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Cultural Differences Between Chinese and Westerners: Part 1

During the last century, contact between Chinese and Westerners was relatively limited, and both people knew little about the other. Now we have more opportunities than ever for exchange. With that, however, comes a need for greater understanding of cultural differences. Today I’d like to talk about some of these with you.

在上个世纪里中国人与西方人之间的联系相对来说很有限,他们互相也不怎么了解对方。现在我们有了比以前更多的机会进行互动交流。然而,这也意味着我们需要更深入地了解文化差异。今天我想跟大家聊一下这个方面。


Greetings are an important part of every language in the world. However, people in China and the West greet people in very different ways. Because of this, care needs to be taken to avoid causing offence or misunderstandings.

在世界上的每一种语言中,打招呼都是很重要的部分。不过在中国和在西方,人们打招呼的方式不尽相同。正因为如此,我们需要特别注意,以免冒犯对方或是造成误解。


I had no idea about this when I first arrived in Hong Kong. I remember going to a bank, and the employee there asking me if I had had my lunch. You can imagine my surprise; in Britain, we would take such a question as an indirect invitation to eat together. Later at school I was even more surprised when my teacher asked me the same question.

当我第一次到香港的时候,我并不了解这个。还记得有一次我去银行,那里的工作人员问我吃过午餐了没。你应该能想象到我有多惊讶;在英国,我们会把这种提问理解成是在间接地邀请一个人吃饭。后来在学校,当我的老师也问了同样的问题时,我就更醉了。


In the following days, as I was asked the question again and again, I came to the conclusion that people must be concerned about my health. I was somewhat underweight, and I thought they must be worrying that I was not eating properly. Only later did I find out that the question had no real significance at all; it was merely a greeting.

在接下来的日子里,我一次又一次地听到了同样的提问,所以我得出了一个结论,那就是人们一定很关心我的健康。当时我稍微有点偏瘦,我以为他们一定是担心我吃的不好。后来我才发现,这种提问其实根本无关紧要,它只不过是打招呼的一种方式而已。


Sometimes Chinese people ask why British people talk about the weather so often. Perhaps instead we should ask why Chinese people talk about eating so much. I can’t speak for the Chinese, but what I can say is that, in England, commenting on the weather is certainly a very popular form of greeting.

有些时候中国人会问为什么英国人经常讨论天气。反过来我们也会问,为什么中国人如此经常讨论吃。我无法代表中国人回答这个问题,不过我能肯定的是,在英国,讨论一下天气不过是种很常见的打招呼的方式而已。


Why is this? Because English people have a very strong sense of privacy, and weather is an impersonal topic which suits them well. Since English people are easily offended by comments which seem to invade their personal lives, the Chinese greeting, “Where are you going?” is particularly distasteful to them.

为什么呢?因为英国人很注意隐私,而天气是一个不带任何个人色彩的、适合所有人的话题。由于英国人很容易对一些可能涉及他们个人生活的谈论感到不舒服,所以他们对中国式打招呼你要去哪儿?是特别反感的。


English people who are unfamiliar with Chinese culture may regard it as a request for information which is an invasion of their privacy. In fact, many foreign teachers in China have complained that their colleagues are spies because they often ask them where they are going and or what they are doing.

不是很了解中国文化的英国人可能会认为这是一种侵犯他们隐私的信息索取行为。实际上,很多在中国的外籍老师都曾经抱怨说他们的同事是间谍,因为这些同事经常问他们要去哪或是在做什么。


Many people in China wish to improve their English, and talking to foreigners is one way of gaining valuable practice. However, they are usually only able to start a conversation with a stranger. But Western ideas of privacy are different than those of the Chinese. It is very unusual, therefore, for a person to just start talking to a complete stranger.

很多中国人想提高自己的英语,而跟外国人对话是一种很重要的练习方式。但他们通常只能跟陌生人进行对话。西方的隐私观念可跟中国人的不一样,因此跟一个完全陌生的人进行交谈是不太常见的。


Because of this, Chinese people often annoy Westerners by the way in which they try to start conversations. They may ask foreigners many questions, such as where they are from, how old they are or what they do for a living. And often little attention is paid to the answers.

