Want to learn about some unique Chinese cultural norms?
I’ve lived and worked in China for several years now and in that time, I’ve learned many interesting things about the country and its people.
When it comes to Chinese culture, there are some things I’ll never get used to such as spitting and queue jumping.
These cultural quirks are well-documented and I’m not going to cover them in this article.
What I will share with you, however, are eight Chinese cultural norms that are so unique you’ve probably never heard of any of them before.
So, here they are.
1. Chinese people see English words as pictures
Do you remember your kindergarten days?
Do you remember how you learned pronunciation? Taking a very basic word, here’s how my teacher taught me how to say ‘cat’:
C – k, A – æ, T – t
This makes it quite easy for us because we would then only need to remember the sound of each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.
A Chinese person, on the other hand, is used to memorizing Chinese characters. Each character represents a picture.
For example, the character for ‘family’ is a pig underneath a roof, which goes back to ancient times when pigs were kept inside homes (more about that here).
A Chinese person doesn’t learn English words from their spelling but from what the entire word looks like as a picture.
So, the first unique Chinese cultural norm is that Chinese people will try to memorize what each new word looks like rather than understand how words are spelled or pronounced based on letters of the alphabet.
This goes a long way towards explaining why many Chinese people can read and write English but can’t speak it well.
2. Chinese shop assistants rarely greet, thank or smile at customers
We Westerners are used to good customer service when we go shopping or eat out in our home countries.
When we enter a shop, we expect the salesperson to smile at us, greet us and say “please” and “thank you”.
But in China, one very peculiar thing that I’ve noticed is that when I enter a shop, the salespeople don’t greet me or say “thank you” when I buy something.
Some of them don’t even smile!
I remember being shocked the first time I encountered this behavior. I couldn’t understand why or how sales assistants could possibly be so rude.
There are several reasons why Chinese shop assistants behave in this way.
Firstly, Chinese people tend to only greet the people whom they know personally. If they don’t know you, they won’t say “hello”.
Secondly, in China, it’s customary to thank only the people who are of a higher rank than you.
Shop assistants don’t say “thank you” because they don’t want to cause ‘face’ issues by insinuating that the customer is from a higher social class than they are.
Finally, shop assistants can appear rude because China is still a planned economy (though with some free market characteristics).
This is an economic system in which a central authority – in this case, the Chinese government – has control over key economic decisions.
Since businesses and consumers in a planned economy have little impact on business outcomes, shop assistants don’t really care whether the customer buys something or not.
3. Chinese people smile when they’re embarrassed
I was quite shocked when a Chinese colleague told me this for the first time during a casual conversation.
This unique Chinese cultural norm has some serious implications for how we foreigners communicate with them.
This is because the concept of face (‘mianzi’ in Chinese) is extremely important in Chinese culture.
Causing someone to lose face is a serious faux pas that can jeopardize friendships and business relationships in China.
So, if you see a Chinese person whom you’re chatting with smiling when there is no obvious reason to do so, it may be because you’ve offended or embarrassed them in some way.
You’ve been warned!
See also: Blogs about Chinese culture
4. Chinese people repeat English words or leave out syllables
Have you ever heard a Chinese person say things like “calmly and calmly” or “hardworking and hardworking”?
If the answer is “no”, you probably haven’t been in China for as long as I have!
I consistently hear my students use sentences like “In order to pass our exams, we must be hardworking and hardworking.”
Why does this unique Chinese cultural norm exist?
Well, in Mandarin, there are many duplicate words. For instance, ‘ma ma hu hu’ means ‘so so’ in English (it literally translates to ‘horse, horse, tiger, tiger’).
Another example is when they say ‘gan gan jing jing’, meaning ‘very clean’.
They also do this to emphasize a word. So, instead of saying ‘very hardworking’, they say ‘hardworking and hardworking’ instead.
In the years that I’ve spent teaching English in China, I’ve noticed that my students sometimes leave out syllables when speaking in English.
Here are some examples:
- America is pronounced ‘Americ’
- Ecological is pronounced ‘ecologic’
- Society is pronounced ‘societ’.
Why do they do that?
This one also goes back to the Chinese language. Many Chinese words have only one syllable, e.g. person (rén), big (dà) and so on.
English words with multiple syllables are too difficult for some Chinese people so that’s why they leave out syllables.
And if they’re going to leave out a syllable, it’s usually the last one.
5. Chinese people don’t buy gifts for people whom they don’t know well
Once, I decided to throw a party for my birthday here in China.
I’m a member of a local English Corner group and the leader of that group offered to organize the party for me.
He suggested that I should foot the bill. As it was going to cost a lot, I agreed on condition that everyone who came to the party should bring me a birthday present.
I was upset when most of the guests came empty-handed. They just came for the free meal!
I even waited a whole year to see if any of them would invite me to their own birthday parties or reciprocate in any way, but very few of them did.
Since they didn’t know me well, they thought that they didn’t need to bring me a gift or even reciprocate.
Nowadays, I organize my birthday party myself.
I only invite those people whom I owe a favor to or who have brought presents in the past or who have invited me to their own parties.
6. Mind your smileys when texting
In other words, know the difference between 🙂 and 😀
I’ve been told off by a local for sending her the first one.
She told me that it made her feel uneasy because the eyes are looking downward and the emoji is seen as a fake smile, reflecting a negative mentality and despise of the other party.
In China, this can even be seen as a reluctant smile or a reaction lacking in enthusiasm or sincerity.
Similarly, when texting or sending messages on Chinese apps, be aware of the difference between “ha ha” (哈哈) and “he he” (呵呵).
The latter may also be seen as a reluctant and thus insincere smile.
You can learn more about the rules of etiquette when texting in China on sites like Reddit. It’s really quite mind-boggling!
Being sensitive to others’ feelings and being aware of how your message can be perceived by its intended audience are both ways of showing empathy to others.
This can help you to gain more Chinese friends or business associates.
7. Chinese people play with their phones because they’re nervous
As a teacher, I used to assume that if a student started playing with their phone in my class, it meant that they were either bored or didn’t think that what I had to say was worth listening to.
Now that I know that isn’t the case, if I see a student playing with their phone in my class, I know that I’ll have to do something to encourage or reassure them.
Although I’ve used an example related to education here, it isn’t difficult to see how this also applies to other situations.
For example, if you’re in a business meeting and your Chinese associates start playing with their phones, you may need to say or do something to reassure and encourage them.
This can also lighten the mood.
8. Chinese women are quite direct when it comes to romance
If a Chinese woman agrees to a first date, it means that she fancies you. If she agrees to a second date, it means that she seriously sees a long-term future with you.
And, if she agrees to a third date, she’s already assuming that you’ll marry her (I’m not joking).
Chinese women tend to be quite simple. They’re not into the thrill of the chase.
They’re also quite easy to court. All you need is a foreign face, a steady job and lots of money.
It can be quite a shock for a Western man when his Chinese girlfriend is already thinking about marriage after just three dates!
The bottom line is that relationships are an extremely important aspect of Chinese culture.
Regardless of whether you’re in China for work, pleasure or study – or you’re just learning about the country – understanding these quirks will help a lot in building relationships with Chinese people.
I hope you’ve learned a thing or two about Chinese cultural norms. If you have something to add or ask, or even disagree with, please leave a comment below.
You might also enjoy the article I wrote about Chinese women which continues on from my point above.
Main image credit: By XiXinXing on Shutterstock.