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 author of this article made many generalizations and exaggerations about both Chinese and Westerners' behaviors and customs (some posters here have also done the same thing). Certainly, regardless whether they are Chinese or Westerners, people are individuals and they do behave differently and have other differences, such as different opinions, values, moralities...etc. Also, in the case of China, the regional/local/area differences can play a big role in how people interact and behave. People from different cities and/or areas can be different, as Chinese from Shanghai are not really the same as those from Nanjing. Many Chinese don't always know their own culture and country very well, so I wouldn't take this article too seriously. It's also possible the author is simply being facetious, who knows.

There are some translation issues in this article as well. I don't think the word "tactful" from the last sentence in the article is the correct translation, though I can't think of a good word right now. People who read Chinese should go to wenxuecity and look for the original article themselves.

As for whether the Chinese are tactful, traditionally, that should be the case, but these days, much less so. But it also depends on how one defines the term, the specific situation people find themselves in, and the interactions that take place between different individuals. Certainly, many Chinese can be tactful in a good way. However, while many Chinese certainly are dishonest, evasive and have bad manners, there are also many Chinese out there who have fine manners, and who are open, direct and honest.

As for the concept of "face", it's a difficult concept and hard to explain. Not many Chinese can explain it well either, and certainly not everything in China has to do with "face". I don't think the author of this article was and is sugarcoating and was and is trying to save face. It's true that many Chinese have not been able to take criticisms well, but many other Chinese have been able to accept critisms and have been willing to self-reflect and work to improve themselves and other people and things. This is still true today. The point is, things in China are often very complicated and cannot be explained very easily and well in a word or two, or with a specific concept, term, or idea.

Finally, as I said in another article, there have always been changes in China throughout her history, it's just that changes in China since the 19th century have been much bigger than before. Modern China has also been hugely influenced by the West. Even traditional China has been influenced by outside forces, as there have always been interactions between China (and the Chinese) and other places and people throughout China's history. Think of the Chinese's acceptance of Buddhism, for example. There have been many other similar interactions between the Chinese and other people in the past as well. Joanna Waley-Cohen's "The Sextants of Beijing" is a good introduction to this topic.

Nov 30, 2012 03:31 Report Abuse



I think the point the writer is trying to make is simply that Chinese are totally devoid of manners...which is true...

Nov 13, 2012 06:37 Report Abuse



Aside from your generalizations of the Chinese, which I only half-agree with (given not all Chinese have bad manneres, there are also Chinese who have good manners), I think you missed the point of the article.

Nov 13, 2012 12:47 Report Abuse



Sorry, the previous post is badly written. It should have been,

I think you have missed the point of the article. In addition, I can only half-agree with your generalizations of the Chinese, given not all Chinese have bad manneres, there are also Chinese who have good manners.

Nov 13, 2012 12:56 Report Abuse



A lot of generalizations by the author of this article but also from some posters here. We should remind ourselves that this piece is just from an online poster, and I am not sure how representative this is in that we can say it is the Chinese perspective. As I often find on Chinese messageboards, Chinese opinions can be quite polarized too. Therefore, we should try not to generalize too much ourselves.

My 2 cents.

Aug 10, 2012 20:15 Report Abuse


David C.

For people talking about the usage of laowai, I guess it depends on the context though. I do know in America for example, some Chinese call other Chinese "laozhong" and the Cantonese as "laoguang". Just a piece of information.

