Be Warned! Top 10 Chinese-Westerner Misunderstandings (According to Chinese)

Be Warned! Top 10 Chinese-Westerner Misunderstandings (According to Chinese)
Feb 29, 2012 By

Editor's note: While many articles have been written about cross-cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications between foreigners and Chinese, often times, these articles are written from the perspective of the expat. The following article, which recently appeared on, follows similar ground but from a Chinese perspective, and for a Chinese audience (hence all of references to "foreigners" which in this case, generally means "Westerners"). While we may think that some of the explanations are a bit odd, it is nonetheless an interesting piece of cultural anthropology. With no further ado, here are the top ten misunderstands according to Chinese.

1) Praise (赞美)
Foreigners take delight in praising others, and are also happy to receive praise, but Chinese will often refuse another person's praise in order to demonstrate their modesty. This refusal will likely baffle foreigners, as it seems to them that you don't accept their sentiment. Meanwhile, Chinese will often say kind words to another person with whom they are trying to curry favour. One way we ingratiate ourselves is by telling guests things like:  "You must be tired? You should go and have a good rest" (您应该很累吧?好好休息一下). However foreigners will misunderstand this common greeting, and instead think that you are commenting on the state of their physical appearance. Foreigners really like it when others exaggerate their youthfulness or strength, and if you question their physical heath (as in the above example), they may get upset.

2) Saying "Thank you" (致谢)
Chinese believe that you needn't say "thank you" to family members or good friends after they help you, and that saying such a thing actually implies an unfriendly or estranged relationship. But foreigners are accustomed to saying "thank you" when a family member or good friend helps them, and they are taught to use polite language such as "thanks" and "please". So, when you're hanging out with foreigners, you definitely don't want to be ungenerous with your "thank yous". Not saying "thanks" will cause foreigners to assume that you are shy or impolite.

3) Traveling with a friend (出游)
When Chinese travel with friends, if someone wants to buy some souvenir, they will generally first calculate how many people are in the group, and then purchase accordingly. Even if someone politely declined, Chinese will still buy one for him or her. But when travelling with a foreigner, if you decline a souvenir, don't expect to get one anyway. Foreigners believe that they are respecting your decision by not buying you something after you've declined it. So, if you really want something, you should directly say so. And afterwards, be sure to sincerely thank them (see #2); in their eyes, that's the polite way of doing it.

4) Addressing (称呼)
When foreigners hear Chinese referring to them as laowai (老外), they're unhappy, because they don't think of themselves as being old, but as young and healthy. It's only after they hear Chinese call a small child laowai that they realise that it has nothing to do with age, that it's just a respectful form of address for foreigners.

5) Seeing somebody off (送别)
The manner in which Chinese express emotions is relatively restrained. When seeing somebody off, choking back your tears, being stingy in your embrace and other "indifferent" displays of affection will deeply shock foreigners. So, if you're saying goodbye to a foreigner, your manner should be a bit more unrestrained, lest they think of you as cold-hearted.

6) Give yourself a round of applause (鼓掌)
During Chinese public speeches, if others start applauding something the speaker has said, to express his or her gratitude, the speaker will generally pause the speech and start clapping along with the audience. Foreigners don't understand why you'd want to applaud yourself, which they see as very immodest. So, if your giving a speech in front of a bunch of foreigners, it'd be better to bow or wave instead of applause. Of course, just smiling and standing there is an option as well.

7) Eye contact (眼神)
For many Chinese, when talking with others or giving a public speech, we shy away from making eye contact with the audience, as it's considered quite rude. But when foreigners give public speeches, they are sure to keep near-constant eye contact with the audience, and it's unlikely that you'll see a public speaker who buries their head in their manuscript while talking. If you don't have the courage to keep eye contact with your audience during your public speech, then don't expect the audience to interact or fully engage in what you're saying.

