Why the Chinese Don’t Smile at Strangers

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If you’re from a culture that encourages smiles when greeting strangers or service people, or saying hello to strangers on the street, you may need to adjust this practice if you plan on venturing to China. The Chinese do not smile at strangers, foreign or not.

According to this informative and funny piece by China Mike, many first-time visitors to China misinterpret Chinese behaviors as aloof or even rude, according to their own cultural standards. Don’t be offended; it’s really not about you.

Chinese culture, heavily influences by Confucian teachings, emphasize nurturing family bonds and a close web of relationships, not acquiring friends just to have them (see this RW3 post on guanxi for more information). Considering China’s long and complex history of poverty and resource scarcity, this behavior was probably an important tactic in a “survival of the fittest” society where kindness to strangers is more likely to take a backseat.

Today, it all comes down to in-groups and out-groups. The Chinese, in general, learn to see the world in these terms, with a trusted inner circle and “everyone else” on the outside. Westerners should also know that many Chinese find some of their behavior equally as puzzling. For example, many say that Americans, “treat strangers like family and their families like strangers”.

If you’re a foreigner visiting China, you still shouldn’t hesitate to smile at strangers, says Mike. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get a smile in return. Chinese who are more accustomed to dealing with foreigners may understand and even appreciate the gesture. Once the ice is broken, and a relationship buds, you’ll find many Chinese people are generous and friendly.

Have you ever found that your natural instincts fail to support you in China? Which behaviors, if any, did you find were less appropriate?

Photo credit: smilingfacechinese.blogspot.com.

CultureWizard
RW3's CultureWizard is a leader in the intercultural and e-learning industries. He creates customized, co-branded CultureWizard websites that teach culture and foster cultural awareness through interactive e-learning tools and resources.

CultureWizard works with experienced interculturalists globally and tens of thousands of employees of global corporations turn to his insights daily. Country specific information on over 135 countries provides a wealth of cultural information and strategies for success when living and working around the world.
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2 Responses to Why the Chinese Don’t Smile at Strangers

  1. Francis Tapon
    Francis Tapon January 21, 2014 at 3:58 am #

    This article misses another important reason Chinese don’t smile: communism. Communists don’t value customer service, so just like it’s hard to find a random stranger who will smile at you in Eastern Europe, the same is true for China.

  2. Anthony A Compagnone
    Anthony A. Compagnone February 7, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    I am not so sure that this article misses the point as it is more one’s perspective on Chinese culture and its people. As a Chinese martial artist, I have come to learn that one does not look directly into your masters eyes while he is speaking to you. For that it may be considered a sign of disrespect. When we do not look into ones eyes, we tend not to smile. The Chinese are a very family oriented and have a closed knit society keeping friends and relatives close and strangers at bay. Even to this day, Chinese systems of Kung Fu are held tightly onto by their families and relatives and they are very reluctantly willing to divulge their family most inner martial secrets to any outsider. A.A.Compagnone

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