Trying to understand what is really going on can easily seem hopeless. I know it’s not, but things really are different over here.
One of the things I learned from my parents early on was that everyone matters, including/especially people in the service industries: the lady at the cash register, the people serving your food, etc. They’re human beings, but usually they get treated like less all day long. Sure, the waitress is ‘just doing her job,’ but you should still convey respect and appreciation through the way you interact with her (including the tip). You want to acknowledge their value as a person, and that it’s equal to yours. And if that goes for strangers, it certainly goes for family members and spouses! It’s not being formal; it’s letting people know you value and appreciate them and what they’re doing and that you acknowledge their value.
But we’re being told that it doesn’t work that way here. Some of the Chinese teachers, most of whom are the same age as the students and enjoy forming friendships with their foreign students outside the classroom, feel like the students are keeping them at a distance when they use “please” and “thank-you” and ask instead of demand. The idea – I guess – is that if you are friends then you don’t need all this formal politeness. The politeness creates distance.
So the foreigners wonder why their Chinese friends are so blunt and verbally inconsiderate, and the Chinese wonder why the foreigners are so cold, distant, and formal. One day we’ll figure it all out, right a book, and be rich.
And speaking of being blunt, it’s amazing to me how Chinese people can appear to fit the typical cultural profiles in books in certain instances, but completely blow them out of the water in others. This is getting into a future post, and we’ve written on it before from Taibei (which has nothing on Tianjin when it comes to personal comments!) but I have never met people who can be more straightforward and blunt, and who apparently enjoy stating what appears obvious to them: “You’re too fat!” “You’re skin is bad, you should change your diet.” “You should [unsolicited parenting advice].” “You’re a foreigner.” “How much money do you make?” “How much do you weigh?” “How much does your _____ cost?” We and our other foreigner friends hear this kind of stuff pretty much daily. High-context culture? Disagreements between locals can lead to prolonged shouting and shoving in the street or market. But in other contexts you dare not directly or explicitly acknowledge disagreement or disapproval and people use this fact to get away with shenanigans (these are often, coincidentally, the kind of situations in which a Westerner would want to be explicit and direct)! Ai ya! We have a lot to learn!