正因如此,中国人想尝试进行对话的那种方式经常会让西方人感到不自在。他们可能会问外国人很多问题,比如说他们从哪里来,什么年纪,做什么工作等。而对方的答复他们又经常不怎么在意。


The impression given to the foreigner is that the Chinese person only wants to complete a list of questions and does not particularly care what the answers are. As a result, the whole conversation becomes one-sided. The foreigner may even feel irritated at being ‘used’ in this way.

外国人的感觉就是,中国人只想问一长串问题,却不怎么在乎答案是什么。所以,整个对话变得很单向,外国人甚至会感到很恼火,因为他们觉得自己就这样被利用了。


A conversation between strangers normally arises out of a set of natural circumstances. So if both a Chinese and a foreigner are visiting a scenic spot, a conversation could easily be started by commenting on the sights. Or if both are waiting at a bus stop in the pouring rain, a comment could be made about the weather.

陌生人之间的对话通常发生在一些很自然的情况下。所以如果一个中国人和一个老外都在参观一个景点,那他们就能很容易地聊一下风景了。或者当两个人都在暴雨中等公车时,他们也能聊一下天气。


If this is not possible, the Chinese person could ask the foreigner directly whether he or she could practise English for a few minutes. If the foreigner responds positively, the Chinese person should then be careful to try and listen to the answers and carry on a genuine two-way conversation.

如果情况不允许,中国人可以直接问一下外国人是否能够跟自己练习几分钟英文。如果对方欣然答应,中国人应该有分寸地尝试提问,并聆听对方的答复,然后进行一次真正的双向对话。


Of course we should also be aware of what kind of topics are suitable for discussion. Cultures vary in this respect, and offence can often be caused by asking or discussing the ‘wrong’ thing. There are many topics that are acceptable to both Westerners and Chinese – hobbies, holidays, the weather, jobs, films, books and so on.

当然我们也应该了解何种话题适合进行谈话。在这方面不同文化之间有很大差异,而且问错或是说错都会造成不快。对于西方人和中国人来说,有很多彼此都能接受的话题,像兴趣爱好、度假、天气、工作、电影和书等等。


However, there are some topics which many Westerners regard as being private, and which Chinese should be careful about discussing. Generally, it is impolite in Western culture to ask a person’s age. This is particularly true of women. It is normally only possible to ask it indirectly and in a way which allows the person the choice of whether to talk about it or not.

但是,有一些话题在西方人看来属于隐私,中国人应该对此注意。很多时候在西方文化中,询问一个人的年龄是不礼貌的,特别对于女性来说。一般只能委婉地问,而且要让对方有权利选择是否回答。

Picture from East Meets West”-Yang Liu


One time in Shanghai, some Chinese students were talking with a British couple who were friends of their teacher. The wife had been telling them about their children and the students were surprised to find out that the couple had children that were in their 20s. They became curious about the wife’s age and so they asked their teacher.

有一次在上海,一些中国学生正在讨论一对英国夫妇,那对夫妇是他们老师的朋友。其中那位太太曾经跟这群学生谈起过自己的孩子,他们感到很惊讶的是那对夫妇的孩子们已经20岁左右了。学生们因此很好奇那位太太的年纪,就去问了他们的老师。


The teacher also wanted to know how old she was, but thought it impolite to ask directly, and so simply told her that she looked very young to have children in their 20s. Her reply was that many people had said that. In the end, the woman did not reveal her age, but she could have if she had felt comfortable to do so.

老师也是想知道那位太太的年龄,但是觉得直接提问没有礼貌,所以就跟那位太太说,她看起来很年轻,不像有20多岁的孩子的人。老太太回答说,很多人都这么说。最后,老太太没有透露她的年龄。但如果她感到自在的话,他还是可以说出来的。


Another common question in China is how much money a person earns. This is regarded as an extremely personal affair in the West, and even within families people usually do not know the exact salary of other family members. This does not mean, however, that the family is not a close one.

另外一个在中国很常见的提问就是人们赚多少钱。这在西方是一件相当隐私的事情,甚至就连家人之间,都不一定了解彼此的实际工资。不过,这并不代表这个家庭不和睦。


It is also common in China to ask how much someone has paid for a particular item. In the West, although people may discuss prices in general, it is not normally acceptable to ask someone how much something costs directly. Once again, this is regarded as an invasion of privacy.

