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.

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