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Top tips: Chinese Etiquette

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What’s the polite way to behave when you’re out and about with local friends? And how do you make sure no one loses face? Founder of Mandarin Time School Lydia Yang has the lowdown.

Have you ever felt uncouth or disrespectful when meeting a Chinese person for the first time, or even in the company of good Chinese friends? If you have, here are some quick takeaways for you.

How to meet and greet

You can’t be too polite when greeting a Chinese friend. Always nod or shake hands and say hello. But don’t bow… we Chinese only bow when we pay respect to our ancestors. And don’t shake hands too firmly. If the handshake is too firm, it feels hostile to the Chinese and can be read as a sign of aggression, so don’t be surprised if Chinese women in particular shake hands very softly.

We Chinese are taught to be particularly respectful towards older people, and so we never call them by their given name – that would be considered rude or weird. You address someone senior by their family name plus Mr or Ms, or by their honorific title (for instance, Teacher). If you are greeting a group of people, address the eldest person first to show respect.

Westerners like to hug and kiss when they meet but again this is considered inappropriate by the Chinese. Such overwhelming friendliness can make us feel uncomfortable. It’s best to avoid any body contact apart from a simple (soft) handshake, especially when meeting people for the first time.

Once a relationship has been established, a Chinese friend may choose to kiss or hug you when you meet, then of course it’s OK to follow their lead.

Lastly, if you’ve arranged to meet a Chinese friend at a certain time make an effort to be punctual. Being on time is a sign of respect and considered a virtue in China, much as it is in the West. Just don’t show up too early! If your Chinese friend arrives later than you, she will be embarrassed about having kept you waiting. Equally, if you turn up for a lunch date ahead of time, you will seem uncouth because you’re giving the impression that you’re hungry and desperate to eat.

Rules of engagement

As for conversation, particularly with new Chinese friends or acquaintances, there’s a lot of etiquette to adhere to – and subjects to avoid.

We Chinese are just as proud, if not prouder, of our country as Westerners are of theirs, so criticisms don’t go down well.

Unless you have something positive to say, avoid talking about China’s political situation, state leaders, recent history and issues concerning the environment and population. Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet are still sensitive topics, so it’s best not to bring them up.

Above all, keep calm and don’t get upset, no matter what’s under discussion. Raising your voice or getting angry is considered a loss of face in Asian culture, and China’s no exception. For this reason, you’ll seldom see a Chinese friend shouting or getting frustrated in public – to do so would create a ‘losing face situation’ for everyone involved, and draw unnecessary attention.

Surprisingly, when conversing with Chinese friends, it’s ok to get personal! It’s acceptable to ask questions about a friend’s marital status, family, age, job or income as this is seen as a way to find common ground and keep a conversation going. If this level of intimacy makes you feel uncomfortable, let your friend know – there’s no need to answer every question you are asked.

Speaking of intimacy, it’s important not to be too familiar when chatting with Chinese friends. Don’t compliment your friend’s wife by saying, “You look beautiful!” Instead, you can say, “Wow, I hear your job is really high powered,” or “I love your cooking; it’s absolutely delicious.”

By the same token, if you are meeting Chinese friends together with your partner or spouse, avoid public displays of affection. Hugging and kissing your partner in public is still a taboo in Chinese culture.

Red is good for lai-see packets, flowers, gift wrap, thank you cards… but not ink!

Gift giving

It’s customary to present your Chinese host with a small gift when you visit her home, and there are lots of dos and don’ts surrounding the giving of gifts that you need to be aware of.

Firstly, be sure to give your gift with both hands – it would be impolite not to do so. And don’t be surprised if your Chinese friend refuses your gift a number of times before accepting it; this is another norm born out of politeness. Gently press your gift on your host but once she has accepted it, don’t ask her to unwrap it. It’s considered polite in Chinese culture to wait to open gifts until your guests have left.

Small gifts like a book, chocolates or perfume, will be well received. Flowers are always appreciated but not white flowers, unless you are attending a funeral, and avoid gifting sharp objects because they symbolise the severing of relationships.

Don’t gift anything with the number four on it (like a clock), because we Chinese associate the number four with death. The word ‘four’ and the word ‘death’ sounds alike when spoken in Mandarin, so four is an unlucky number and giving a gift related to four is quite a bad curse.

As an aside, at a Chinese wedding or during Chinese New Year always give red lai-see packets. When you are deciding how much cash to put inside, go with multiples of six, eight or nine, never four. This is because six stands for everything going well, eight for prosperity and nine longevity.

When wrapping gifts for Chinese friends, choose a brightly coloured wrap – ideally red. Avoid black or white wrapping paper because black and white are associated with death and funerals. And never write a thank you note in red ink.

Chinese teachers write in red ink when they correct students’ homework – it’s a symbol of criticism. It’s also traditionally used to convey bad news, for instance a break-up letter.

So just remember that red is good for just about everything (lai-see packets, flowers, gift wrap, thank you cards) but not ink!

Mandarin Time School offers Mandarin classes, a summer camp for kids and tailor-made Chinese-culture workshops at its Central campus and also in Discovery Bay. You can contact Lydia Yang at 6111 0523 or [email protected] For more information, visit the Mandarin Time School Facebook page or www.mandarintimeschool.com.


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