在中国,问某人买什么东西花了多少钱也很常见。而在西方,虽然人们可能会讨论大致的价格,但直接问对方买的东西花了多少是不太好的。这又是一个被认为是侵犯隐私的问题。


Imagine for example that your Western friend has bought a plant that you think is quite beautiful. You want to know how much it costs, but you don’t want to ask directly. What you could say is, “I’d love to buy one myself. Was it very expensive?” This way, your friend has the choice of stating an exact price or not. You can use this same method when you want to know your friend’s income, rent, and so on.

你想一下,你的西方朋友买了一棵植物,你觉得很漂亮。你想知道它的价格,但又不想问得太直接。 你可以这么说,我自己也想买一个。贵不贵呀?这样你的朋友就可以选择是否告诉你准确的价格。你也可以用同样的方法去了解你朋友的收入和租金等等。


When someone is sick in China, it is common to advise the person to drink more water, or put on more clothes. These pieces of advice are in fact a means of showing concern, and Chinese often use them on Westerners. However, unless a Westerner has been sick for some time and seems to want some advice, offence may be caused if the Westerner is told such things.

在中国要是谁病了,一般会建议他多喝点水,或是多穿点衣服。这些建议其实是一种关心的体现,而且中国人对西方人也经常这样。但是,除非那个西方人已经不舒服有一段时间了,看起来也需要一些建议,要不人家听了之后会觉得不自在。


This is because these are the kinds of things a parent would say to a child, and hence sound inappropriate to an independent Westerner. When we want to show concern to a sick friend, we usually say things like, “I hope you feel better soon”, or, “Look after yourself”.

因为这些事情是父母会对孩子说的,因此对很独立的西方人来说这些建议不太合适。当我们想对一个生病的朋友表示关心时,我们通常会说,但愿你快点好起来,或是好好照顾自己哦


In the West, it is common to telephone a friend or acquaintance before visiting them to make sure that they are at home and that the time is convenient. But in China people often go directly to the person’s home. Some Westerners do not mind if Chinese come to visit them unexpectedly, but others prefer to know in advance.

在西方,去朋友或是熟人家做客之前,通常会打个电话确认一下他们是否在家,还有时间是否方便。但是在中国人们经常直接就去了。有些西方人也不介意中国朋友的突然到访,但有些人更愿意提前打个招呼。


Whether it is acceptable or not depends on the nature of the relationship. If the visit is a business rather than a social one, such as when a student wants some academic help from his teacher, the Westerner may prefer to arrange a time in advance. Indeed, most teachers in the West have an appointment system.

突然拜访是否合适要看双方什么关系。如果是出于公事,而不是私交,比如学生想在学习方面求助于老师,那么西方人可能更倾向于提前安排时间。确实,西方的老师大部分会有预约体系。


Yet this is not the case in China; students usually go directly to their lecturers. As a result, if foreign teachers insists their Chinese students make appointments, they may appear to be cold, and give the impression of being extremely busy. On the other hand, foreign teachers may not be willing to do it the Chinese way, as they may feel it is an ineffecient way of managing their time.

但是在中国并非如此,学生们通常直接去见讲师们。因此,如果外教们坚持让自己的中国学生们预约时间,他们可能会显得很冷漠,而且给人一种非常忙的感觉。另一方面,外教们可能也不想按照中国式的方法来,因为他们会觉得这在安排自己的时间上很没效率。


When arranging a visit to a foreign friend, Chinese often make statements or commands when they mean to make a request. For example, a common mistake is for Chinese to say to a Western friend, “I’m coming to see you this afternoon.” This sounds OK in Chinese, but in English is much too direct.

当中国人安排拜访外国朋友的时候,他们经常会使用陈述句或命令的语气,而非使用请求句。比如中国人跟西方朋友说话时一个常见错误就是,今天下午我要去见你。用中文这么说是可以的,但英文这么说过于直接。


In English this sounds like, “You must stay at home this afternoon because I’m coming to see you”, and needless to say may cause irritation. In fact what we should say in this situation is, “Can I come and see you this afternoon?”

在英文里,这句话听起来好像是,今天下午你必须待在家里,因为我要去见你,这当然会让人生气。其实,在这种情况下,我们应该说的是,我今天下午可以去见你吗?


Moreover, Chinese people often give very little notice for activities and events. By contrast, Westerners are used to organising their time, so if Chinese wish to invite them to something important, it is helpful to give them plenty of advance notice. Otherwise they may have something else arranged and be unable to attend.

