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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49 Comments Add your comment
I've learnt a lot here, but I'm wondering why I haven't been told of these taboos by my chinese wife ?
The one thing she has warned me about is talking about politics. Dissent , Xiaobo,Tibet, Tiawan, the execution rate, the gap between rich and poor, corruption and any criticism of the communist party are off limits.
I know what an explosive area this is as my wife has not mentioned any of these 10 taboos and she is basically not a tradition chinese woman,but to try to talk about any of these political issues is nearly always met with. " Why are you so interested in politics and criticising the communist [?] let's talk about something else".
May 05, 2011 15:07 Report Abuse
Sorry but in Shanghai amongst my Chinese colleagues and friends.....all of this is a load of crap! I think the younger generation trying to be international just don't care about this kind of thing - especially when any of it comes from a laowai!
This is the kind of thing you read as useful tips in a phrase book, then when you get here you realise it's not really that important to a lot of people!
May 05, 2011 15:48 Report Abuse
Its not just about what not to say. For example when a Chinese hostess says "welcome to China", upon departure the host should say " welcome to my country". Failure to say this causes deep resentment and anger. I know this is true, because this situation occured when my daughter visited China recently, she very much upset my Chinese wife by omitting this token of reciprocity. She never said "welcome to England", the little toad!
May 05, 2011 20:29 Report Abuse
I think your 'little toad' was just observing a respect for the command of correct grammar... why would she say "Welcome to England" when your Chinese wife hadn't arrived in England?
You can't say "Welcome to England" to someone when you're not even in that country!
It's like at the Shanghai Expo where the loudspeakers blasted announcements, including "Wish you to have a pleasant journey"... it's just translated direct from the Chinese and doesn't make 100% grammatical sense in English. The sentiment is there, granted, but it sounds weird coming from a native speaker. Go easy on your kid!
May 06, 2011 00:05 Report Abuse
How about the stupid idiot things most of you say. I wouldn't want to have a conversation with most of you because you are all stuck up about conversation. I really hope you don't teach english and I really hope you don't attempt to teach any sort of culture. All I can say, is grow up and live in China, otherwise go back to your beautiful country!!
May 06, 2011 01:36 Report Abuse
I don't have a problem at all with foreigners being here (in China) or for that matter any country. I just can't understand why the hell there are so many idiotic comments made about China, and yet all of them (commentators) never mention leaving or going to some other country! Your naive and immature, yet you think you are an educated foreign person who can change another country...maybe you are a sepo or a wet behind the ears fool!!!!
May 11, 2011 02:53 Report Abuse
The phones go OFF.
Losing face is stupidity at times and it has no place in reality.
Other things you suggest here are total BS also.
I don't know who is supplying you with your info, but you are being led down
the path to the Snipe sack.
May 06, 2011 05:58 Report Abuse
Right on Dam.
Got onto an early morning bus for a 4 hour ride,,,,sat down and as the bus took off, ofcourse most people nodded off,,,,,,,,until the phone rang,,,,,,it was not the phone ring that was the problem, but the voice level this guy needed to use to have a conversation.
Save face ???? by the time i was finished with him, not only did he lose face,,,,,,his bloody head fell off !!!!!
May 16, 2011 20:12 Report Abuse
Simple rules when having a meeting with Chinese managment.
1. No Phones.
2. 9am meeting starts at 9am.
3. One person talks at anytime.
4.Dont spit on the floor in my meetings.
5.Write the minute notes while in the meeting and get all to agree and sign it.
6. I dont care about your face, this is business.
May 16, 2011 20:19 Report Abuse
Wow, I bet people mop the floor with you John when in negotiation.
"keep spitting on the floor, it's unbalancing that John guy"
"make sure to have Sally keep ringing all of our phones during the meeting with John, he'll be so distracted we'll be able to ream him good and proper."
"Just to keep that foolish John guy happy, just sign the minute notes at the end, even though it's a totally pointless action, as any agreements not legally binding are just that and that's all they will ever be."
May 18, 2011 22:04 Report Abuse
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