20 November 2004 2004 nian 11 yue 20 hao

Culture: Everyday Etiquette (Part 2)

In the second half of my report from the trenches, I consider some more examples of etiquette in everyday situations and conclude with some general remarks about the importance of good manners. As before, I will introduce each section with a generalisation of the kind that you might read in a book about China.

NOTE: All the language mentioned here is translated into english. A list of the original chinese sentences can be found on this page.

Use both hands to receive a business card, and take a moment to examine it before putting it away.

If the card is offered with both hands then you should use both hands to accept it, but in my experience people are sometimes not this formal. However, the second step cannot be neglected: even if it is only the email address of a casual acquaintance scrawled on a napkin, you should still examine it carefully, perhaps read it aloud, never stick it straight in your pocket without a glance.

At a meal, the host will sit nearest to the door and opposite the most important guest.

There is frequently an agreed order of importance to seating positions, which might depend on the rule stated above, or on which seats are more comfortable, more central, and so on. In a village home, at least in the area where I'm staying, the best seat is at the back of the kang. Indeed, so excellent is this seat that sometimes nobody will dare sit there at all!

The order that people fill the seats depends on their social status, role as host or guest (and a new acquaintance may be treated as a guest even by the other guests), age (in a village home, sometimes the person who sits in the most important seat is not a guest at all, but the host's father), and sex. This does not just decide which seats they take, but also the order in which they sit down, the order in which they go through a doorway, the order in which they are served tea, alcohol or food, and so on.

There are almost always polite disputes about the order, partly because with so many factors to take into account there is genuine ambiguity, but mainly due to etiquette and modesty. Thus, it is not enough to simply wait for somebody to tell you where to sit, because chances are that they are trying to give you "face". Since foreigners are considered guests to the country itself, some people elevate me quite a long way up the hierarchy, but I usually resist this. Actually, these "polite disputes" are not limited to just words alone, and if both sides are stubborn then people may resort to real strength in trying to force somebody through the doorway first or push them into a seat. Recently, I was witness to a fierce struggle over a seat which ended in a window being broken.

If I had to give just one piece of advice on etiquette to foreigners in China, it would be this: do not do anything when you are invited to do it, instead smile and nod and do absolutely nothing until other people (or at least the people more important than you) have done it first.

There may be a polite argument over who should foot the bill at a restaurant, but the person who issued the invitation in the first place will eventually end up paying.

This advice will serve you well until you encounter the situation where both you and another person really want to stand treat, either because the roles of guest and host are unclear or for whatever other reason. Victory goes not to the person who argues their case most convincingly, but to the person whose money reaches the cashier's hands first. To win, you may have to push or pull your guest out of the way, and having the correct change (or at least not an excessively large denomination) will help your cause too, since nobody in China likes accepting large bills if they can help it. Declaring repeatedly before and during the meal that you will pay will not save you from this battle.

A person who is determined to pay may simply leave the table without saying a word and settle the bill, so stay alert towards the end of the meal, and certainly do not make a trip to the toilet until after the bill is paid!

The polite chinese custom of scrambling to pay for the bill comes into an interesting conflict with seating priority when people ride in a taxi, since the person in the best seat (the front one) is also in the most convenient position to pay the driver. If you have been given star treatment all evening and not been allowed to pay a single cent, then the trip home may be your last chance to make a token contribution to the night's expenses!

Not-so-chinese Acronyms

Can you guess what "AA zhi", the AA system is? It's a chinese name for splitting the bill, although the fact that it uses the foreign character "A" confuses many into thinking that it is a translation from english. Perhaps that foreign flavour (eerily reminiscent of the phrase "going Dutch") is appropriate, considering that splitting the bill is almost a foreign concept in China, even for the most basic things like a bus fare or a shoe shine.

The back of a good dictionary will list various other terms which mix the latin alphabet with chinese characters (which I will replace with phonetic transcriptions in italics). Some of them are translations (like "X guang" for X-ray, and "T xu" for T-shirt), some of them are straight adoptions (like "VCD", although it is usually pronounced "wee-see-dee"), and some of them are chinese inventions (like "BP ji" for beeper, "kala OK" for karaoke, and "A pian" for adult film).

Chinese are often surprised at how often westerners say "please" and "thankyou".

True though this is, the solution for a foreigner wishing to learn chinese etiquette is not so simple as abandoning these words. The formality of the relationship between the speaker and listener is the key. Between family members and friends, thankyous are not required in many cases and requests are usually spoken very directly, whereas in Australia even the simplest request would rarely be made without using indirection such as "Could you...?", and often with a "please" for good measure.

