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Notes about Social Situations and Being Cantonese

Chinese people in general, and Cantonese most definitely - are very warm, welcoming, and curious people

There are times however, when their social customs are very different from Western ones, especially traditional British ways, and how we interact with comparative strangers. If you have lived in China for some time then the contents of this page will be well known to you - but for newcomers, it may just explain things you would consider as odd, or even rude. Later I will mention how you can appear to be doing the same to them without even realising

This page deals with short topics, whilst longer subjects have their own dedicated pages. Here we currently look at only: Greetings, Friendships, and Time concepts


Warm Welcome
You will find that virtually all people you meet socially, or are in contact with for business or other reasons, are very warm and welcoming - usually being quite expansive and very hospitable

People you hardly know will offer to take you for dinner, or to see their parental home (Often far away), or spend a day looking out for you when you want to go shopping etc. They do go a long way out of their way to be genuinely helpful

Street Greetings
Very often when walking in the streets or in a lift, complete strangers will say hello to you in English. Sometimes this is the only word they know, whilst others may be able to hold a brief and very basic conversation. Quite a high proportion will have a high degree of English literacy. Simply reply in kind and enjoy the experience

Most Chinese will know a little English, and like to practice their linguistic skills at every opportunity. It is normal to walk down the street and be greeted - normally the conversation is brief and goes like this: 'Hello', 'Hello, how are you', 'I am fine', 'See you next time'. This is often said by a 4-year old, and please do reply in good nature - it is not a crime to have a brief, public chat in English with a child in modern China - usually you will note a parent or teacher nearby urging them on!

Chinese love photography, and having their pictures taken with a Foreigner is unusually important to them. It is very common for you to be approached and asked if they can take your picture, and be pictured with you. Please note: This is not a con-trick as sometimes perpetrated in the West. This is a genuine request from ordinary people who love pictures


Public vs Private Face
Westerns in their own country are often friendly but reserved or a little distant when meeting new people. Later friendships develop as you get to know each other better, and as trust etc builds - so you open more and more of your lives to each other, including quite personal details

Chinese people are not the same. They are far warmer and welcoming than Westerners would expect. However, even after many years of very good friendship, they may not tell you (Or anyone else) any personal details or worries they have. You should consider they are very worried about the persona they project in public, but conversely, keep everything private too themselves. This can extend to relationships between Husband and Wife or children, and is very deep-rooted culturally

Be circumspect in this regard, even with quite close Chinese friends. They may be embarrassed if you talk about your personal life! Others may be interested and see your attitude as honest and open - like a breath of fresh air. In turn they may also open to you more than to others. It is an interesting conundrum

True Friendships
These are difficult to define, easily misread by Westerners, and divided distinctly into what we would call Acquaintances and Best Friends - with very little in between (Normal friends)

If a Chinese person calls you their Brother (or Sister), especially publicly in front of other Chinese - then this is a Best Friend. Brother and Sister are often and confusingly used to indicate a very special friend they do consider as part of their immediate family

Acquaintances are people you consider as friends, but remember that if you ask them for a favour, then they will expect you to return it at some future point, probably. Be circumspect when dealing with Bosses and Government employees, otherwise enjoy the moment

Ordinary people should be taken at face value and treated as you would friends at home. Do take them up on their offer to visit their parental home - it can lead to so much more and true friendships developing.

However, due to the 'Public vs Private Face' I mentioned above, ordinary friendships are a degree or two cooler than Westerners normally mean. Consider them as you would the guy down the local pub or a colleague at work - someone you really get on with well in certain situations, but without knowing very much about their personal lives


Chinese have a different perception of 'Time' from Westerners. Things either happen 'Now', or at some indeterminate point in the 'Future' (or 'Past')

It is quite common, so lets take unexpected lunch as an example. You are working in your office, and at midday you get a call from a friend asking you if you would like to join them for lunch. You say 'Yes' + when/where shall we meet. I have had the reply 'I am in the car park waiting for you'. No call 10 minutes earlier so you can prepare (Future time) = this is happening 'Now'!

Lunch is great, and you hang around drinking, chatting, etc. Then for no apparent reason, everyone gets up and leaves the table = meal over. Again this is instant, and people new to China will be playing catch-up at this point. I can now read this, but it takes a while to understand

Later you will notice this attitude is prevalent throughout your daily interactions: A telephone call finishes when what you wanted to say has been said (Notice a small preceding 'mmm' sound before the goodbye).

Perhaps the best way to convey this is simply to state Chinese do not waste time on what we would consider as pleasantries. Conversely, you may give offence to them if you are late, tardy, or staying on the line to chat (When they are busy ie at work)
This information is as supplied by the Chinese Embassy in UK, as dated 20th June 2008, and/or other reliable sources. This particular page also contains my personal, unbiased, and apolitical observations. Please check this information yourself as it may alter without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
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