While many articles have been written about cross-cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications betweenforeigners and Chinese, often times, these articles are written from the perspective of the expat. The following article, which recently appeared on wenxuecity.com, 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.