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General Chinese Etiquette

Chinese etiquette – some basic hints

Chinese people are very positive towards foreigners, and you don’t need to worry about offending people. Having said that, they will appreciate you making an effort to fit in, and it will make your stay more enjoyable.

Basic Pointers on Chinese Etiquette
  • Stay calm.
  • Bring a gift to people’s homes.
  • Accept name cards with two hands.
  • Share cigarettes.
  • Dress smartly.
  • Don’t interpret stares or even pointing as rudeness, it is just curiosity.
  • Spitting is not an intended insult.
  • Relax and have a good time, revel in the difference.

Name cards and forms. When presenting and receiving name cards and other documents, the correct etiquette is to do so with both hands to show respect.

Don’t lose your temper. If you do, the object of your ire will only become more belligerent.

Face. Enough has been written on this subject to fill Beijing Library. For the visitor, it boils down to two basics. Don’t make people look stupid, or force them to back down in front of others.

Gifts. Etiquette dictates that you must bring a gift when visiting a Chinese person in their home. Fruit, flowers, tea or sweets would be appropriate or cigarettes or alcohol if you know the person partakes. Foreign items have prestige value, but don’t give clocks (since in Chinese to ‘give a clock’ sounds like going to someone’s funeral), or pears (since to ‘share a pear’ sounds like to split up or separate).

Cigarettes. If you smoke, the correct etiquette is to offer them round. Proffer an open pack, preferably with one protruding, don’t hand out individual cigarettes. If you don’t smoke, politely refuse when offered. The Chinese refuse by saying that they can’t smoke, not that they don’t want to. Some cigarettes are as cheap as 3Y a pack, but it won’t do your reputation much good to be seen handing those around at a business meeting.

Privacy and Curiosity. The Chinese place little premium on privacy, and you as a foreigner may well attract great interest. Staring from point blank range is in no way bad etiquette. If you feel uncomfortable the best thing is to talk to people. Say a few words in Chinese and they’ll realise you’re human and either engage you in conversation, or go away.

Spitting. Although it’s swiftly going out of fashion in metropolitan Beijing, (and can be punished with an on the spot fine), spitting is not considered bad etiquette in most of China. If someone hawks up and empties the contents of their sinuses onto the street as you walk past, don’t misconstrue it as an insult.

Clothing. Skimpy clothing is perfectly acceptable in Han areas like Beijing, but scruffy, untidy or worn clothing will not engender respect.

Body contact. Although you wouldn’t see grown men walking around holding hands, same sex friends in China are much more likely to engage in body contact such as backslapping than in the West.

Volume. Chinese people love to be loud and Chinese is a harsh sounding language. You’ll probably get the impression that people around you are arguing all the time. Don’t worry about it, they’re probably discussing the stock market or their wives’ new hairstyle.

Speaking Frankly to Strangers. Chinese people can be reluctant to give bad news to strangers. If you come across such a situation, question them calmly, and above all quietly, and you’ll get the details soon enough. Ask indirectly. For example, if a seemingly embarrassed Air China steward tells you the flight’s delayed, but won’t say how long, ask whether you need to book a hotel for the night, or whether it’s worth going back to the city centre.

Speaking frankly to Friends. Whilst sometimes frustratingly polite with strangers, Chinese people can be unendearingly blunt once they’ve established that you’re friends. This is not bad etiquette, it’s just a question of being honest. Expect constructive criticism on any subject. One of the best is to be told that you’re ‘Quite fat for a Chinese, but OK for a foreigner’.

Areas of Conversation. The first questions you will probably be asked by a Chinese person are about your marital status, children and age. Back in the good old days people would add years to their true age to gain more respect. Now the reverse is in fashion. Most Chinese are very reluctant to discuss politics with anyone but their closest friends. To force the subject is not only very bad etiquette, but won’t make you popular either. If you go down this route, expect vigorous and well informed criticism of the system of government of your own country.

Recommended Chinese culture articles:

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Beijing Society: Er Nai, Lucky Numbers, Chinese Etiquette, Drugs in China

Chinese History: Chairman Mao Zedong, Eunuchs, Chinese Emperors, Ancient History Timeline, Concubines, 20th Century Timeline

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