此外有活动或项目时,中国人经常不怎么提前通知。相反,西方人习惯规划时间,所以如果中国人想邀请他们参加一些重要活动,给他们充分的事前通知是很有帮助的。要不他们可能会安排其他事情而无法到场。


Chinese and Westerners also differ in the way they receive guests. In the West, if a person goes to visit someone, first the visitor will be asked to sit down. Then they will chat for a while, and the host may offer something to drink like tea or coffee. This is normally phrased as a question, such as, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

中国人和西方人在接待客人方面也很不一样。在西方,如果某人去别人家做客,主人会首先请客人坐下。他们先闲聊一会,然后主人会上茶或咖啡等喝的东西。这通常是以询问的方式,比如说你想来杯茶吗?


Guests are expected to answer this question honestly, and if they turn down the offer, the host will not give them any. If they accept, they will be given a cup, and be expected to drink it all. After they have finished it, the host will offer them a second one.

客人们会如实回答,如果他们谢绝,主人就不会再强求了。如果客人同意,他们会把茶喝干净,喝完之后,主人会再上一杯。


In Chinese culture, though, the situation is somewhat different. Guests are usually given a cup of tea almost immediately upon arrival. They do not need to drink it all, and in fact to do so may be inappropriate. The host then continually fills up the cup so that it is never empty.

而在中国文化里情况有点不同。客人一到,主人就会上茶。他们也不一定非得喝完,实际上这么做也不合适。主人会不停地续杯,让茶杯不会见底。


These differences in tea-drinking can lead to misunderstandings. When I first went to Hong Kong, I had no idea about such matters and found myself caught in a very awkward situation.

饮茶方面的这些差异会造成不少误会。当我第一次去香港时,我根本不了解这些,自己因此陷入尴尬的境地。


I visited a Chinese family and was immediately given a cup of tea. I was not thirsty and I did not particularly like that type of tea, but out of politeness I finished the cup. But the more I drank, the more I was given. I kept insisting that I did not want any more, but the host took no notice. I drank about twelve cups of tea that afternoon!

我去一户中国人家里做客,刚到他们就上了一杯茶。我当时并不渴,也不是特别喜欢那种茶,但出于礼貌我还是喝完了。可我越喝,茶就添得越多,我一直说不用了,但主人根本不在乎。那天下午我喝了差不多12杯茶!


On the other hand, when Chinese visit foreigners, other misunderstandings may occur. For example, when the Westerner offers a cup of tea, the Chinese may refuse out of politeness and want the host to offer several times before accepting. If that does not happen, the Chinese may think the host is inhospitable. Yet if they accept the drink, they may not drink it at all and this may offend the Westerner.

另一方面,当中国人去外国人家里做客时,也会发生其它误会。比如说当西方人上茶时,中国人出于礼貌可能会先拒绝,然后希望主人多询问几次之后,自己再接受。如果主人并没有坚持的话,中国人就会觉得他不怎么好客。就算他们接过了茶,也不一定全喝完,这又会让西方人感到不快。


When Chinese receive visitors, they are often extremely hospitable in offering food, even if it is not meal time. This shows their generosity and respect for the visitor. Such situations are rare in the West; normally only a biscuit or piece of cake is offered between meal times. This does not mean, though, that the visitor is not warmly welcomed.

当中国人接待客人时,他们会非常热情地拿出吃的,哪怕不是用餐时间。这代表他们对客人的大方和尊重。在西方这种情况却不常见,在非用餐时间段,通常主人只会提供小点心或一块蛋糕,但这并不代表这个客人不受欢迎。


The Chinese host may constantly put the best pieces of food on the visitor’s plate, and this again is an expression of hospitality. Westerners, on the other hand, usually leave their guests to help themselves and do not keep urging them to eat more. Also, whereas in China it is acceptable to leave unwanted food on your plate, according to Western custom you should eat it all.

中国主人会不停给客人的盘子里夹最好的菜,这又是一种好客的表现。而西方人会让客人自己来,并不催促他们多吃。而且在中国你可以把吃不了的菜留在盘子里,反之根据西方的习俗,你应该全吃掉。


Once again all of these differences can lead to misunderstandings. If a group of Chinese are invited to dinner by a Westerner, they may feel the Westerner is extremely ungenerous because of the small amount of food and because they are not constantly encouraged to eat more. The Westerner, on the other hand, may be offended if the Chinese takes food onto their plate but then does not eat it all.