When the relationship between the speaker and listener is more formal, "thankyou" would not sound out of place in chinese, although in some situations there are more appropriate expressions, for example "Sorry to trouble you" or "Sorry to take up your time". When addressing clerks, service staff, and so on, thankyous or other polite acknowledgements are optional (but appreciated). Some people habitually thank them, others habitually do not.

When somebody refills your cup of tea, chinese usually do not say "thankyou", but you should give some kind of acknowledgement. The best way is to put your hand on the cup while they pour, or lift it up to make pouring easier. Some chinese friends have told me that you can tap gently on the table to thank the pourer, but I think they tell me this because there is an interesting legend behind it, not because it is commonly done. In fact, not only have I rarely seen this gesture, I have also learnt on further inquiry that it is not appropriate unless the pourer is inferior to you in age or social status. The moral is, etiquette is best learned by doing what other people do, not what they say!

For some courtesies, the correct response is not a thankyou, but rather a refusal. For example, if somebody picks a choice piece of food from the table and lays it in your bowl, you should quickly tell them "I'll serve myself". This is an implicit thankyou, because it means you have noticed the courtesy and do not want them to go to any more trouble on your behalf. If instead you merely say "thankyou", they will probably continue laying things in your bowl until you tell them to stop.

Instead of saying "please", chinese frequently use polite formulas such as "Could you...", "Could I trouble you to...", or by adding "...is that okay?" to the end of a sentence. "Please" can be used for requests, but this is not as common as in english. Actually, the word "please" (which happens to also mean "invite") is more often heard in phrases such as "Please have a seat", "Please begin (eating)", and so on. But even here it is optional: do not be offended if your chinese friends tell you, somewhat abruptly, "Sit! Eat!"

Finally, do not be too anxious about chinese etiquette. As a foreign visitor, your chinese hosts will be understanding of any mistakes you make.

Of course you will be forgiven when the cultural differences are obvious, for example if you pick up your chopsticks by the wrong end, but cross-cultural variations in etiquette are not always this clear. Unless they are well acquainted with other cultures, most people tend to assume that the basic principles of good manners are universal, and thus bad manners reveal a flaw in a person's character rather than their limited understanding of a foreign culture. Consider this: I have been complimented hundreds of times on my chinese, and dozens of times on how I hold my chopsticks, but nobody has ever praised me for following the rules of chinese etiquette.

Even if the differences between chinese and western customs are known, it is easy to make the mistake of evaluating the other culture by the rules of your own culture. Thus, some westerners say that chinese in general are very "polite" because of the attention and concern they shower on guests, while some chinese say that westerners are very "polite" because they constantly say please and thankyou. In both cases, "polite" really means "excessively polite", but in fact they are merely displaying good manners according to their respective cultures. These are quite positive examples; of course there are also examples where the foreign culture is deemed to be "impolite".

Ultimately, people will judge you on more important things that etiquette, and a person's good character will shine through in the end no matter how many mistakes they make. But correct etiquette is vital to making a good first impression. And for me with my limited comprehension of chinese and even more limited comprehension of the Qinghai dialect, sometimes I attend an event but say very little the whole time, and so apart from my behaviour there is not much else that people can judge me on.

Very well done, these 2 etiquette posts. I have, one further note, but one correction (based on my experience):

"However, the second step cannot be neglected: even if it is only the email address of a casual acquaintance scrawled on a napkin, you should still examine it carefully, perhaps read it aloud, never stick it straight in your pocket without a glance."

Very, VERY true. But let me add this (based on an embarassing experience when I first got to China). Do look at it and examine before you stick it in your pocket, but even then, DON'T stick it in your back pants pocket (as I did once because that's where I always stick cards). That's a sign of ... well, you can figure it out. Stick it in your shirt or suitcoat pocket. If you can't do that, place it on the table near you, and at the end of dinner, when everyone is busy picking up their cellphones and cigarettes and lighters as they rise from the table, then you can grab the card and stick it wherever you want to.

"At a meal, the host will sit nearest to the door and opposite the most important guest."

I wonder if this is a mistranslation of the original? In a bao xiang, the host usually sits FACING the door and the most important guest sits next to him on his left.

