Thursday, 16 May 2013

Hello you Chinese - How About Some Manners?

"Intercultural training" - my heart always sinks a little when I hear those words. Picture former teacher who got a freelance opportunity to tell the IT department abroad how to cut up food, what to say instead of Howdy, and what never, repeat never to say when presented with a sheep's eye in your soup.

These courses are especially in demand when it comes to China. "How to Do Business in China", "Intercultural Chinese Etiquette", "Understanding the Chinese" are just some of the courses employees have to attend before a placement or a short stint in the People's Republic. And only yesterday did I look at some online advice for  executives on the subtleties of when to wear a dark blue or a black suit. God forbid us Westerners might actually screw up a deal by offending the obviously extremely highly-strung Chinese fashion sense!

Change of scenery. A Munich department store, escalators. A huge group of Chinese tourists shoulder their way onto the steps, some of them already one floor up. The two groups communicate with each other at the top of their voices - gesticulating and shouting at highest pitch. Totally oblivious to other customers and  their shocked glances. I have no idea, - and to be honest I'm also not that interested whether that is the done thing in a Chinese market. In a central European department store this sort of behaviour is not on.

Recently, we were in Salzburg (Austria). We visited an outdoor café in the Altstadt with a very nice view onto Mozart's birthplace. 10 minutes later a huge group of Chinese tourists had arrived, gathered all the free chairs available (without asking) and grouped them round a table. All of them had huge McDonald's lemonade paper pitchers from which they slurped noisily. They plonked their McDonald's drinks on the café table. After a while one of them got up, hailed a waitress as if she was a dog and started shouting at the top of his voice in atrocious English. "Twenty orange juices" was what he wanted and somehow managed to communicate. Volume alone must have done the trick. Meanwhile the other members of the groups talked to each other in shouty voices and took photos in "thumbs up" pose. Gone was the  lovely scenery at the nice cafè - everybody fled.

It really seems very odd indeed that Westerners going to China need to be coached within an inch of their lives in superior Chinese manners when at the same time, Chinese people coming here, behave in a totally objectionable way. I can already hear the culturally versed interlocutors who explain that this sort of behaviour is actually a sign of appreciation in Chinese society and dates from the T'ang Dynasty. Maybe. But I don't really care. Intercultural awareness works both ways.

And it is high time that Chinese people wanting to travel here in the West acquainted themselves with some local manners.


  1. An experience: I was sitting in a restaurant in Chemnitz, which is a very "German" city, i.e. German is the only language being spoken with any fluency in the businesses outside the university campus. I was about to ask for the bill when a group of young people (18ish) bustled into the small restaurant, making a lot of noise and getting in the way. The waitress asked them, in German, "how many people?" because she wanted to know where to put them; standard question when you enter restaurants across the developed world. The group looked at each other and whispered something. She asked again in simpler terms "Wie viel?" Again, they sighed, shrugged and spoke amongst themselves. The waitress was waiting, so I said to the group in English "She wants to know how many people are eating". One of them immediately turned to me and said in an American accent "Oh, we don't speak any German." To which I thought, well, if you're not going to try to communicate that fact politely yourself and see if a conversation is possible, you're not going to get very far.

    When I first came here, I had about five words of German to my name and "Sprechen Sie Englisch" were three of them. Whenever I asked, I was surprised that people who were not confident in their English speaking abilities would make the effort because I had also made the effort to establish a line of communication. Only once in over 2 years has it backfired. It convinced me that being polite and showing that you're trying to fit in with the language and customs is the most important part of being in a foreign country. People will forgive mistakes and help you when they see you're trying. But, if you make a fuss and demand everything on your own terms, you'll be quickly dismissed.

  2. I think you're mixing up business people, to whom these cultural classes are aimed at, and ordinary tourists who have made the journey and who expect simply to have a good time. I would expect if you have a group of Chinese businessmen come over here to conduct formal business affairs, they too would have had the opportunity to be versed in local customs and culture and to behave in a manner which does not offend their hosts.

    I have seen many examples of European tourists who have been rather at odds with the local cultures in eastern countries and act in a way which may well be offensive to locals, and although they may have benefitted hugely from 'intercultural training', most tourists just don't bother with them. And really, why should they? Yes, 'intercultural awareness works both ways', but you need to distinguish between those people for whom such knowledge is vital to making their dealings a success, and those who are just... going on holiday.

  3. Thanks James, maybe old-fashionedly I'm of the opinion that intercultural awareness is not just important in oder to "make a deal" but is fundamental to common courtesy. Western tradition emphasizes politeness and a certain commonly acccepted behaviour in public spaces. We've heard a great deal about what might or might not be offensive to Chinese people. Here, I'm pointing out that Chinese people should be more sensitive to the fact that their culturally-unaware behaviour in the West is seen as rude and causes problems. This is equally important - or even more important - for tourists as they are exposed to many more public situations than business people. Gratifyingly, the Chinese authorities have meanwhile issued minimum behavioural guidelines to their citizens.