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7 cultural taboos for expats to know in China

By Tang Shuhong


'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'. Those who have lived in China for a certain period of time may have figured it out themselves that there're do's and don'ts when it comes to interacting with the locals, although some rules might have been learnt the hard way. So, to save newcomers the troubles caused by cultural misunderstanding and help them blend in better, I have compiled the following list of things to avoid while in China. 

"入乡随俗",在中国生活过一段时间的外国友人必然已自己悟出一套生存法则,有的可能还为此付出血的代价,为了让菜鸟少走弯路,更好地融入我们的生活,就有了本文的社交礼仪七戒。

Speaking of Chinese cultural taboos, you might've already been exposed to superstition-based ones like 'do not give clocks as gifts', 'do not wear a green hat', 'do not offer to share a pear with your friends', 'do not leave your chopsticks sticking up in a rice bowl', 'avoid giving white flowers to your host', 'avoid using the number 4'… just to name a few. And surely you're not completely unfamiliar with the cultural implications behind them. The following list isn't intended to cover all etiquettes. Instead, it serves to point out the most notable cultural no-nos from the perspective of a Chinese national, in the hope of priming you with some basic 'facts', which may come in useful for overcoming cultural barriers.

说起中国的传统禁忌,相信老外朋友对"不要送钟","不要戴绿帽","不要跟朋友分梨","不要把筷子竖直插在饭里","不要给主人家送白花","避免使用数字4"。。。等带迷信色彩的规矩已表示毫无压力,且对于这些禁忌背后的文化含义也略知一二。接下来介绍的几个必须避免的情况只是笔者主观筛选的结果,并不涵盖所有,只希望以此为例,让老外认识一些基本"事实",帮助他们跨越文化障碍。

While most of these etiquettes are cliches, they're still widely observed in China. So you'd better wise yourself up to them!

老生常谈也是有一定指导性意义的哟。

1. Do not accept a business card with only one hand.

不要一只手去接别人递上的名片

cultural taboos in china

The exchange of business cards is common courtesy among business people in China. If a business card is presented to you, you should accept them with both hands to show respect. Also, nodding your head while receiving a business card will certainly leave the impression of being culturally savvy.

交换名片是商务交际中常见的介绍方式,接受别人递上的名片时,应当恭恭敬敬,双手捧接,同时最好点点头,这样会让人觉得你见过世面。

2. Do not say no directly.

不要直接说不

cultural taboos in china

Do the following lines ring a bell?

下面的段子是不是似曾相识?

– If a lady says 'no', she means 'maybe' 

– If she says 'maybe', she means 'yes'

– If she says 'yes', she is no lady

-当女人说"不"的时候,意思就是"也许"

-当她说"也许"的时候,意思就是"是"

-如果她直接说"是",那她就不是淑女

Generally, Chinese find it hard to say no directly as this can cause a loss of face and disrupt surface harmony, which is highly valued by the Chinese people in their interpersonal relationships. So a non-committal 'perhaps' or simply silence is often used to avoid a potentially hostile reaction from a collocutor. However, this may not be interpreted by non-Chinese the way it was intended. More often than not, they'd see that as a go-ahead signal and feel encouraged to proceed. For business people this can lead to a loss of time and money if they keep investing in a project that has long been abandoned by their Chinese partners whose refusal requires a bit more effort than usual to decode.

一般来说,咱们碍于面子不会直接拒绝别人,所以为了维护表面和谐,通常会选择词义模棱两可的"也许"一笔带过,或保持沉默。但不谙个中奥妙的歪果仁却只懂得按字面意思理解,有时会因而造成惨重损失:例如一个正在商谈的项目,其实中方早就撤退了,但因不懂含糊其辞下的真正用意而继续投资下去。

3. Do not drink without toasting each other.

不要不碰杯就独酌

cultural taboos in china

I do not want to claim that one absolutely must drink alcohol while doing business in China. Such portrayal of China's business environment is somewhat outdated. However, there's no denying that while many people don't indulge in such behavior, it's still widely practised in the Chinese business community at large. So it pays to follow some basics to avoid embarassments.