But that's great advice you give otherwise: "Thus, it is not enough to simply wait for somebody to tell you where to sit, because chances are that they are trying to give you "face". So very true. Just kind of stand there, decline and let them nudge, cajole, or drag you to where they truly want you to sit...all the time proclaiming "No, no, no, I am not worthy". Arranging seating at a Chinese banquet all reminds me of the "Chinese Fire Drill" game we used to play when I was in High School.
chuck [homepage]
22.11.2004 , 01:49

chuck, you've obviously got chinese etiquette licked...I just read in Chapter 15 about the time you settled the bill before the guests even arrived!

I must admit, one thing I'm not sure about is how much of what I've described applies in southern China.
24.11.2004 , 23:22

Nice post, but I must question the bit about tapping your fingers on the table when someone pours you tea. You are right that this does stem from an old legend, but it is not in any way derogatory. Legend has it that an emperor (I forget which one) decided he was losing touch with his people so decided to dress as a peasant and go and check out how the other side lived. Anyway, he ended up serving tea to his manservant, who, wanting to show respect for his master whilst not revealing his true identity, placed his forefinger and middle finger on the table and bent them slightly. This signified the act of kneeling thus showing due reverance to the emperor. So in fact it shows that you are respectful and in no way inferior to the pourer. So tap away!
14.02.2005 , 01:40

Great blog but you might want to look up the correct spelling of "thankyou".
18.02.2005 , 21:09

It can actually be impolite to say please and thankyou with friends. It shows a formal or less friendly relationship and creates distance.

Yes, you should always give or receive business cards with both hands but you should also hold out your cup with both hands, when accepting tea for example.

You've also missed out that when you clink glasses of beer etc. you should make sure your glass is lower than the other person to show deference and respect.

And yes, knocking two knuckles on the table as a 'thankyou' is not impolite at all, nor disrespectful. It's a simple thankyou used often where I live - Beijing.

I often pay the bill by getting up quietly and settling it away from the table. Although the rules change according to status and gender. In general, if a woman is eating with a man, the man pays. For a woman to pay the man is 'eating soft rice'. He will lose face. Close friends do split the bill. If you have already paid and your guests start up about it you just say 'next time'. Be careful about paying though, you can make your host lose face. Your 'host' can be anyone Chinese, it may make them look bad in front of the waiters.

As for seating, I always allow myself to get dragged to the seat or gently tugged on the elbow.

Also, you'll know if you're making a good impression or if your hosts have warmed to you when they start touching you. You'll be patted on the arm or even banged on the chest! If you're a woman the other women may take your arm. If you're a man you may find a hand on your leg with absolutely no sexual connotation whatsoever.

Make a fuss of people. We Westerners get irritated by people making a fuss but in China it shows you care about the other's well being. Tell them they're not wearing enough in cold weather, they should take care of themselves more, relax more etc Ask after their health, their family and work. Insist they eat more at the table, I often put food on people's plates or move dishes they like nearer to them. Pour tea etc without asking, if they're cups are full just hold the pot over the cup and they'll shake their head if they dont' want anymore. Make sure you turn the spout away from the table - it's bad manners to point it at anyone. Never touch food with your hands or eat with your hands - the Chinsee think it's disgusting to put your fingers anywhere near your mouth. And make sure you wash them a lot, especially before eating.

In general, if you show modesty and respect, you can get away with most etiquette mistakes.
Bejing resident
15.03.2005 , 03:24

Thanks for your comments, Beijing resident. I agree with most of your observations, although with regard to eating with one's fingers perhaps the word "disgusting" is a bit extreme. I think it's more the case that you ought to use the appropriate utensils at the appropriate time. Yes, chopsticks are the appropriate way to eat most chinese food, and sometimes a spoon can be used (although in fact I've noticed that most spoon foods can also be eaten with either chopsticks, or by sipping from the bowl), but there are also some foods that are eaten with the hands, for example fruit and many snack foods (guazi, popcorn, etc), some street foods (such as crepes), and some seafood (crab, whole prawns, etc). I think it's acceptable to pick up mantou with the hand as well...certainly here in Qinghai, it's common to eat with chopsticks held in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other.

I must add one thing though: people seem to avoid openly picking their teeth with their fingernails, instead preferring a toothpick or at a pinch even a disposable chopstick snapped in half.
18.03.2005 , 23:44

I asked about the table-tapping issue on my chinese blog. Opinions from chinese readers varied, but it seems that the habit is common in some areas and not in others. So I would still recommend not using this gesture until you have seen local people using it too.

And I read on another blog that in Henan it's polite to pick mantou up with your chopsticks to eat it, something which is not true here in Qinghai.
14.05.2005 , 19:11

thank-you very much
22.04.2006 , 02:38

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