8) Gift giving (送礼)
Chinese like to give gifts in pairs, such as two bottles of wine, two cigarettes etc. This is done both to show that we are not stingy, and because two is a culturally auspicious number. Also, when visiting a friend or a relative's house, it's very common for us to bring them some fruit. But in the West, when someone gives someone else a bottle of wine as a gift, it is always a single bottle. Perhaps this is because it is custom to drink the bottle of wine that the guest brings with the meal, and if the guest brings two bottles of wine, it would seem as if they are a bit of an alcoholic. It's also uncommon for foreigners to bring fruit to a friend or relative's house – fruit is generally the kind of gift that you'd bring someone staying in a hospital. Also, when Chinese receive gifts from others, it's custom to take the gift and quietly set it aside and wait to open the gift until after the guests have left (lest they come off as greedy). Conversely, foreigners hope that you'll open the gift in front of them, and then thank you for the gift afterward.

9) Being a guest in someone's house (做客)
When Chinese visit someone's house, they like to roam about and peek around at everything. But how will foreigners look upon these acts? Although it's hospitable to make a guest feel at home, for foreigners, it's still taboo for guests to meander around their house nonchalantly invading their privacy. Similarly, we should refrain from asking them about private matters such as their salary, age etc.

10) Eating (吃饭)
Many misunderstandings with foreigners take place at the dinner table. When Chinese invite foreigners to eat at their house, they will likely prepare 8-10 dishes. It's best to mentally prepare the foreigners for the size of the meal to come, otherwise they will probably not have any room left by the time the final dishes come out. If you go to a foreigner's house for a meal, there may only be one or two dishes on the table. Also, the way foreigners will comment on the meal ("These dishes are all so tasty") are completely different from the way Chinese people comment on the meal ("this dish is too [X]…I'll make do with it and eat a little bit.").

Chinese express their interest in others by giving them bits of food to eat, which foreigners never do – they're most happy to let people pick and choose what they want to eat by themselves. Also, when dining with a foreigner, don't act humble or subtle about what you want to eat – most foreigners are very direct, and if they ask you if you like eating something and you politely decline, they'll respect your decision and won't try to give it to you again. So, when dining with foreigners, if you're hungry, let them know!

In short, foreigners' expressions and methods of dealing with people are very direct, and Chinese are more tactful.


Related links
9 Potentially Exasperating/Embarrassing Moments to Avoid in China
The Inscrutable Chinese? Challenges to Understanding China
Top 6 Misconceptions about Foreigners in China

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Keywords: Chinese and western differences foreigner miscommunications in China China cross cultural misunderstandings


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The writer is a Chinese acting like a bad guy who hang out with so many foreigners. Anyway 70% of what he mention about interaction between Chinese and foreigners is true, but some are not factual especially the age part. They are the one into being young. In fact how can they classify over 600000 people as one? So they all just sit there and believe that every foreigner is the same? now that tell me that Dong xiao ping has to Resurrect because he did not open them well.

Jul 10, 2012 00:10 Report Abuse



I'm a westerner multi-national. I have noticed all these things are true for both western and Chinese behavior. I don't like being called laowei because it makes me feel old, yes. Its wierd how Chinese dont say thank you or hug, I cant imagine preparing 8 dishes like they do, we only give one gift and not fruit, we love compliments yes, all true, strange how so many foreigners are so rude and bash people on the internet, shameful really. Rare to see anyone but US, french, and the odd ozzie doing such, any other nation seems much more refined and less head up their own A syndrome.

Apr 19, 2012 06:48 Report Abuse



Don't battle your head with cultural difference ! Live yourself, be yourself as you are ! At least they will understand you are foreigner , same as we understand in our country they are Chinese ! I am living in my culture where I am going and I love my culture, i don't like being confuse and to ask myself " oh, is that good or wrong ?" all of the time. Just be yourself ! If you wrong in their mind, just don't care ! Same as they don't care of they are wrong, they think they have always right, so why we would not think the same as foreigenrs ?

Mar 04, 2012 22:37 Report Abuse



You say China hs been "opened up for a long time", but does it strike you that most Chinese people, even in Beijing or Shanghai, hardly ever relate to foreigners in their daily lives. Most of them hardly ever even see one, except in the centers of the two cities mentioned above. How are they supposed to know?

Mar 02, 2012 17:00 Report Abuse



Chinese people have little common sense, they drive badly, spit and urinate everywhere and are very rude on the subway and on roads. And when people make mistakes, they never admit to it because they believe lying is better to keep face than tell the truth but actually, people lose face by lying. Explain that!
Also, "westerners" and foreigners are not the same thing. Do you consder Japanese, Thai and Indonesians as westerners? Or even Indians or Russians for that matter?

