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Visiting China? Speak Chinese? (!) This advice is written for English users who are assumed to have a different, probably “Western” culture, and who are unfamiliar with communicating in China.
Hopefully this will be a useful introductory guide informing you what to expect from communication in China, and perhaps what tensions and misunderstandings may arise, how to prepare in advance, and how to act accordingly and effectively.
Despite a nationwide English program of some years standing, the levels of spoken English in China are still widely variable and this will often depend on where you are, obviously with more English spoken in larger, more cosmopolitan cities.
Having said this, even in a major tourist city such as Guilin or Guangzhou for example, there’s no guarantee you’ll encounter another English speaker during the course of a day outside of your hotel reception or tour operators’ staff!
(It’s worth noting that many Chinese who can speak a little basic English are often very shy of doing so for fear of making a mistake and appearing stupid.)
In large cities and tourist areas there has been a movement to put road names etc. in letters as well as Chinese characters. This, while helpful, is by no means everywhere, and most written information in China is just in Chinese characters.
Poor (sometimes unfathomable) English and spelling mistakes on signs, clothes, food packaging, adverts, in fact, everywhere, are a common source of amusement, confusion, and criticism for the non-Chinese in China.
Generally, absolute correctness is not taken too seriously as far as English goes. The English letters are seen by many as decoration and more of a token effort at being international than any genuine form of communication.
This can be frustrating when reading restaurant menus sometimes, but before you judge this attitude as ignorant and careless, consider how Chinese characters have been (mis)used in the West.
If you are a first-time visitor to China the primary advice is to practice tolerance and patience - you are, after all, a visitor to a foreign culture and should carry a corresponding respect with you in China!
“Street” Chinese can be brusque, blunt and (seemingly) rude to the point of aggressive. It’s not! They’re not! Really. Read on to understand…
The Chinese communicate very directly and abruptly in most day-to-day terms, and it’s not uncommon to hear and see Chinese people apparently at the point of coming to blows - so vociferous can be the nature of their exchanges! Don’t worry or be alarmed, this is perfectly normal!
The Chinese themselves are pretty tolerant of each other. They don’t take things too personally, and are not easily offended. Having a thick skin is an advantage when you live among 1.3 billion people!
Many Chinese people live their lives in overcrowded and hectic proximity with a relatively low level of stress. Tolerance, one of the great virtues of the Chinese, is precisely why this is possible
Remembering and employing this “thick-skin-tolerance” thing will be an advantage for you in China, the greater percentage of which people speak very little or no English! To quote a western phrase let it all be “water off a duck’s back”!
Rural or working class Chinese may talk (shout) like they're calling up a mountain or across a construction site for everyday conversation. It’s mainly force of habit, ironically from having to communicate over dozens of other similar voices most of the time!
As more of China's population are becoming urbanized and au fait with more facets of urban culture the noise problem is lessening. But the Chinese still like a noisy atmosphere in more settings than in the West.
Chinese interaction can appear chaotic, but Chinese seem not to mind a greater level of noise and fewer restrictions in the flow of communication (take in the scene in any well-frequented restaurant for example).
There are simple ways to make your time in China easier and more fruitful, and communication is a key!
Don’t view China as a backward culture - different than yours most probably - but there are certainly many refined people, and cultural and technological aspects of life in China that are to be envied and adopted!
Foreigners are usually viewed with curiosity. There’s always warm welcome and a smile - when in China, do as the Chinese do! Patience, tolerance, a ready smile, and a good sense of humor go a long way to making life less stressful and more enjoyable.
Being an obvious foreigner (Caucasian in particular) on the streets of China can test your patience, mainly because you’ll be quite unused to the cultural differences.
There will be instances when some Chinese, being generally affable in nature, cannot resist the urge to try to communicate with a non-Chinese. Unfortunately, their attempts can often come across as ill-timed and ever-so-slightly cheeky.
You will hear shouts of “hello” (English version) which are usually simply a friendly gesture, and in some cases have no purpose other than to try out the single word of familiar English the speaker has, and to elicit some reaction from a foreigner. These “hello”s, (often uttered in a quizzical tone), can come from behind, or in passing.
Sometimes the shouts of “hello” are from someone who wants to sell something or someone who wants to warn of a danger or let you know you’ve dropped something, and this is the only way they know to get the “foreigner’s” attention.
