More and more people are either studying Chinese these days or are looking to go to China to pursue some kind of work, whether it be teaching English, running a company or landing a management position.
Whether you have an interest in Eastern culture, specifically Chinese culture, first of all, will overall shape your experience in China. Those who are being sent over to work and inherently do not have an interest in China are likely to find the experience much more daunting then someone who was an East Asia Studies Major in college and wants to live in China. That is not to say such a person who is open-minded or has traveled extensively would be at a less advantage adapting in China than someone who wants to live in China by choice, aside that the latter may have language skills on his or her side, but nevertheless questions as to when and how you should be polite in China and the way Chinese go about expressing that in their everyday lives are bound to come up.
Many people who live in China already are still unclear about figuring out Chinese lifestyle when it comes to politeness or if they have, still face difficulty in accepting it. Therefore, these insights have been made to shed light on the issue with the hope that you may adapt more easily and have an overall more enriched experience in China.
Everyday Affairs and Social Life
Chinese typically do not address each other with topics of emotion. Say, for example, you meet with Chinese friends and go to greet them. Typically a Westerner would say something like “Hey, how are you doing?” when first meeting. While this isn’t offensive by any means, such a topic deals with more emotions in Chinese culture that they would otherwise keep stored inside or save for another time when the context is right. To ask “How are you?” is not a common question in Chinese like it is in English, and you should rather say something such as “Have you eaten?” （你吃饱了吗？ ）or find something topical to talk about such as an observation. Talking about something that happened to you along the way to meeting the friend would also work very well. Save the (你好吗？) for a more appropriate time and once you really know the person before they are expected to divulge their emotions to you.
Chinese use the observation method a lot even with people to show altruism. For example, Chinese are very direct when they see people and make a comment such as “You have gained weight” or “You lost weight” or “You have a new hair style.” Sometimes they will remark whether such a change is good for that person (they usually only say something if it is positive) and they do not consider such observations to be offensive, rather obvious things that are not hidden from view from the public.
Another way to look at breaking the ice with Chinese is to talk about what you have experienced or noticed with life in general in China and how it compares to your life back home. Chinese are very curious about lifestyles outside of their own, and almost tend to feel a type of solace in hearing whether their country is comparable to others’, especially if it is a Western country. This can go really far with Chinese you barely know or have just met. However, it is best to refrain from being too negative as no one in any culture really wants to hear about how much their homeland sucks, and the Chinese are no exception. Westerners have a big problem with complaining about China even though they are really attached to it and like it in many ways to they need to keep this in mind if not for the icebreaker scenario but for their own well being in China as well.
For Chinese you have never met it can be difficult to start conversations. If you have ever been in an elevator with Chinese or really any public space for that matter you may have noticed that Chinese rarely star up conversations with strangers. In a place like the US, people try to break the ice and create social opportunities by engaging in small talk with strangers through commenting on thing like the weather. It’s not to say that everyone in the US is like that, but it is not necessarily weird for someone in a place like Minnesota after coming out of the cold into a warm public building and mentioning to someone such a guardsman or whoever how chilly he or she feels. Such a comment in China, however, is typically not done and Chinese feel that this goes beyond what is socially acceptable. “Why engage in conversation aimlessly with people you don’t know?” said many Chinese friends after I asked them about these observations. For the Chinese, they all know that it was chilly and more so they don’t feel a necessity to engage with strangers when they are in a rush.
However, in smaller places in China or at least more laidback areas such as Sichuan, which has a reputation for being the place where Chinese go to retire, people are more willing to engage in small talk but you will have to make the first move if you are a foreigner, as they will be afraid that you can’t speak Chinese or that their English won’t be good enough to stand a conversation. Also, it should be noted that people in major cities across the world are often in a rush and do not engage with strangers either so this is not particular unique to China but there still is a noticeable difference.
Compliments in Chinese meanwhile are acceptable as they are all over the world given the right context. While it is weird to compliment a stranger in China about their looks at certain times, it is normal for people to compliment each other’s assets more often, such as clothes, bags, watches etc. Pets meanwhile is a good icebreaker to talk about and it seems that people with dogs in parks universally tend to attract one another in conversation, as do babies.
As a quick side note, do not be surprised if Chinese often want to see or even touch your baby in public. Many Westerners complain about this and are often worried about germs, but for some reason the Chinese don’t think much of it.
Compliments with Chinese you have met before and have an established relationship with, preferably through someone you or they know, are completely acceptable and encouraged.
Meanwhile, approaching Chinese out of thin air is usually met with some sort of discomfort. Westerners often complain they cannot talk to Chinese or make friends with them unless they are introduced through relations or guanxi, but like all places outsiders need to be aware and respectful of peoples’ norms. Simply put, Chinese don’t see the point or the benefit of engaging in such interactions. You do see such behavior in big cities across the world and since there are very few places in China with small populations I personally think this is environmental conditioning. People in China’s countryside that are not so in a hurry tend to be much more willing to engage in such random occurrences.
One thing foreign guys often try to do with girls in China is approach them on the street and tell them they are beautiful or try to get their number etc. This usually throws Chinese off as they are not used to such directness, which is many ways may seem odd considering they are so direct with everything else, but that’s the way it is. Some guys get lucky given the right circumstances, however. One time at a cash register I noticed a guy make approach a girl who was checking out in front of him through interacting with the cashier first. The conversation with the cashier was directed towards a product ( I think about the pricing if I remember correctly) the woman had and it somehow struck a conversation between the three which then opened the door for increased communication between the guy and gal. Clever or a coincidence I don’t know, but the woman seemed to accept the conversation whereas if the guy had approached her without going through the cashier it may have been too direct. That may seem hard to believe but this often happens in many other scenarios, so the politeness factor in this scenario is establishing a topic that can lead to conversation rather than jumping into conversation without establishing some sort of a foundation.
With all that aside though, if you notice a guy or girl that is checking you out for whatever reason then usually this means they have dropped these parameters and are just waiting to be social.
Overall, when Chinese talk of being polite or keqi （客气） in an everyday social basis, this means being respectful of others surroundings and minding your own business for the most part. Chinese are very practical in that they have goals and engagements to accomplish, and unless you are introduced on a guanxi basis and have some sort of benefit to bring to the table then don’t expect to be making friends left and right, at least on a random basis. Being respectful and offering compliments on the right terms or engaging in topical chatter in arranged conditions seem to work the best for foreigners in China.