How Not to Behave in China: A Guide to Travellers Etiquette

The culture in China will likely be very different than what you are used to, so here are some helpful tips on how to conduct yourself.

First time visitors to China are often overcome with a crippling case of culture shock. For someone from another country, China can feel like a strange and bizarre world where everything is topsy-turvy and upside down. It will be a challenge to adapt to so many new cultural behaviors at once, so it is a good idea to be prepared before travelling to China and become as knowledgeable as possible about all of the different local customs.

shanghai china

Most Chinese people will be very understanding with foreigners who are not quite sure of the proper etiquette, and will give you the benefit of the doubt. However, it shows respect if you take the time to obey local customs, and it will help you be a good guest during your visit to China.

Here are some tips regarding local customs and culture in China which will help you understand behavior in this country:

  • Don’t get upset if you don’t have too much room to yourself in a public space. China is one of the most populated countries in the world, and many Chinese are used to living very close together in cramped quarters. As a result, they will have a much smaller “personal space bubble” than you might have. If you feel like your personal privacy is being invaded, it is not likely that someone is being rude, it is just that they are used to this level of closeness.
  • Don’t get offended or be shocked if you see someone spitting brazenly in the street. In Chinese medicine, swallowing phlegm is thought to be harmful to your health, and so Chinese people will spit it out instead whether they are on a street, in a shop, on a bus, or in a restaurant. It can be a bit disgusting to get used to, but remember that it is normal in this culture and so there is little point letting it offend you.
  • Don’t worry too much about second hand smoke. Smoking is also very common all over China, and “no smoking” areas do not really exist. Larger and more touristic cities such as Beijing will have no smoking areas in their restaurants, but most other local places will not.
  • Don’t stick your chopsticks straight up in the bowl when eating rice. It is bad luck because it resembles the incense sticks that are offered to the dead. Also, it is rude to lick your chopsticks or use them to gesture or point at people.
  • Don’t be surprised if someone stares directly at you. It is usually just out of sheer curiosity because you are a foreigner.
  • Don’t hug someone you have just met. Although this might be appropriate in Western culture, it will be seen as too forward in China. Opt for a friendly handshake instead, and stand up from the table when greeting someone new.
  • Don’t get uncomfortable if your new Chinese acquaintance starts asking you personal questions about how much money you make, how many children you have, or why you are not married. These “nosy” questions are just not considered rude in Chinese culture.
  • Don’t talk about the government, or imply any criticism against it. This could turn into a very testy subject and could result in you getting the stony silent treatment.

Remember these important cultural tips, and you are on your way to navigating the complexities of Chinese culture and truly connecting with this fascinating country!


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Author Rolands Umbrovskis.
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