Why Do They Do That?

0315_culture teller1This month we’re taking a different direction as we look at common problems or mistakes that Chinese make in building relationships or making friends with those expats from Western cultures.


Ask many expats in China how they feel about shaking hands with Chinese, and they’ll tell you, too often, they get weak, “dead fish” handshakes. This is because in Chinese culture, a strong handshake could be seen as too aggressive, particularly if from a subordinate.

In Western culture, a strong, firm handshake indicates confidence, and a sense that you can trust the person; whereas a weak, limp handshake indicates lack of confidence, and can subconsciously cause the person to feel less trust or comfort with you.

It’s also important to emphasize that both men and women should give a strong handshake; this is very unlike China, where men should never initiate a handshake with a woman, and if the woman offers her hand, she sometimes gives a light grip with the tips of her fingers.


In China, it’s incredibly easy for an expat to get a compliment. Just say, “Ni hao,” and you’ll almost inevitably be told how good your Chinese is. And I’m confident most expats have participated in this conversation numerous times: “Where are you from?” “I’m from [insert country].” “Oh, that’s beautiful!”

Now, on the Chinese side, these are culturally appropriate ways of expressing warmth and friendship toward others. But what many fail to understand is that, to expats, this is not only annoying, but can present a real barrier to building trust and relationships.

Now, on the Chinese side, these are culturally appropriate ways of expressing warmth and friendship toward others.

Why? Because when the Chinese person says, “Your Chinese is very good,” they often don’t know if it is really true or not. They haven’t spoken with the other person long enough to know how good their Chinese really is. Perhaps, “Ni hao,” is all they can say. And as for, “Your country is really beautiful,” most of the time this is absolutely meaningless, they would say the same regardless the country of origin (and if asked to describe beautiful parts of that country, would be entirely unable).

In Western culture, a meaningful compliment must be based on something that you know is true. If we speak Chinese together for five minutes, and you tell me that my Chinese is good, that’s fine. If I say I’m from Canada, and you tell me that you visited Vancouver, and think it’s a beautiful city, that’s fine.

But mindless compliments, based on no real knowledge or understanding, will not only get a negative reaction, but could end up causing people to see you as dishonest or unreliable. After all, if you are saying things now without knowing whether or not they are true, then later, when you say other things, the expat has no way of knowing whether it’s actually true, or something that you’re just saying to try to ingratiate yourself to them.

Offering help

Almost every expat in China needs help at some point; and in general, are incredibly grateful to those Chinese friends who have gone out of their way to help us, especially when we first arrive here, or face particularly serious problems. However, there can also be problems when it comes to how help is offered.

First of all, in Chinese culture, help is almost always offered by saying, “I will help you.” This communicates a sincere desire to help the other person, whereas asking, “Would you like me to help you?” can be seen as indicating that you’re just being polite, but don’t really want to help. But in Western culture, it is often the opposite.

Which takes us to the second problem with offering help. In China, not only is it better to say, “I will help you,” it is also generally considered rude to refuse. It can actually be seen as rejecting friendship, and can cause bad feelings. The result is that when expats turn down an offer of help from a Chinese friend (or worse, seem annoyed at their offer of help), they can interpret it as meaning that the other person doesn’t really value their friendship, and take it as an insult.

Living in a foreign country where things often seem unfamiliar, confusing and difficult, expats greatly appreciate the desire and willingness of our Chinese friends to help us. But sometimes, we want to do things on our own, and we don’t want to feel that someone else’s help is being ‘forced’ on us.

0714_culture tellerJohn Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.



Read the article in Chinese.