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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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