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Say What? 10 Things You Shouldn’t Say to a Chinese Person

Jun 14, 2017 By Susie Gordon , Comments (7)     Add your comment Newsletter

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With so many taboos and traditions, social interactions can be a minefield in China. Although many are disappearing with time, there are still some things you just shouldn’t say in this country. Here are just a few:

1) “Thanks. I’ll look at that later.”

Most people know that if someone hands you a business card (which happens all the time) you should make sure you study it before tucking it away somewhere safe. But not a lot of people know that you should avoid putting it in the back pocket or hip pocket of your trousers, if you are wearing them. To do so would imply that you intend to “sit on” the other person (in a business sense, of course…)

2) “Here, take my umbrella.”

If you’re outside with a Chinese friend or colleague and it starts to rain, never offer them your umbrella. The Mandarin word for the humble brolly sounds like the word for separation, so proffering your umbrella implies that you will never see the person again. However, if you genuinely don’t want to see them again, it might be a good get-out.
3) “After-dinner drinks, anyone?”

You should never suggest an after-dinner tipple after eating a meal with Chinese friends or business colleagues. Proposing postprandial alcohol is associated with getting killed shortly after; and no-one wants that, right? It’s better to get as much drink down you during the dinner itself, obviously.

4) “Ooh, a present! I’ll open it now.”

If you are ever lucky enough to receive a gift from a Chinese person, never unwrap it in their presence, no matter how excited you are to find out what’s in that iPhone-shaped box. Imagine how hard it will be to disguise the disappointment on your face when you discover that it’s actually a thick volume of thorny Tang Dynasty poetry and not the gadget of your dreams. The generous gift giver doesn’t want to see that disappointment…


While coming over all Jerry Springer might wash in the West, losing your temper in front of Chinese people is seen as a huge loss of face, both for you and them. Try to keep your cool in annoying situations, unless you want to be seen as the “crazy laowai” who can’t control their emotions. This includes common sources of angst like getting cut off at the traffic lights, landing the city’s most unhinged taxi driver (again), and eliciting blank looks when you mix up your tones.

6) “Happy Birthday. Here’s a clock…”

Giving clocks as gifts is a huge no-no in China. The relentless ticking away of the hours is thought to symbolize the inevitable march towards the grave. Also, the word for clock sounds like the word for end. The act of offering a clock (song zhong) sounds like being at someone’s deathbed. A wristwatch, on the other hand, is perfectly fine to offer as a present.

7) “… and a handkerchief.”

Avoid giving handkerchiefs as gifts too, because they are used to wipe away tears.

8) “Could you switch that off?”

Anyone who has ever sat through a meeting will be familiar with regular interruptions from colleagues’ mobile phones. Under no circumstances should you ask them to turn off their cells, no matter how irritating the ring tone / QQ trill / constant holding up of the agenda. It’s seen as a loss of face.

9) “Hey, man. Here’s a green hat for you.”

If you give a green hat to a male friend who is married, you are suggesting that his wife will make a cuckold of him.

10) “Are you looking at me?”

Sometimes non-verbal statements speak louder than words. As well as being careful to avoid spoken taboos, there are certain looks and gestures you should steer clear of if you don’t want to offend. Frowning is construed as meaning that you disagree, so even if you are doing it in sympathy or agreement, that isn’t what it looks like. Also, avoid maintaining eye contact for too long, as this is seen as threatening.

Although many of these taboos are eroding with time, many persist, so it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when communicating with the older generation.

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Keywords: What not to say in China things you shouldn’t say China taboos in China

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7 Comments ( Add your comment )


I'm an American engineer with over 10 years involved in manufacturing by Chinese companies. I lived in Japan prior to being assigned to China. There are different concepts of 'face' in China and Japan. I believe the Chinese concept of 'face' is far different from the Japanese or western concept of being respected. IMO, 'Face' is a crippling factor in innovation and project or product development. 'Face' prevents progress as it hides the personal or corporate recognition of incompetence or failure as a symptom of the need to change to succeed. The difference is especially obvious in the difference between Western and Chinese engineering meetings. In China, they tend to play it safe, offering few opinions or new approaches. Nobody admits screwing up. They often confuse loud with logic. In both Japan and the West, there is a strong tendency to accept personal responsibility and push for creative solutions. I recognize the politically based cultural background to the Chinese concept of face, however, in China, 'face' seriously impedes personal improvement, innovation and solving problems in a timely fashion.

Jun 14, 2017 10:41

As a Chinese, it's so interesting to see this all, but some point like the umbrella one never have I ever heard before. I guess I won't reject an umbrella sharing on a rainy day from a kindhearted stranger.

Jun 14, 2017 11:23

Yeah I never heard of that before, and I've given plenty of people my umbrella to use and it has never been a problem.

Jun 14, 2017 15:13

"Also, avoid maintaining eye contact for too long, as this is seen as threatening." But they can stare at me every day? Because back in Baltimore ppl get shot in the face with a 9mm for prolonged eye contact.

Jun 14, 2017 12:56

so Chinese people can say any thing they like to me and get away with it and thats ok?

Jun 14, 2017 14:16

There was this girl I was dating whom I worked with in Nanjing. We got along pretty well but it never was very passionate. ..It almost seemed like she dated me for the sake of her job. It never became very physical..Just dates. Well, that Christmas, I was happy to have someone to spend Christmas with and bought her some nice gifts that were well thought out and planned on a nice evening for the two of us. I show up for our date and she very casually gives me her Christmas present to me...I open it up and it is this cheap, crappy looking clock with dried beans and pasta glued on it. I'm pretty shocked but I react politely. She tells me this story how it is her most cherished souvenir from her trip to Thailand (there's nothing about the clock that indicates it is Thai or from Thailand)....and I'm just thinking "This is a piece of crap" (even by Western standards of gift giving between intimates it is insulting)...I also notice that her gifts to our colleagues are more appropriate and specific to the likes of the person...I called her out on the Chinese symbolism of the piece: "You are giving me a clock? Isn't that a big insult in Chinese culture?"...She insists it isn't meant to to represent that..She insists I'm being silly and she's not that kind of person...but my read of her is that she's never going to be truthful (at least make up a pity story about how it is made by your poor relatives in the country)...I give her her gifts and she's genuinely happy and astonished I did so much for her...A few days later, I give the clock back to her, insisting it means more to her than to me...that, like she said, it's an important souvenir from her special trip and that it would never mean as much to me as it does to her..I also tell her it isn't my style (the thing is a cheap piece of crap...why the f8ck would anyone buy it?) and that I intend only to throw it out..She starts acting like she's horrified I'm giving acts her a clock!...She actually says, "Do you know what that means?"..I insist, it's not like that..I insist I just don't want to see her giving up something that holds such special memories for her and I leave it with her...I'd had it with chinese bullsh8t culture of trying to constantly slight and undermine people who are genuinely being nice to them..

Jun 15, 2017 00:09

Something never to say to a Chinese person: "You're a flipping idiot and just when I think you've said the dumbest thing possible, you keep right on talking." Here's another one: "I don't give a damn about your culture. I'm not a sheep. I don't do groupthink. I think for myself."

Jun 15, 2017 15:20

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