The Chinese “waiguoren” (/why-gwor-rnn/), meaning ‘foreigner’, or laowai (/laow-why/), literally ‘old foreigner’, apparently have no particularly negative connotations in China.
Though the word “foreigner” is used by prejudiced people in the West to imply that people of different origins don’t belong, aren’t welcome and that they shouldn’t be there. This is not the case in China, whose inhabitants are generally a very warm and welcoming people towards outsiders.
However, the common use of this word (particularly referring to people with different facial features), shows that the Chinese have a strong national and ethnic identity. Note that it is almost unheard of for someone with non-Chinese features to have Chinese citizenship, and apart from in tourist hotspots, it is still relatively unusual to see non-oriental features in China.
So, do not be offended at being labeled a foreigner. It is just a polite observation that you look different. (Japanese, Koreans, overseas Chinese or other similar-looking people are not referred to as foreigners, interestingly.)
The term “Laowai”, literally translated as ‘old foreigner’, is not derogatory. It does not imply that you look advanced in years or that the Chinese are tired of seeing your kind. It follows a similar source of meaning as the term Laoba, referring to one’s father (or Laoma, referring to one’s mother), where the word Lao (old) implies respect and familiarity. The Chinese like to treat acquaintances or even strangers as part of “the family” to show acceptance.
Although talking about someone behind his/her back, or in front of them, but not to them, is considered rude in the West, it often happens in China, where it is acceptable for multiple conversations to take place between a group of people at one time.
It isn’t considered rude to stare at people (from other countries) and make comments about them within earshot. (There is of course the aspect that if the conversation is going on in Chinese, it is assumed that it will not be understood, and therefore it shouldn’t be a problem.)
Do not be paranoid, whenever you hear “waiguoren” or “laowai”, or are obviously being referred to without your participation or consent. Don’t take it personally. Tolerance of “the Chinese way” is needed once again.
Loudly clearing one’s throat, and nose (along with the concomitant spitting, and sometimes nasal ejection!) is heard (and seen) rather more than in the West. It is seen as something natural, and although frowned upon by less “rural” types, it isn’t followed by an ‘excuse me’.
Many Chinese spit when they don’t feel comfortable with communicating, to ward off “evil omens”, or when they smell something bad, so you (as a foreigner) may experience it more than most, for the former rather than latter reasons, hopefully!!
If you get beyond “hello”, this will usually be someone who has approached you relatively politely (making eye contact and smiling) and is serious about trying to have a conversation or practice their English.
Chinese feel great pressure sometimes to take advantage of the opportunity to practice their English with any Western-looking person.
The pressure is often from parents with accompanying children who see kudos in their child communicating in English. Quite frequently this is a school homework task. It’s usually quite fun to humor them and indulge this simple three-minute exchange - after all, you’re here to experience China - parents are always very appreciative of your time, and of course it’s easier to talk to kids!
If you get beyond the standard class text: ‘How are you?” “Fine, thank you. And you?” and the follow-up: “What country do you come from?”, you may have a contender for a nice quick chat!
Avoiding eye contact and not speaking is the best policy if you don’t wish to be bothered or are too busy.
There are few qualms about revealing one’s age or salary in China (although Chinese are not so open as to reveal exactly how much money they possess).
You may be asked if you are married and about your children. It is assumed that everyone should get married by about their mid-twenties and everyone who gets married should have children. Don’t take offense at the surprise if you do not fit into this category.
You are very likely to be asked about your brothers and sisters. Family is hugely important in China. Chinese people are also not so sensitive about other topics that are less likely to come up in conversation, for example one’s weight, physical appearance…
Chinese can ask what seem to be quite personal questions. Be polite and gracious and evade anything you’re not comfortable with, or you may enjoy the freedom to talk about some things that you don’t back home.
Find common areas to talk about: family, food, sports, etc. - things that cross international and cultural barriers. Talk about what you like about your two countries.
Never verbally attack or criticize China or the Chinese people and be careful about criticizing things Chinese generally, as many Chinese will feel personally affronted by this, and may get defensive. The Chinese themselves are big enough critics without needing any outside help!
Though not for the reasons you might think, politics is an extremely personal topic in China. Avoid talking about politics totally, as many Chinese are reluctant to speak or explore publicly about political topics as well as certain aspects of Chinese history - these are taboo subjects and are to be avoided.
See more on 10 Things Not to Do in China (Faux Pas).
