What’s the most insulting gesture you can think of?
If you’re from the States, we’re probably both thinking of the same thing.
In every culture, people communicate with body language and not just to express romantic interest. Body language is part of everyday life.
Learning certain gestures is a necessary part of communicating fluently with native speakers.
We all know a couple of fairly insulting physical gestures that could start a fight where we live. Every culture has these, and we should be sure to avoid them when communicating with friends and acquaintances.
In that same vein, there may be some positive gestures a Chinese person could make that could leave the unfamiliar traveler scratching their head.
Fear not the body language faux pas! We put together a list of some common gestures one may encounter when traveling abroad in a Mandarin-speaking country, as well as a few you should avoid for the sake of manners.
Why Should You Familiarize Yourself with Chinese Gestures?
- Language is about much more than reading, writing and speaking. Humans are quite fascinating when it comes to how we communicate with one another. Even if you master reading and speaking Mandarin Chinese, you’ll still need a quick crash course in Chinese non-verbal communication if you plan to travel abroad.
- Body language can be helpful when you can’t recall a particular phrase. Any person who’s well-versed in a second language will still inevitably have to play charades with others when a particular word or phrase draws a blank. Don’t feel bad! It happens to the best of us. Knowing proper Chinese gestures can help.
- Chinese gestures are good to keep in mind even if you know little to no Chinese. If you’re new to the Chinese language, gestures can prove useful when communicating more than just a word or phrase.
- Gestures paired with language skills are part of improving fluency. As we mentioned before, language involves more than speech and reading ability. If you really want to master Chinese and sound like a native speaker, incorporating a few Chinese gestures into your “body vocabulary” is a wise choice.
- Understanding Chinese gestures, etiquette and manners are important if you’re traveling abroad or moving to China. You’re a guest in another culture’s country. If you’re traveling abroad for the first time, you may be staying with a family that’s invited you into their home. It would be a shame to accidentally use a negative cultural gesture and insult them!
Gestures to Avoid
Here are some gestures you should stay away from so that you make the best possible first impression:
- No finger-pointing. This is considered extremely rude. Using chopsticks or other cutlery to point at someone or something is another action to avoid as well. Pointing is bad enough, but pointing at someone with dirty chopsticks is somewhat antagonizing.
- Keep your hands to yourself. Making big sweeping hand gestures while speaking should be avoided. Drawing so much attention to yourself is considered rude and a little obnoxious in China.
- No excessive touching. While we’re on the topic of hands, public displays of affection are also frowned upon. Don’t make out in front of a bunch of other people in China. Actually, don’t do this in the anywhere. Gross.
- Feet are made for walking (and that’s it). The feet are considered dirty in China, which isn’t so different from Western culture. Crossing your leg in someone’s direction, putting your feet on a table, showing the soles of your feet or gesturing at people with your feet is very rude in Chinese cultures.
- Don’t be late. Punctuality is very much valued in many Mandarin-speaking nations. Being fashionably late is considered a bit tacky, so try to arrive on time to dates and meetings, however casual!
- Keep the tip. This may seem crazy, but it’s considered rude and stuck-up to tip a waitress, cab driver or another similar service worker in China.
Now that we’ve shown you some actions to avoid, let’s look at some gestures you should use liberally while in China.
6 Useful Chinese Gestures to Know Before Traveling Abroad
For each of these gestures, let’s look at what they mean and a few videos on how to execute them properly.
1. Beckoning with the down-turned palm
Westerners will sometimes use their index finger to tell someone to “come here,” but that’s not how it’s done in many Chinese-speaking cultures. To beckon someone, pull your fingers in a down-turned or sideways palm towards your body. This will almost look like a cat pawing at something.
This is a gesture mostly used among friends and young people. This motion wouldn’t be the best to use when communicating with your older native Chinese boss or superior. In a case like that, try your best to establish eye contact with the person and bow slightly. This is a much more formal beckoning gesture.
2. Place your chopsticks on top of your bowl
Instead of sticking your chopsticks into your dish bowl or onto a napkin when you’re done eating, it’s customary to place chopsticks that aren’t in use horizontally on top of your bowl. In Chinese-speaking cultures (as well as several other Southeast Asian cultures) it’s a big no-no to stick your chopsticks upright into your rice while dining with others.
This mimics the appearance of funeral incense and is considered a sort of “death” omen. Younger generations don’t mind as much—but doing this will still make one look a bit ignorant.
3. Present and accept gifts with both hands
When offered a gift, don’t snatch it up with one hand. Take the box or bag with both of your hands. Additionally when offering a gift, don’t offer it with just one hand, no matter how small the gift.
You should also do this when you accept or offer business cards. You want to make sure your potential business associate remembers you for the right reasons, so be sure to use both hands!
4. Keep greetings formal
Are you a big hugger? Sadly, this may not go over so well in China. Touchiness and PDA are less common in Chinese culture. Hugging, kissing cheeks, back-slapping or reaching out to touch a pin or tie before complimenting it are all major no-nos.
Nodding with a polite smile or shaking hands are preferred gestures when greeting someone over friendly hugs.
Additionally, try to greet the oldest person first if you’re meeting a family or group of people. (Although younger Chinese people don’t really care about this.)
5. Stand up for a toast
It’s interesting how toasting can vary so much among different cultures. When throwing back a shot during a Chinese toast, stand up or tap the table with your palm somewhat loudly while drinking. This is just considered a more participatory, social way of making a toast at a party or business venture. Make sure you toast everybody at the table before drinking, too!
The default Chinese toast is 干杯 (gān bēi!) — Dry cup!
6. Point to your nose
In Western cultures, one will often touch their chest when referring to themselves. In China, you should point to your nose when referring to yourself. Also, don’t touch someone else’s schnoz. It’s rude.
In places like Australia and New Zealand, this nose-touching gesture is a sort of wry one, while in the United State this may be seen as a gesture for thinking. Ah, the diversity of body language.
Although Chinese may be a foreign language, everyone can understand the idea (and power) of body language. Human beings are so much more connected than we think!
Now get out there and impress all your Chinese friends with your newfound knowledge of Chinese body language!
Emily Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. She writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
And One More Thing…
Since you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously serious about learning Chinese.
FluentU can help.
FluentU lets you learn real Chinese from dramas, TV shows, commercials, music videos and more. It naturally eases you into learning Chinese language, and you’ll learn Chinese as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how they’re used. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
FluentU’s Quiz Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your vocabulary. It suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning. You have a 100% personalized experience.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.