Mar 01, 2012 19:30 Report Abuse



Ok, so take this for example. Your boss doesn't pay you on time but blames it on the bank. You contact the bank to see what's going on and they tell you that your company didn't give the money to them. Explain that. Someon is lying to keep face and it happens all the time. That is just one of many examples

Mar 08, 2012 00:27 Report Abuse



Haha...I wanted to make a comment about that last statement but there isn't really a need for it. Some of the things said in the article sounded actually quite true to me and I was almost ready to give a slightly positive comment. Then I read the last sentence, and, somehow, I changed my mind. Chinese? Tactful? I can't even think of a sentence where the two words might go well together.

Mar 01, 2012 06:24 Report Abuse



"In short, foreigners' expressions and methods of dealing with people are very direct, and Chinese are more tactful."

Give me a break, with all the yelling, screaming and streetfights in this nation how can you say that? I can't even go to dinner without two louts drunk on baijiu getting into some stupid family squabble and making a scene out of it.

Chinese who write this kind of bunk are the ones that have NEVER left the country.

Mar 01, 2012 02:15 Report Abuse



Again, it is very obvious why a Chinese person would think Westerners to be more direct, and I know a lot of Chinese who have lived in the West who would still claim this. Of course in China you can get a lot of boorish, rude and uncouth behaviour, especially amongst the lower class, and especially when alcohol is involved (although they usually do not get as violent as Northern Europeans when drunk). But that is quite beyond the point. It is a fact that the Chinese in their way can be very tactful and avoid directly saying things which cause offense, especially with people they don't know very well. At the same time, they will also happily tell you that you have put on weight, or other things which in the West are considered off limits, without meaning any offense at all.
In short, I can see where the guy is coming from, but being Chinese and probably never having lived abroad, he can't see the other side of the story.

I stick to my point that Western descriptions of Chinese behaviour ("in Chinese culture you do not help strangers" is another typical one) are just as simplistic and laden with misunderstanding, and they often come from people who have lived in China a while.

Mar 01, 2012 17:17 Report Abuse



More dumbass diversity doo doo...

Who has the baby wipes and hand sanitizer.?

Mar 01, 2012 02:04 Report Abuse



"In short, foreigners' expressions and methods of dealing with people are very direct, and Chinese are more tactful." Last line of the article.

This is a complete load of rubbish, Is it really saying that Chinese are more reserved and polite than all other people. Remember the article is about Chinese and foreigners, now just westerners. Firstly we have all come across many poorly educated, badly behaved and rude Chinese, and I don't need to offer examples as we all know many of them. We have also met many genuinely lovely Chinese people. so that makes the Chinese like many other foreigners, some good some bad. What the article refers to as "direct" I prefer to think of as more open and honest , for example if we ask someone if they want this particular food and they say no, we believe they are sensible enough to have their own opinion and we honour that opinion by not repeating the question. In a way it is a form of giving face to know that someone is adult and honest enough to express such an opinion. The sooner some Chinese people wake up to the idea that openness and honesty will get them much further in their dealings, not just with foreigners but Chinese too, the better the opinion of China will be here and abroad too. Clearly the compiler of this article has a very skewed view of both foreigners and Chinese, written by someone with a more balanced viewpint would have made this a potentially good article.

Feb 29, 2012 23:13 Report Abuse



The fact that either person would take such as offensive is only saying how uneducated they are because they are unable to comprehend something that has not been drilled into their heads all their lives.

no person should be required to change their ways simply because others are to daft to understand more than what goes on in their own box

Feb 29, 2012 21:09 Report Abuse



I'm surprised so many people found this article too general. It made me laugh because I've encountered some of these situations myself, and it's interesting to see why a behaviour that seems natural to me might confuse a Chinese person. I think in point 8 (gift giving) I would add that in the UK at least, we do sometimes give two bottles of wine - one red and one white - only if you don't know what your host is serving for dinner. It's important to match the wine to the food. Still, we'd only drink one with the meal. And point 9 (guest in house), I always like to have a nosey round a house I haven't been to before, but it's essential to ask your host to show you round themselves. That way they can tell you interesting things about their home, or keep the door shut on the dirty laundry!