所有的这些不同之处又会造成误解。如果一群中国人应某位西方人之邀共进晚餐,他们可能会觉得这个西方人相当不大方,因为食物分量很少,而且对方也没有一直请他们多吃点。而那位西方人可能也会因为客人们取了食物到盘子里却没有全吃完而感到不开心。


And Western guests are often overwhelmed by the quantity of food at Chinese meals. They may be given things they do not particularly want, because their refusals are ignored. After all, in Chinese culture ‘no’ can often be a polite form for ‘yes’.

而且西方客人很多时候会被中餐的份量吓到。他们面前的食物可能并不是自己特别想要的,因为没人理会他们的婉拒。毕竟,在中国文化里,不用了经常是好的的一种委婉表示。


So the host gives them huge amounts of food, which according to their culture they should finish eating, but the more they eat, the more they are given. The result is often severe indigestion!

所以主人就给他们很多吃的,依照西方文化他们应该吃干净,但是他们吃得越多,主人就给得越多。结果就是吃得太撑了!


One last difference I’d like to discuss is the expression ‘thank you’. It is used both in English and Chinese to show gratitude, but the exact way in which the expression is used in the two languages is somewhat different.

我想谈的最后一类差异就是谢谢你这句话。不管是英文还是中文,这句话都代表谢意,但是在两种语言里,这句话准确的使用方式却有点不一样。


In Chinese, the frequency with which ‘thank you’ is used is connected with the relationship between the speakers. If the relationship is very close, such as between family members or close friends, is not used very often. In fact, the use of it implies some distance.

在中文里,说谢谢你的次数跟说话双方之间的关系有关。如果是很亲近的关系,比如说家人或好朋友,并不经常说谢谢。说这句话其实意味着生疏。


Yet in English this is not the case. ‘Thank you’ is used extremely frequently, and is just as common between close friends as between casual acquaintances. If it is not used, it seems that the other person is being taken for granted.

但在英语里并非如此。谢谢你这句话说得相当频繁,好朋友之间也好,一般的关系也好,都很常说。如果不这么说,就好像对方的好意是理所应当一样。


This difference can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. To Chinese it may appear that the Westerner always finds ways to keep a distance between them. And to Westerners it may appear that Chinese are ungrateful.

这类文化差异有时也会带来误会。对中国人来说,西方人之间好像总是互相保持距离,而对西方人来说,中国人看起来不懂得感恩。


But in English ‘thank you’ is not only used to simply thank another person. For example, a student asks his Western teacher if she would mind marking some extra work which he has done. She agrees to do so, and the student hands her his exercise book. The teacher takes it and says ‘thank you’ to the student.

但是英语里的谢谢你并不一定只是用来谢谢对方的。比如说,一个学生问他的西方老师愿不愿意帮自己修改一些课外作业。老师同意了,然后学生交给她自己的练习册。老师拿过来之后会跟学生说一声谢谢你


Chinese students are often puzzled by this use of ‘thank you’ because they feel that they should be doing the thanking rather than the teacher. In fact in English ‘thank you’ is often used when things are passed from one hand to another, and in this case it also indicates the teacher’s willingness to do the extra work.

中国学生经常会因为谢谢你的这种用法感到疑惑,因为他们觉得,是他们自己应该谢谢老师,而不是反过来。实际上英语里的谢谢你一般用在交接的情况下,刚刚那种情形就代表了老师愿意做一些额外工作。


To sum up, there are many interesting cultural differences between China and the West. All of these differences of habit in language and behaviour can be potential sources of offence and misunderstanding. I hope these observations I talked about today provide you with some food for thought. Thank you.

总的来说呢,中国与西方文化之间有很多有趣的不同之处。所有这些在语言和行为习惯上的不同都会成为冒犯对方和产生误解的潜在因素。我希望我今天提到的这些心得,能够引发大家的思考。谢谢。

 

The content for this post is adapted from Helen Oatey’s excellent article, “Chinese and Western Interpersonal Relationships”, taken from 跨文化交际与英语学习 Intercultural Communication – What It Means to Chinese Learners of English edited by 胡文仲 Hu Wenzhong. 上海译文出版社  Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 1988.

 

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