Common Faux Pas Westerners Make With The Chinese

Here are a few commong faux pas Western businesspeople and tourists make with the Chinese. 

  1. Declining invitations.  When Chinese people invite you to do something or go somewhere, you should say yes.  They don’t issue invitations casually.  To them, getting together is an important step in getting to know you.  Saying no is considered rude, or at least unfriendly.  Chinese people are very spontaneous, and they’re quite likely to invite you to dinner on short notice.  Many Westerners will decline out of politeness – they think they’re saving their Chinese hosts trouble by saying no.  Westerners also like a little more planning – we tend to have plans already.  But the Chinese think that saying we have other plans is just an excuse, they think we are trying to say no in a polite way.  In the end, there’s nothing good about declining an invitation from a Chinese friend or business associate, and it may be taken in quite a bad way.
  2. Forcing an answer.  The Chinese rarely say yes or no directly, especially to questions that are complex or impactful to them.  This is often VERY frustrating for Westerners, who tend to value straight talk.  The Chinese think it’s incredibly rude, and highly embarrassing, when a Westerner tries to pin them down on answering a question.  This is even more so of Chinese people in a “higher” position than you – e.g. a Chinese boss, investor, teacher, customer or official.  These higher ranking Chinese people see demands for a straight answer the same way we would see smart comments from a teenager – inappropriate, impertinent and rude.  If Chinese people are answering in a way that seems vague, it’s because they are TRYING to be vague.
  3. Saying things directly/demanding they be said directly.  Related to forcing an answer is saying things directly, or forcing the Chinese to say things directly.  For instance, there’s an old joke about two roommates, an American (Mark) and a Chinese (Wang) guy.  The Chinese guy’s car is broken and he needs a lift to the grocery store, so he says, “Mark, even though my car is broken, I’m still going to the grocery store today.  Is there anything you need me to get while I’m there?”  “Thanks, but I’m good,” Mark answers.  Wang thinks for a minute and then says, “You know, it’s going to be very hot today.”  “Yes, I’d heard that,” Mark says.  Trying once more, Wang says, “You know, the grocery store is quite far away.”  Finally Mark gets it.  “Wang, would you like a lift to the grocery store?”  The next day, Wang’s car is fixed by Mark’s is broken.  “Wang,” Mark says, “my car is broken – would you mind giving me a lift to the grocery store.”  To the Chinese, saying things directly can be very face losing, so they find it rude when Westerners try to make them say things directly.
  4. Being impatient.  The Chinese have a much longer, and much more relaxed, view of time than Westerners.  This often frustrates Westerners, who are used to keeping tight time schedules.  Seeking to end a meeting early, or leave before it’s finished, is very rude.  This is especially true if you’re meeting with someone in a “higher” position than you – e.g. a Chinese boss, investor, teacher, customer or official.  The polite thing to do is to sit patiently, and listen attentively, for as long as your Chinese host wants to go.  Chinese people also generally take much longer to get to the point, which can drive Westerners crazy.  Nonetheless, it’s considered bad manners to try and force your Chinese colleagues to rigidly adhere to a timetable during a discussion.
  5. Not observing the hierarchy.  The Chinese are very hierarchical and it seems very rude to them if a lower ranked person is overly familiar with a higher ranked person.  Westerners tend to find this difficult, because the basic assumption in Western culture is that everyone deserves equal treatment.  
  6. Disrespecting business cards.  A small thing that can cause a really bad impression with the Chinese is to not treat a business card with respect.  For instance, the proper way to give and to receive a business card is with two hands.  The receiver should then take a moment to study the card, noting the card giver’s name, title and office location.  It would then be considered good form to ask a question (e.g “I see that your office is in Beijing – is that your home town?”) or make a complimentary observation (e.g. “You have a very senior role for someone so young.  You must be extremely diligent and talented.”).  It is bad manners to accept the card with one hand and it is TERRIBLE manners to put the card away without looking at it first.  The height of bad manners would be to leave the card lying on the table when you get up the leave.  To the Chinese, this is tantamount to saying you have no regard for them or their time.
  7. Getting really angry, showing your anger.  The Chinese believe that Westerners are prone to unexpected and violent temper tantrums.  They feel nervous when Westerners start talking loudly and waving their hands around.  Standing close to someone and shouting angrily can even be considered assault in China.  A US consulate officer in China once told me that the most common reason for Americans ending up in jail in China is that they get into a minor car accident and, in the course of arguing with the other party, make angry gestures that are interpreted as threatening.  The Chinese think that explosive demonstrations of temper are rude and embarrassing.
  8. Speaking about sex, politics or religion.  While sex, politics and religion are always risky topics to raise with people you don’t know well, the areas doubly problematic of the Chinese.  The Chinese are very conservative about sex, and discussing it openly is considered highly embarrassing.  The Chinese have very different political ideas from Westerners, and this can lead to a lot of misunderstandings.  For instance, the Chinese don’t automatically think that communism is bad, or that democracy is superior.  Most Chinese don’t believe that Tibet is being oppressed, or that it should be “free.”  Most Chinese people have a positive view of Mao, and they resent criticism of him.  It would be considered very bad manners to criticize Xi Jinping, the current president.  It would be terribly bad manners to bring up the Tiananmen Square protests.  These topics are all very dangerous, and can be seen as very inappropriate topics of conversation.  The Chinese rarely discuss religion openly.  You would be thought childishly rude if you asked a recent acquaintance about their religious beliefs, or shares your own with them.
  9. Confusing them with Japanese.  The Chinese have a very fraught and difficult relationship with the Japanese.  To many Westerners, the two nationalities seem similar, but it’s deeply insulting to say so.  

A few things are commonly thought of as bad manners in China, but in fact are not:

  1. Not using chopsticks.  No one in China cares if you can use chopsticks and they’re quite happy to find you a knife and fork if you wish.  These days, practically every restaurant has knives and forks on hand.
  2. Not bowing.  The Chinese don’t bow to each other any more often than Westerners do.  This is often a confusion with Japanese culture, which has a complex etiquette around bowing.  Chinese people sometimes incline their heads to each other, but this is usually just a friendly gesture.