饭局是国内商务应酬中必不可少的一个环节,而佳肴总少不了美酒的相伴。当然,咱们可是本分做生意的人,不一定要喝酒才谈得成订单,但无酒不成商的做法依然普遍存在,所以对于一些礼仪还是不能掉以轻心哦。

Practicall every time you take a drink, you should be toasting someone else. This is regarded as a sign of respect to your fellow diners. The key word here is gan bei (干杯 bottom's up). Although you're not required to empty your glass at one go, you'll impress your Chinese friends if you do. 

基本上,每次喝酒前都必须跟旁边的人碰杯,以示对大家的尊重,虽然你不一定得一次干掉杯里的酒,但如果你这么做了,大家会对你刮目相看的!

4. Do not blow your nose at dinner table.

不要在餐桌上擦鼻子

cultural taboos in china

Just as it strikes you as rude for the Chinese to slurp and smack while eating, it's equally uncharming to honk away right across the dinner table. The right way to go is, try to leave the table whenever you need to blow your nose.

歪果仁老觉得咱们吃面喝汤时发出呼噜呼噜的声音很不雅,但殊不知,我们对他们在吃饭时捏鼻涕的做法也同样反感!拜托你们要擦鼻子就走远一点!

5. Do not let someone else pay the bill without fighting for it.

不要不争抢一番就让别人买单

cultural taboos in china

Splitting bills when eating out with friends is a common practice in many Western countries, but this might be frowned upon in China where picking up the bill for your co-diners is considered an honour. So don't be shocked if you see 'wrestling matches' at restaurants when people are fighting over bills. As a rule of thumb, senior pays for junior, male pays for female, asker pays for askee. Nevertheless, you should still fight for the honour whenever the opportunity presents itself. A usual trick is sneaking away to settle the bill under the pretext of going to the toilet towards the end of a meal.

在西方,朋友聚餐平均分账很正常,但同样的做法在中国很可能就遭人侧目了,因为吃饭争取到买单是一种荣誉!所以如果你在餐馆看到人们"大打出手",为买单争得脸红耳赤时就不必惊讶了。一般来说,买单讲究长幼男女,或者谁组局谁付账,但不管怎样,遇到有买单的场合,争取买单总归是体面的做法。切记不要让别人借去如厕之机结帐哦。

Although this 'ritual' is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture, there's a growing tendency towards going Dutch among younger people. Splitting the bill among co-workers or friends with whom you have an understanding is also acceptable.

尽管争着买单的现象在中国社会可以说是根深蒂固,但当今的年轻人也逐渐倾向于奉行AA制,例如跟同事或朋友吃饭,大家一般很默契的分账。

6. Do not readily accept a compliment.

不要欣然接受恭维

cultural taboos in china

Many people are at a loss for words when they hear their Chinese friends' response to a compliment extended to them. Unlike Western culture, compliments are not graciously taken with a frank "thank you" but rather met with a rebuff to the effects of 'not at all' or 'it isn't anything.' Don't be puzzled, they're not nasty, but just being self-deprecating because accepting a direct praise is regarded as poor manner in China. 

中国人对赞美的回应有时会让老外莫名其妙,我们出于自谦一般不会直接说"谢谢",而是貌似拒绝的"哪里哪里",好像不领情似的,但实际上恰恰是礼貌的表现。

However, younger generations and those who are exposed to foreign cultures often respond to compliments with a 'thank you'. 

不过,人们对于褒奖显得越来越坦然,也较多以"谢谢"回应了,特别是年轻人和那些跟西方文化接触较多的人。

7. Do not open gifts in front of the giver.

不要当着送礼者的面把礼物打开

cultural taboos in china

While it's considered polite to unwrap a gift in front of the gift giver in the West, the same practice is regarded as rude in China. Governed by a maxim of modesty, the recipient would put aside the gift unwrapped and open it when they're left alone so that s/he doesn't appear too eager. It also indicates that present itself is not as important as the friendship and thoughtfulness attached to it, as summed up by a Chinese saying '礼轻情意重' – a gift in itself is insignificant compared to the good will behind it (or is it really?).

在西方,收到别人送的礼物时,收礼人通常会当场拆礼物以示对送礼人的尊重,而按中国人的送礼之道这会被视为无礼。谦逊是中国的传统美德,别人送礼,怎好意思表现得太过心急,当面拆开礼物?难道礼物本身比背后蕴藏的情谊还重要?古语有云"礼轻情意重",咱不能太在意礼物长什么样子的(真的吗?)。

2016-06-22

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