Feb 29, 2012 21:03 Report Abuse



If you've never run into any of these problems, then you must not get out with Chinese friends very often! I have my Chinese friends over for dinner fairly regularly, but the first time they were shocked to see that I only had three or four dishes for them (a salad, some cooked veg, potatoes, and meat). They wandered around my apartment and touched all my belongings. They were totally unrestrained when talking about what they liked or didn't like, and why. I also allow my guests to serve themselves and try what they want to, though from going out with Chinese friends I realize it is polite to serve your friends and give them the food you think will interest them.
I have also gotten in trouble with close friends before for saying "thank-you" too much, and am trying to mend my ways.
I am far from insulted when people mention these cultural differences to me, rather, I see it as a learning experience. I have good friends who won't allow me to make a fool of myself when I meet others, and I'm thankful enough that I won't ever say so. :D

Feb 29, 2012 19:22 Report Abuse



I've seen a lot of these things her in China.
People here I think just hate too much.

Mar 01, 2012 07:40 Report Abuse



I live in SouthEast China and 8/10 of these I've either experienced in one way or another or I can emphathize with.

Mar 04, 2012 04:51 Report Abuse



And of course, a barrage of comments attacking the article. It is clear that "foreigner" in this case means "Westerner", and although there are of course big differences between Italians and Canadians, the fact is that from a Chinese point of view it makes sense to lump them together.

What about Westerners, who talk about "Chinese" as if they were all the same, when the Chinese will tell you that Northeasterners and Sichuanese are quite different from each other?

And although some of the points in the article are clear nonsense (like the one about foreigners not wanting to be called "laowai" because it implies you are old), many of them are basically true, or at least you can see where they are coming from. Western analysis of Chinese behaviour (always going on about "face" the whole time) are often much more crass and simplistic.

Feb 29, 2012 16:58 Report Abuse



Uh, at least Chinese people are all in the same COUNTRY. If you want to get into countries by their regions that's a different thing. But Treating China as some diverse places and the DOZENS of NATIONS that make up the west as ONE thing is retarded and typical of why China doesn't understand the rest of the world. And you're advocating for it?! UNREAL. Go play in the treefort,

Mar 01, 2012 02:10 Report Abuse



correct. In all places if you get into this then its only because people dont respect you. Me too , never have any of those experiences.

Sep 13, 2014 11:39 Report Abuse



Typical. Chinese. BS.

First of all, not all "foreigners" are the same. So you can't throw them all into one basket. Canadians are known to be very modest and reserved, while Italians are known for being dramatic and emotional. There's literally thousands of differences between all the cultures and groups.

And this: "Foreigners really like it when others exaggerate their youthfulness or strength, and if you question their physical heath (as in the above example), they may get upset."

That is ludicrous. Try asking foreigners WHY they do and say certain things instead of making up assertions based on guessing.

"When foreigners hear Chinese referring to them as laowai (老外), they're unhappy, because they don't think of themselves as being old, but as young and healthy."


Feb 29, 2012 08:20 Report Abuse



Uh, yes, and if you read the OP the point is these AREN'T the facts about foreigners, you mental midget. This is made up Chinese garbage about what they THINK foreigners are like.

Typical hot headed kneejerk reaction from an apologist.

Mar 01, 2012 02:07 Report Abuse


Cultural differences ! Do you understand !

Dear Joe and all other westerners;

What is written above is an amazing, factual based differences between you and the Chinese. If you don't understand this article and similars, I strongly advise you to go back home and never travel to other countries, it's not for you!
I really enjoyed reading this article. If you don't understand it read it 10 times and make short notes on the what you think is odd, and learn it, it's the way these people act and interact with each other.
If you still can't understand it, then you are really an idiot (I mean it, I am not trying to offend you).

Mar 01, 2012 04:52 Report Abuse



@number 4..Who makes you the cultural guru?

Mar 01, 2012 05:34 Report Abuse


number 4

guys like you, who have left their sweet home for the first time in their life.

Mar 01, 2012 21:33 Report Abuse


Number 4

guys like you, who have left their sweet home for the first time in their life.

Mar 01, 2012 21:35 Report Abuse