Chinese ask, and give, personal information

Published2/2/2008 9:30 AM

Sitting halfway around the world in the lobby of an upscale hotel sipping tea, I felt my face turning beet red.

Only moments before, I had been formally introduced to the person facing me by a longtime colleague who then left so we could become acquainted.


However, from this newcomer's initial line of questioning, instead of being courted I felt like I was being grilled.

My new Shanghainese contact -- looking very demure and innocent -- sat there cool and collected as she dove into a one-sided conversation, asking personal question after personal question:

"How old are you?"

"What kind of salary does your job pay?"

"What does your husband do for a living?"

"Do you enjoy hanging out in bars?"

She even went so far as to bring up the subject of my weight, wanting to know, "Is it because of your work that you are a large woman?"

I mentally punched the woman in her thin stomach for that one. In real life, I rode out the inquisition with a fake smile pasted on my face while I delivered my answers as tersely as possible.

It's not as if I hold any of this information near and dear to my heart (I am pretty much an open book), but I remember thinking the question/answer session seemed a bit premature given that we had just met.

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But then the queries subsided and the tables turned.

Not wanting to be so brazen, I started tentatively by asking if my inquisitive conversation partner was married with children.

She lit up, telling me all about her family and her job and her lack of time for after-work fun. She even told me she was too skinny because she was working so hard she hardly had time to eat.

We ended the hour feeling close. Then, as I went about my day, I thought about that conversation. I realized that the way my new friend held court was simply the Chinese way for finding common ground.

Even though I was put off when we started our session, this articulate Asian's talking tactic worked well for pushing our conversation in the right direction. In the end, I yearned for more time to compare notes.


That said, following are some other ways in which things are done in China that might be surprising to the uninitiated American business traveler:

• When standing up while conducting a one-on-one conversation, don't back away simply because your Chinese counterpart seems a little too close for your comfort.

• If you are lining up to wait for, say, a train or a bus, don't be surprised if you are shoved or pushed -- and don't get into a confrontation because of this.

• If you want to point to something, use an open hand instead of using your index finger.

• Be on time (or a little early) for a meeting. In China, punctuality is a must.

• Finally, keep your hands to yourself, even if you are just trying to make a simple gesture to accompany what you have to say. In China, use your words instead of acting them out or you might be considered overly dramatic.

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