are not used to the concept of “going out” on a Friday night. Instead, banquet as a group is the most common form of socializing in contemporary Chinese culture, which in many cases inevitably involves alcohol consumption. Toast offering is seen as a socializing obligation, especially from a person with lower status (determined by age, career, etc.) to his or her superior. Toasts are also good opportunities to initiate small but brief interactions with others. There are a lot of aspects that one can pay attention to and perfect in offering toasts: timing, frequency and who to offer first, word choices and tactics to avoid consuming too much alcohol without offending the other person. It is a simple art that can be easily mastered with practice.

Never let someone else pay the bill without fighting for it

I laughed when I first saw the title. Two words: very true. Even if you don’t plan on paying the bill at all, you must make a small symbolic offer to pay, and after the decision is final, how much you regret is for costing the paying party a great amount of a trouble.  Some people are willing to fight to the extreme with verbal coercions and standoff with others contestants. Frankly, this is an aspect of my culture that I can never fully grasp. My best explanation is that such benign, artificially constructed tension somehow manage to bond people closer in the end.

Never show up empty handed

Yes, and always keep it in mind to bring small gifts when visiting a good, but not frequently visited friend; when visiting new people, this almost becomes an obligation.

Never accept food, drinks, or gifts without first refusing a few times

As far as receiving gifts goes, I do not think feign refusing a gift is always a good idea, because you might be misinterpreted and come across as rude. A better tactic would be showing regret to the other party, from the viewpoint that you have caused them so much trouble by preparing the gift (even if this is probably not what you asked for in the first place). The bigger the gift is, the more regret you’ll have to show.

Never take the first “No, thank you” literally

True, and this applies to almost anything you offer to a Chinese person. We are socially obliged not to cause other people hassle or trouble, so you always get an automatic response of refusal when showing what you think is kindness, being it help, food, drinks or gifts. Always insist on the offer if your gut tells you that it is the right thing for them, and they will let you know if they truly do not want it (usually by giving a concert and believable reason for their refusal). It is generally a better idea to over-offer than under-offer.


A few things to note:

  1. These rules are generally more applicable when interacting  with older generations of Chinese. Ever since the rapid modernization of China, younger Chinese have become increasingly receptive to Western social concepts, and they often adopt a mixture of Chinese and Western social conventions themselves.
  2. It is never possible to generalize anything when we are talking about 1.3 billion people, with a vast amount of cultural and regional diversity. I believe that the best practice is to keep these rules in mind, and never be shy to ask if you are not certain what you are doing.

Again, please check out the original article that offers a thorough explanation. Your opinions are always welcome – feel free to leave comments and share your own experience of interacting with people from China.

(Photo from chinadaily.com.cn)

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4 comments to “Ten Things Never to Do in China, and Chiafu’s comments”

  1. Cleo | December 24, 2010 | Permalink Reply

    I agree about not objectifying people with comments about their physical appearance. I burst out once to a petite Korean girl that she is so pretty but she was very nice about it because she knew that I wasn't being corrupt about it.

  2. Wang | October 4, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    Shows our Chinese fake face. I feel shame to see all of them write together. Sometimes I like the way things are more simply in western countries. Headaches strong for us youthful.

  3. Shandonger | November 26, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    The word is compliment, not complement, as in, to pay a compliment. Oh, it feels so good to catch such a banal spelling error instead of having to explain again to a Chinese student who is determined that he is going to Harvard that every sentence in English needs to have a verb.

  4. Mad Dog | October 17, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    With recent flareups with Japan, it may be worth the time for some Chinese to reflect on these precepts and realize that many of them are shared by Japanese. There is an unseen cultural bond that is too often and too easily forgotten at times. Common courtesy is welcome everywhere and these tips are designed to make society a little bit easier to operate. Humility can be the key.

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