Aug 02, 2012 20:30 Report Abuse



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



To my surprise, many of those who make a comment on the Chinese notion of "face", and the assumption of lying to be culturally acceptable or even preferred due to its prevalence in day-to-day interactions, really do not have an understanding of the Chinese concept of "face". It is not a superficial, simplistic idea of retaining your reputation or make yourselves look good in front of others. Rather, it is a very complex concept, which, I don't think I can explain well, given it's multi-facetted connotations. I find the Wikipedia page for "Face (sociological concept)" to be quite thorough and helpful in understanding the concept. At least it is a good starting point.
However, the page is quite long (and dry in some paragraphs), and one must have some patience in reading it through. I've also googled and youtubed through some of the online definitions and descriptions of the concept. But, most of them only touch on a few of the many facets of the concept, and some are quite simplistic (particularly those from youtube).
If you want to survive your stay in China, and enhance of your experiences there, a good grasp of the concept of "face" is CRUCIAL. Whether you agree with how the whole thing work is not a matter of importance, since you are in China, and that is how Chinese interact with each other. I am not saying that many of the faults my Chinese fellows make should be accepted. Indeed, killing, lying, stealing, cheating, etc. are most of the time not universally appreciated. But then, you have to understand that every culture has their own definition of these notions, and there are situations where these actions are acceptable (such as killing in self-defense, lying for a fleeing victim, stealing for the poor,i.e. Robin Hood, and cheating for fun - games with your sister). Person to person interactions and situations are complex, and should never be taken as a black & white million dollar question. If you should want to insist on correcting other Chinese regarding this social concept, it would be like asking a person who really loves the colour red to think that blue is a much prettier colour. You might succeed in your preaching, but good luck on that. After all, it is the difference in culture that makes the world interesting.

May 22, 2012 14:45 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



Personally (my own opinion and subjective feeling) Laowai is a semi-racist term that I don't exactly like using, or being used to describe me. I know some other Americans who've lived in China much longer than me who have similar opinions, but other think it's fine, and the Chinese seem to have little hesitancy in using it, so it's whatever.

Apr 18, 2012 12:07 Report Abuse


John Trimmer

After over 15 years of living in China I do not even notice most of the items in the article I'm married to a wonderful Chinese lady and have a wonderful close relationship with her children and grandchildren

Laowai becomes a term of endearment after a while. Loa is used with many Chinese terms as a form of veneration. "Old Friend", Old Lady, etc.
Many years ago the Chinese called us Yuan Guatzu or foreign Devils. That was intended to be insulting.
When I broke my hip and was in bed for three months always thanked those who emptied my bed pan day or night profusely. My wife chastised me about this, to which I said that "thanks" was necessary to be used often when ever someone dd something for you family or not and I was going to continue to thank my family and friends.
Most foreigners that consider this article incorrect really have not gotten to know or understand the Chinese.

Apr 13, 2012 13:03 Report Abuse


Joe Kwai

I think most expats would agree that if the word laowai was not used to talk about every foreigner, even once their country has been established, things might get a bit easier. It is this word and its use that typifies a them and us situation as the article would suggest.

Oh and dont complain in mcdonalds if the burger is cold either. they dont like that. must be a uniform thing.

Mar 17, 2012 00:20 Report Abuse



The most sensible thing to do is explain your culture.

Being British, politeness to me is something different to others. I say Please and Thank you a lot! I say thankyou hundreds of times to the people who help me.

At first, they were hesitant, and would say 'it's ok...It's no problem...We are friends'. I explained that in the UK to be seen as polite you say thank you for every little thing, especially if someone is going out of their way to help you. After that, they accepted my thank yous and just laugh about it instead of feeling embarrassed. It's about explaining why you do certain things rather than taking offence because others don't.

Mar 11, 2012 01:31 Report Abuse


Pete Marchetto

I confess to confusion here. I turned to this article expecting to see a lot of hilarious nonsense having been exposed to a lot of rubbish talked about foreigners here. In this case, though, the original writer seems to know his stuff and has got most of it spot-on. Indeed, I've rarely read anything written about foreigners from a Chinese perspective so accurate in its assessment of differences and their causes.

The only point I'd disagree with is the 'laowai' thing. The biggest problem for me with 'laowai' has nothing to do with age at all; it's the impersonal nature of being characterised repetitively by this all-embracing word when walking down the street in particular, but also when in familiar company and hearing oneself referred to as the laowai in Chinese-Chinese discussion rather than people referencing you by name.

I'd say they've got the rest of it pretty much right.

Mar 08, 2012 00:53 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



I see a lot of people raging about this article...

Well...I THOUGHT it was an interesting article nonetheless. May not be 100% true but at least just gives me an idea of what to anticipate.from certain situations.