Interrupting somebody talking or doing something else to ask a question, make a request, etc. also happens regularly without any warning or apology - again - practice tolerance and be patient!
People have the attitude that they don’t mind what other people do, so long as it is kept within certain limits and doesn’t affect them directly or enough to warrant a fuss. This creates a greater atmosphere of social freedom and harmony, and a general “mindset” of “minding of one’s own business”.
With the tolerance levels being much higher in China than in the West, you may witness instances where you are left wondering why Chinese don’t help others more, or intervene, verbally at least, if someone is doing something socially or morally “unacceptable”.
Chinese wonder why Westerners stick their noses in other people’s business. It’s difference in cultures, and this is not to say that Chinese are cold or uncaring in any way. There are plenty of “heroic” acts in daily life in China, just as anywhere else!
Despite being very direct and to the point in everyday terms, the Chinese are more circuitous, not being too direct particularly when addressing something that is wrong. So ‘directness in the wrong situation can often be considered rudeness in China (although in certain instances can also produce the desired result!).
Best advice is to try to be diplomatic and tactful where possible, as the Chinese may be offended by Western bluntness in the wrong circumstances.
The Chinese prefer to gently approach an important point, especially a point of tension (what might be seen as “beating about the bush”), or not to address it at all if it can be avoided. This Chinese politeness has its reasons, which are based on respect and social harmony.
“Losing face” is a mortal shame in China, and the “face” thing should be looked into and understood at your earliest opportunity. Try never to get angry or raise your voice in anger. This is seen as incredibly bad manners in China and it’s considered that everyone in the situation loses face.
China is a “shame culture”, where it is a terrible thing to be criticized in public. Losing face is one of the worst taboos and fears in China. (The West generally has a guilt culture, where right or wrong is of paramount importance.)
Harmony (within oneself and with society at large) is highly valued, so getting angry, or appearing to lose self-control, is particularly frowned upon. This is why in China the “disorderly”, or chaotic, status quo prevails, such as the way traffic is in China, or the “non-queues” for transport and services.
The Chinese are a very practical, pragmatic people, who consider anything is ok that gets them where they want to be and that is socially tolerable. Other individuals are not overly considered.
(Consider: the West values the individual, whereas Chinese consider their place in society first. See more on Chinese and Western Thought - Knowing the Differences Helps).
It is seen as obvious that one cannot please everyone, so pleasing oneself is the best option. If they come up against an obstacle or opposition, the optimistic and practical Chinese consider there must be an agreeable way to get over, around, under, or through the problem.
Many Chinese explain that you can do what you want here, with a warm welcome and a certain assurance that things are the way they should be. It often takes a designated authority figure to dispel chaos at a busy crossroads or in metro or train ticket queues. Laws or rules are not considered a strict matter of right or wrong, and are very frequently ignored, unless or until they are officially enforced.
Being bumped or jostled in crowded situations seldom produces an apology of any sort (or request for one) and is taken as a normal part of everyday life.
In much the same way, it’s not uncommon for some little old lady to barge right in front of you at a till or pay point, without so much as a “by your leave”!
Waiting your turn? Well, quite often “the turn” belongs to whoever gets there first amongst 1.3 billion people!
You may experience many strangers wanting to “make friends”. Superficial level friendships start much faster and more easily than in the West.
The exchanging of phone numbers or WeChat ID and other contact details is quite common on a first meeting, even if the likelihood of a real friendship developing might be slim. Students and the young are often very optimistic in this respect (optimism and enthusiasm are endearing Chinese traits!).
WeChat is the most popular messaging service in China, and is great if you're meeting people in China and want to stay in touch. Even in cases where you, for example, meet a lovely taxi driver and want to keep his contact in case you need him to drive you around the next day, WeChat is the best way to do this. You can send text and voice messages, and call people for free if you're both connected to a LAN or Wi-Fi.
WeChat is something that will be a great help to you, and that a greater percentage of Chinese people use than don’t, which has become so universal that life in China without it is almost unthinkable.
(N.B. WeChat has an International version and is super for communicating all the way back home as well as in China!)
WeChat is the most widely used (and probably the most useful all-round) App in China.
WeChat has rapidly become a near omnipotent communications tool for a multitude of facets of everyday life. It’s a “must-have” in China - and as a basic communications tool - is indispensable. It comes in very handy as an instant translator when you need to communicate in more depth with someone and no other means of translation or interpretation are handy! Good for building up a friendly network too!
