Random Hellos

When accustomed to living and giving one way, it’s tough to change to another. This month, accept a new way of enriching your Chinese relationships.


Every expat knows that moment when some random Chinese person wants to strike up a conversation with them. Could you be a new friend, or business contact? Quite possibly there is some English speaking knowledge that can be juiced from the pulpy regions of their brain. For me, it is a regular occurrence to have a Chinese person just suddenly start talking to me.

Sometimes, it is welcome; other times, it is just plain irritating. Not that I’m unfriendly, or don’t want to meet new people, but without tact or consideration it can be quite annoying. So here is a primer of what to do, and not to do, when initiating an introduction with an uncharted foreigner.

Don’t ask us what our name is. So many students of English are taught to ask, “What is your name?” Grammatically, this is correct. However, from a cultural perspective, it’s generally impolite. Start instead by introducing yourself. “Hello, my name is Frank.” The other person will automatically respond by telling you their name (if they don’t, they’re probably not interested in talking, and you should drop it).

Don’t say that you want to practice English. There are some expats who might respond positively to this, but for most it is very irritating. Just think for a minute how many hundreds of millions of Chinese want to practice with us. You aren’t the first person to ask me, there have been hundreds before you. I have neither the time nor the interest to be an English teacher for some random stranger.

Don’t comment on how handsome or beautiful we are. I know that in Chinese culture this is just polite commentary. But in Western culture, if you meet someone for the first time and say they are handsome or beautiful, it is often taken as an indicator of romantic interest. So unless you are romantically interested in that person, stay away from this (especially if you’re a guy, talking to another guy!).

Do introduce yourself, and ask if we have time to talk. Please, do make the effort to introduce yourself. In some cases, people will be interested to talk with you, in others they will not. You will never know if you don’t introduce yourself first. But after the introduction, be sure to ask if we have time to talk. If we are interested to talk with you, we’ll say, “Yes.” Or ask for your contact info so that we can talk another time. If we are not interested, we’ll politely demur, and you should just leave it at that.

Remember that foreigners differ. The cultures in different Western countries are very different, and even within a particular country, there can be many cultural variations. Avoid saying things like, “Americans are very funny” or “Germans are very strict.” Instead, treat each one of us as an individual, and demonstrate your desire to understand each of us as an individual, not just stick us with some convenient stereotype.

Be prepared to carry the conversation. You are the one initiating the conversation, so it’s your job to make sure that the conversation flows. Don’t just introduce yourself, then leave the other person to figure out what to talk about. The best way to do this is by asking simple questions, which demonstrate interest in the person that you are talking with.

Learn to read our cues. This is perhaps the most important. Don’t focus so much on what you want to say that you ignore how we are reacting. If the person you are talking to is frequently looking away, or looking at their watch, or other such behavior, it’s a strong indicator that they are not interested in continuing the conversation. Don’t push things by trying to continue the conversation, or asking for our contact info. If we are interested to talk with you another time, we’ll ask for your contact info.

I love meeting new people. As do the vast majority of other expats in China. And we appreciate when someone makes the effort to introduce themselves to us, and start a conversation. Sometimes, we will welcome it. Sometimes, we’ll be too busy. And sometimes, we just won’t be interested. Just follow the tips above. Not every expat you meet will be interested; but the odds are, at least some will be, and you’ll have the opportunity to build new friendships, and new business connections.

1015_cultureteller2Honestly, after more than 22 years, I’m still learning. And as you mention, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes over the years. But I can share one of my favorite memories, the first time that I felt I was at least starting to understand and adapt to Chinese culture successfully.

For solutions to confusions, send questions and observations to cultureteller@heredg.com.

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