Chinese habits are disconcerting when you land from your Western culture. The obligatory Good morning/Bonjour in some places is practically absent from the Chinese daily life. You greet each other differently; a nod is enough. Another phrase does the trick “You’re early today,” or you use the family relationship, the title or the name of the person followed by well: 爷爷好 (Grandfather well, literally). I spent eight years in a company with 100% Chinese employees and I never heard the famous ” 你好 nǐ hǎo”, which you learn from the first hours of Chinese… For the thank you 谢谢 xièxiè, the story is the same!
Thank you machine
A Chinese friend, who had just returned from four years of study in London, laughed and told me: “The English always say thank you, even for small things. I used to call them Thank you machine. We in China are not used to using thank you all day long”. I tried to understand the reasons for this difference, I never found a study on the subject. However, some leads exist to understand the issue of thanks.
Thank you. No need?
In Shanghai, I used to put 谢谢 at the end of my email when I requested the company’s employee. The sales manager would point out to me that it was useless. You don’t thank someone who’s just doing his job. “He has to do it, why thank him?” Richard E. Nisbett, in “The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westeners Think Differently… and Why” discusses obligations within a group or community in East Asian countries, particularly China. His remarks are in line with the Director’s commentary. Each person has obvious obligations within a community and is just doing his or her job, whereas in the United States “Everyone is always thanking everyone else: ‘Thank you for setting the table’; ‘Thank you for getting the car washed’. In her country (Asian) everyone has clear obligations in a given context and you don’t thank people for carrying out their duties.” (Chapter “Living together vs. Going it alone”).
Low and high context
The difference between low-context and high-context countries provides a better understanding of this difference in the use of polite words. In high-context countries, relationships are meaningful and matter over time. Formality may prevail, but words do not tell the whole story. Context, expression, intonation, gestures will sometimes give meaning to the message. In low-context countries, communication will be more direct and the need for clarity will prevail. China, Korea, Japan are ranked in high-context countries while many Western countries, such as the United States, Germany, Scandinavian countries are in low-context. France is in between the two, but compared to China, it is low context.
As we have explained here, the unspoken and the implicit are omnipresent in China and thanks will not always be expressed verbally or directly. A praise or compliment will be used. Even saying thank you or apology between close people may seem odd. More than once, I have been told that a thank you is useless!
Of course, thank you is still used and when we are in more westernized environments, Thank you is more common. This type of article is not intended to give absolute rules, but to show differences and to launch tracks to understand better and to understand each other. The inhabitants of a low-context countries quickly qualify certain communication habits of high-context countries as hypocrites. In fact the modes of expression are different and sometimes telling a harsh truth can be considered as a lack of intelligence or politeness in a high-context country!
Thank you for reading the whole article!
19 July 2020