Though at first seemingly shallow, this type of “networking” is the way a lot of business and other aspects of life carry on in China. “The more people you know, the more opportunities abound.” There is a constant exchange of favors or “guanxi” as it’s called in China, going on, and so “The Great Wheel of China” turns thus!
The Chinese like to address people and refer to people like members of their family even if they are not; so people can be referred to as (big or little) sister, brother, uncle, auntie, and so on even when they’re not actually related by blood.
When Chinese talk about brothers or sisters they often mean cousins, so a few more questions about exact relationships may be necessary to discern who is who. Aunts and uncles can refer to anyone of the generation older than themselves. Two generations their senior may be addressed as grandfather or grandmother.
Teachers are often addressed simply as ‘Teacher’. Chinese also like to refer to friends of the same generation as “Small/Little ...” and those of an older generation as “Old ...”. This is only a familiar form of address and has no mocking or derogatory connotation. Don’t take offense or find it strange if you are referred to in these terms.
Be careful when complimenting someone’s possessions or they may feel that you want it, and, so as to be a good host (the host is required to be very accommodating to the guest in Chinese culture) could feel an obligation to give it to you. But, before you try, it’s doubtful that if you praised their car enough they’d hand you the keys!
If you use whatever Chinese you know, you can expect positive reactions and the fact that you’ve at least tried will gain you some admiration.
Helpful criticism and correction are seldom given as it is seen as impolite and may make you lose face. In fact, when you are understood and there is an absence of such comments, then you have probably achieved the required level in the situation.
A handful of basic essential phrases that cover hello, how much, thank you, plus a few “where”, “what”, “when”, and “who”s etc., will help you enormously. Understanding the response is quite important too!
You may use the ubiquitous “Chinese hello”: “Nihao” (/nee-how/) - literally ‘You good?’ - in American = ‘Are you good?’; UK = ‘You ok?’ It has the same meaning, most often as a simple acknowledgment or greeting.
Usually the best way to respond to the multiple random greetings is a smile and a firm friendly “hello” or “Nihao” in return. Of course, you can ignore them, but it’s not too big of a problem really.
If someone is trying to sell something you don’t want, then either “Buyao” (/boo-yaow/) or “Buyao, xiexie” (/boo-yaow sshyeah-sshyeah/) - literally ‘Don’t want’ and ‘Don’t want, thank you’ - these two phrases can be most useful!
The unwarranted Chinese hawker will assume you’re a “seasoned hand” and take your refusal as answer enough. You will have already worked out xiexie is ‘thank you’, bu is ‘don’t/no’, yao is ‘want’. If so, you’re well on your way to learning enough Chinese to get by with!
‘Thank you’ is said a lot less than in the West. In a lot of instances, for example when someone opens a door for you or passes the soy sauce, saying ‘thank you’ can be seen as being over polite and unnecessary, and may be met with requests for you not to be over-polite. But still feel free to express your gratitude, and be as polite as you see fit to be.
Thank you is xiexie (/sshyeah-sshyeah/).
If you receive a gift, appear thankful to stop the giver from losing face, and don’t open it until later, as this is bad manners in China.
There is an etiquette to gifts and giving and receiving, and to raising glasses to toast, even giving business cards and lighting cigarettes! These things are not crucial but if you learn a few you’ll endear yourself to those you meet.
See more on Chinese New Year Gift Giving Etiquette.
“Excuse me” is not used as often in China. Although the apology “duibuqi” (/dway-boo-chee/ ‘correctness not rising’ i.e. ‘sorry’) can be used and heard, people are expected to give way naturally to one another on the street or when walking around, without anything needing to be said. Personal space exists within oneself in China rather than in a meter-wide (or more) radius around the person.
Internet access in China is not the same as back home, so make sure you know what you're doing before coming out here. For example, if your only email address is a Gmail address, consider creating a Hotmail or Yahoo account to stay in touch with friends.
Google is blocked. It’s been known for Google operating system devices to just stop working altogether in China! Most non-Chinese social media is also blocked: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, etc.
WeChat has an international version and is super for communicating all the way back home as well as in China! Find out about that and other useful Chinese apps for translating, navigating, and communicating on The Top 10 Apps for China Travelers.
For more on using Chinese in China: We have translated a number of useful phrases and produced a number of guides to the Chinese language.