Mar 02, 2012 22:36 Report Abuse



Yeah,things only get "objectively rude" when you make Chinese lose face.It is normal to expect strangers in your country to behave respectfully,but it's another issue to keep givng injunctions as to how they should go to bed and wake up,something you don't experience when you are in other countries.The negative behaviour already mentioned is not unique to China,but it is acute in China. The culture of lies throw you into a tail-spin,just as whispering obscenities throw others into one.If you could also be secure in your sense of listening to lies,your stay would be even more pleasurable!

Mar 02, 2012 07:44 Report Abuse



In fact,it seems to me you guys may just be playing around with the word tact. China has been opened to the rest of the world now for a very long time,yet Chinese never seem to get anything right about foreigners.If they did they won't continue asking foreigners how much their salaries are,how old they are,where they are going.All these show a lack of tact in dealing with others.You refuse to learn about them,and wound their feelings without batting an eye.We have tons of articles here about what foreigners should not say and do to Chinese.Why has it turned out that foreigners should constantly be reminded of what not to do to Chinese? You claim Chinese will happily tell a foreigner he or she has put on weight.Maybe you are living in a dream world.All what I hear Chinese say are underbreath slurs about foreigners like;" pang", "da", "lao".This is a mark of cowardice. This has nothing to do with tact,but just confrontational behaviour.

Mar 02, 2012 01:02 Report Abuse



I disagree.

You have been culturally conditioned to react with offence when someone asks your income. That does not make the question objectively rude. Why should Chinese people living in China adapt to such culturally specific Western taboos? How incredibly Western-centric.

“Why has it turned out that foreigners should constantly be reminded of what not to do to Chinese?”

Because they are in China. It is quite reasonable for a country to expect visitors to behave respectfully towards its inhabitants.

“All what I hear Chinese say are underbreath slurs about foreigners like;" pang", "da", "lao".This is a mark of cowardice. This has nothing to do with tact,but just confrontational behaviour.”

Did you refer to something as being an example of “cowardice” AND “confrontational behaviour”? Interesting.

Of course there is nothing good to be said for that kind of behaviour, but it exists in ALL societies where foreigners are still only a small percentage. It isn’t specific to China. That said, I really enjoy being different – not least because of the attention, whether positive or negative. I am secure enough in my sense of self that someone whispering about me won’t throw me into a tail-spin. I honestly love living in China (primarily because of the people), and the only thing I wish would change is the culture of lies.

Mar 02, 2012 03:17 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



Well, I always try to focus on the positives. I know China has a lot of problems, but I also know that things are still changing in China, and that there are also many good and honest Chinese who know about their problems (I've met several), and who are trying to make a difference (they have been working on making China better for some time now). As for the "culture of lies", dishonesty is certainly a problem in China. But, I wouldn't use the word "culture" to describe this problem, for "culture" is just such a big word and its meaning and implication are way too various and numerous for me. So the word in this context can be quite unclear, confusing, misleading and wrong. Anyway, if not already, hope you will meet some good, caring, courteous and honest Chinese in the future, as I have known a few of them already.

Also, some posters here seem to generalize and exaggerate too much about certain things or their experiences in China, such as getting "injunctions as to how they should go to bed and wake up" from the post below. I am not even sure how true that is. Even if it is true, it is probably within a specific context, for I doubt one can say China as a whole is like that. So please avoid generalizations and exaggerations.

Nov 11, 2012 21:17 Report Abuse



I think what the article was trying to get across is that this is how the general trend is in comparison of Chinese and those who aren't from East Asia. Yes, there are cultural differences between many non-East Asian cultures. For every generalization about foreigners above, there are indeed several exceptions. However, the general trend assumed here is accurate. I know this, having actively studied other cultures (anthropology major w/ minors in Spanish and Asian studies), having been to China for more than a tourist expedition, and having interacted with a myriad of other nationalities during college.

As for those of you who go nuts over the slightest prick in your mental schemas, ease up. This is what you sound like:


This is highly looked down upon in internet conduct. Again, this article is a general trend and not indicative of 100% of the non-Chinese world. Ease up. Even when you're actually right, you still look like an idiot.

Mar 01, 2012 21:39 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



As I understand it, people here do not neccessarily lose face by lying, far from it.

Mar 01, 2012 21:27 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