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Common Rules of Etiquette in China

by Shawn L Fitzpatrick

Sixteen Must-Know Etiquette Rules to Observe for Your Next Trip to China.

Traveling to China presents several challenges. Yes, there is the jet lag and the language barrier, but the thing that gets to most first-timers is the culture shock. From the moment your plane lifts off, you may start to feel like things are a bit upside-down. For example, if you are flying a Chinese airline, you will likely be told to turn off your phone the moment you lift off the tarmac. No, not switch to airplane mode – Chinese Regulation requires phones to be turned off in-flight, so flight attendants might aggressively tell you to turn your phone off. Like OFF off. That makes for one long flight if you were planning on listening to music on your phone.

The culture shock continues once you touch down, too. Many of the etiquette taboos with which Americans are indoctrinated seem to go out the window, like: Don’t slurp your soup! Don’t ask personal questions to strangers! And whatever you do, don’t invade someone’s personal space.

Here are some quick and easy Do’s and Dont’s for your next trip to China:

Do take your shoes off before entering someone’s home. Most homes will have guest slippers – slip those on instead.

Don’t give someone white flowers. White signifies death hence white flowers are for funerals. No exceptions.

Don’t give clocks as gifts. Especially to the elderly. It is the functional equivalent of telling someone that their days are numbered.

Do give an appropriate greeting. If you are meeting someone in a business context, shake hands and smile. If it is someone older than you with some sort of rank, you may do a very slight bow from the shoulders (as opposed to a full-fledged bow from the waist) as a sign of respect.

Do accept business cards with two hands. It is a sign of respect. Glance at it for a few seconds as if reading it over – even if you aren’t – and put it away in a chest pocket or a card holder, but never in your back pocket.

Do let elders take the lead at dinner. They sit first and get served first, and pour is always poured for them first. Do not start eating before they or your hosts take their first bite.

Do slurp your soup. It is a sign of appreciation for the chef’s cooking. It is also not uncommon to let out a (gentle) burp.

Don’t split the bill at dinner. It is very rare to split the bill in China. More often, one person will pay – usually the most senior person or whoever extended the dinner invitation. And whereas in America it might be polite to do the obligatory fight-over-the-bill scramble, this is unacceptable in China. If it is clear who the host is, don’t try to pay – it is offensive. (However, if you are in a group of friends your own age, splitting may be acceptable.)

Don’t tip for everything. Tipping is usually not necessary in China – except for exceptional service at fine restaurants, to tour guides and to bellboys handling luggage in hotels. Otherwise, skip the tip. If eating at a fine restaurant, a few dollars couldn’t hurt but is by no means expected the way it is stateside.

Don’t stick your chopsticks upright into your food while pausing during a meal. This resembles incense, which is what many people use instead of candles to pray for the dead. Bad juju.

Don’t point at people. Especially when talking or gesturing. Definitely do not point your finger at someone – it is considered hostile and extremely rude.

Don’t talk business too soon. It is the norm to start all business meetings with a healthy dose of general chit chat — like the weather, your jet lag, what you had for breakfast and so forth.

Don’t use first names unless someone tells you to. Always use “Mrs.” or “Mr.”

Don’t be late. Punctuality is a sign of respect, and don’t expect to get away with blaming your tardiness on subway traffic the way you can in New York. Just be on time.

Don’t whistle. Whistling at home feels charming and all-American. In China it is considered a nuisance. At nighttime, it is said to attract spirits. During the day, it is considered mischievous.

Do be a good sport. If you visit China and look like a foreigner, it is quite common for people on the street to express their interest in you. Chances are they will even ask to take a picture with you. Regardless of whether you agree you look like Jennifer Lawrence or not, say, thank you; smile; and enjoy your trip.

The world is a book, those who do not travel get to read only one page – go discover new sights and add more pages to your Book of Life.   @wbbrjp / Phone  213 387-4345 / 3407 W 6th Street, Los Angeles CA

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