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Recently, in our Chinese Media section, we published an article called, May I Practice My English? which explains to Chinese people how to start up conversations with China’s foreigners, or laowai. The article includes many tactical points on what topics expats are interested in like weather, China, etc. While I don’t agree completely on the suggested topics, I feel what is missing from this article is a list of things NOT to do. These are simple cultural differences which, while no harm is meant, can be the difference between meeting a friend or having someone shrug you off. Therefore, here is my list of important points that Chinese people should NOT do if they want to make friends with random laowai.|
1. Do not ask if you can be friends. This kind of directness when applied to friendship with the laowai seems too much of an initial commitment and that kind of candor can scare the laowai away. Friendship to us is not something that you vocally agree on, but rather something that is earned.
2. Do not ask if you can practice your English. For laowai that have been in China a long time, this can simply make he or she feel used and they will simply say “No”. Remember, that laowai can make good money giving simple conversation classes where they do just that, so some will simply refuse to chat with you for free as odd as this sounds.
3. Do not ask about money. This is a big cultural no-no. In Western cultures, people feel quite uncomfortable when asked how much their salary is or how much they paid for something, unless they got it at a great price. Most Westerners believe a discrepancy in salary will hurt their friendships so they will refuse to answer this question. Asking will make him or her feel cornered.
4. Do not tell girls that they are beautiful when you first meet them. While this is truly flattering as a comment, it is considered a bit odd to most laowai girls who will get embarrassed and not know what to say. They can either say thank you, which makes them feel silly, or argue with you, which is also uncomfortable.
5. Do not call or text too much. This is not a question but important nonetheless. Send a text only when you have something to say. Texting 20 times a day just to say hi can seem invasive for many Westerners. Usually, we text only to make plans or if we are sharing a story or news of the day.
Texts like “What’s up?” are used to see if the person is available to hang out usually. If the laowai replies, “not much, you?” do not reply, “nothing.” The laowai will become confused and have nothing to text back. If you follow up by texting the exact same thing an hour later they could even get annoyed.
Also, texts like “I see,” are conversation killers; there is no way to respond.
In addition, most people don’t feel comfortable with texts from people they don’t know that say,” I miss you.” I miss you is something that sometimes foreigners don’t even say to their friends at times, so it’s reserved for close friends and relatives. Saying it to someone we met once in a coffee shop is not commonplace.
Good luck! These simple tips will help clear up some cultural and language barriers between Laowais and Chinese people and help them make friends!