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Culture Shock in China - Customs and Etiquette!

Chinese customs, behaviors, and etiquette may baffle clueless tourists descending upon this massive land for the first time. If you’re traveling in China on business, the cultural complexities may just be too overwhelming. As a tourist, you may be easily forgiven if you make a boo-boo with your hosts. But, whether you’re in China for work or pleasure, a good overview of Chinese customs and etiquette will go a long way! 

Greetings

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Greetings give the first impression to your business partners or traveling companions. Certainly, how you’d be introduced varies according to the formality of the situation. But, in general, you should expect:

  • To first address people by their title and family name before referring to their first names when you eventually warm up to each other.  For example, address your Chinese teacher as Li Lao Shi even though you know her first name is Jenny.

  • A handshake is the common ground. Some people may confuse the Chinese with the Japanese and assume that the Chinese bow instead of shaking hands. You’d quickly find that people’s first response is actually a handshake with a little symbolic bow.

  • Greet the oldest person first as a show of respect.

  • You may be applauded when you’re being introduced, especially in a group setting. Don’t panic; you won’t be asked to sing and dance. It would be polite to stand through the introduction while being treated like a superstar even though you have no idea why. 

Table Manners

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Image Credit: Wikimedia


Chinese table manners and etiquette aren’t as structured and refined as Western ones. At least, you don’t really have to know how to navigate through forks and knives of different sizes. A pair of chopsticks does the trick. Nevertheless, there are quirks to be respected at the Chinese table.

  • Silence is not golden. You’d realize that the Chinese, even in refined settings, have no qualms expressing how much they enjoy the food with slurps and hearty eating. Things may be a little different with the classy crowd, but in general, quiet eating is not part of regular Chinese table manners.

  • Leave just a little food on your plate when attending a hosted dinner. An empty plate and bowl is a signal that you haven’t had enough, and the host will continue piling food on your plates as you continue wondering why.

  • No smoking at the dining table. Coffee and cigarettes are romantic and lovely... in Paris.

  • Chopsticks. Ah, the eternal challenge. Feel free to request for the fork and spoon at any time. But if you’re up for the chopstick challenge, just remember never to stick them in your bowl. A bowl with chopsticks stuck within symbolizes death and offerings made for the dead. Instead, place them on the chopsticks holder on the side. 

Communication

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Image Credit: Flickr


If you’re used to small talk that skims the surface of life, and regularly use the weather as a conversation starter, you may get a shock in China. Don’t be surprised if you are asked about your age, if you’re married  (and why aren’t you), how many children you have, and even how much you earn. In general, the Chinese break down walls by knowing more about your personal life.

However, when it comes to non-verbal communication, things are quite the opposite. Forget your winks, what is a playful gesture of acknowledgment could be taken quite wrongly. Also, physical contact (except when it comes to queuing up) should be avoided, at least in the beginning. Don’t be in such a hurry to give your business partners or even newfound friends a hug, and no arms around the shoulders unless you’re really comfortable with one another.  

Mian Zi- Saving Face 

The topic of face-saving has always been a more complex one to handle. Mian Zi, which means ‘face’ in Chinese, is an integral part of social relations. One tries to maintain a certain image of himself and family, and takes care to not offend and cause a situation of ‘losing face’.

As such, outright confrontation and direct rejection could put your friend or partner in a spot. For example, if you have a matter that you feel might be sensitive, it’s best to discuss this privately than to point it out in public. Also, to reject a proposal or suggestion, instead of being completely honest with what you think, that it’s a terrible idea, it may be better to reject with more tact and subtlety. 

Giving Gifts

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Image Credit: Wikimedia 

When giving gifts, be mindful of local beliefs and superstitions. One popular one is the taboo of giving clocks, which in Mandarin rhymes with sending off during a funeral.  Watches are an acceptable alternative, though.

Also, sharp objects like knives and scissors are also frowned upon as they symbolize the cutting off relations.  

Above all, do not unwrap your presents in front of your givers. While this may be more than acceptable in many Western cultures, it’s considered rude in China. 

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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.

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