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Shanghai Social Customs & Etiquettes


Deference and obedience to elders is considered extremely important. There is a hierarchy that places older people above younger and men above women; this is reflected in social interaction.

Chinese people are non-confrontational. Saving face is of primary importance; appearing to be in the right or attempting to please someone is more important than honesty. It is considered rude to refuse a request even if one is unable to fulfil it. The fear of losing face is a concern that governs social interactions both large and insignificant; failure to perform a duty brings shame not just on the individual, but on the family and community as well. Individuality is often subsumed in the group identity. There is little privacy in the home or family, and housing shortages and cramped living quarters often exaggerate this situation.

People touch often, and same-sex hand holding is common. However, physical contact between men and women in public is limited. Smiling is not necessarily a sign of happiness; it can be a display of worry or embarrassment.

Visiting is an important part of social life. Guests often drop in unannounced and are invited to join the family for a meal. It is customary to bring a small gift when visiting.

While Chinese value punctuality and diligence for the most part, they do place a great deal of emphasis on people and relationships over deadlines.

Meeting & Greeting

Greetings are formal and the oldest person is always greeted first. Handshakes are the most common form of greeting with foreigners. Address the person by an honorific title and their surname. If they want to move to a first-name basis, they will advise you which name to use.

The Chinese have a terrific sense of humour. They can laugh at themselves most readily if they have a comfortable relationship with the other person. Be ready to laugh at yourself given the proper circumstances.

Communication Style

Most Chinese speak in an indirect manner. There's usually a deeper meaning of their words and sometimes what they mean is quite opposite to what they say.

Chinese tend to be comfortable standing a little less than an arms length from one another. One and a half to two feet is common. When meeting strangers this distance is farther. In conversation, there's little to no touching, unless it's with families, close friends or boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. It's common for women who are friends to hold hands or link arms while walking.

Chinese tend to favour direct eye contact over indirect. Eye contact is considered polite, and when dealing with an unfamiliar elder one may lower their head as a sign of respect.

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