When meeting for the first time, a handshake is the most common greeting. But even a handshake can be a different experience in China. First of all it may be held for a longer time than Americans are used to and sometimes it may be in a flimsy manner. In order to show special respect, such as to elderly people or government officials, a slight bow might be given.
Affection for children is shown by patting gently on the shoulder or cheek, but the head of a child and especially an adult should not usually be touched by another person. It is traditionally considered an almost sacred part of the body. When addressing a person, his family name or title or both are used rather than his given name.
The idea of saving face (both one’s own and that of others) is strong in Chinese society. Frankness or abruptness, especially in offering criticism of any kind, is to be carefully avoided. People are generally reserved, quiet, refined, gentle and friendly. They respect a person who is friendly and who carefully avoids hurting the feelings of others. Loud, untactful or boisterous behavior is usually regarded as very poor taste.
When visiting a family it is appropriate to bring a small gift, such as fruits, to the host, especially around New Year’s time. Gifts should be given and received with both hands. Both hands should also be used when handing things to another person. It is also a Chinese custom when receiving a gift to thank you for it and then place it to the side without opening it. This avoids embarassment to the Chinese giver in case the gift is not something needed or wanted.
Compliments about a particular object, such as a vase should be avoided by guests as this may make the host feel obligated to give the object to the guest as a gift. At parties, guests are often expected to participate, especially if they have some talent.
Guests wait for the host’s directions as to where each person is to sit around the table. For more formal banquets, there are very specific rules as to who is to sit where around the table. Conversation often concern the food, how it was prepared, what the ingredients were, and where they were obtained. Tea, candy, and fruit are often served to visitors as a token of welcome.
The host will usually ask to escort the guest a considerable distance outside and sometimes down the street; to this the guest politely gives token resistance, returning thanks in the special ritual of hospitality.
Chopsticks and a soup spoon are common eating utensils. Food is not passed around the table, but remains in the center. The host usually chooses the food for his guests and serves it to them from the central dishes on the table. It is acceptable to reach for food and if a little is spilled on the table cloth it is looked upon as a festive sign of abundance. Bones, seeds, etc., are placed on the table or on a plate provided for them, but not on the rice bowl or plate you are eating from. It is generally impolite to use your “dirty” hands to feed yourself. It would also impolite to take the last of a dish on the table. For the dinner to be a successful one there should have been a feeling of abundance. Therefore the dishes in the middle should still have food in them, along with your plate.
At a restaurant, the Chinese host always expects to pay. The guest may also politely offer to pay but should not insist. Business is not usually discussed while eating. If a toothpick is used, the mouth should be covered with the other hand. Napkins are not commonn, so it wise to always carry a handkerchief or a pack or tissues. Eating food in a public place, i.e. while walking down the street, can also be seen as somewhat impolite.
The whole, open hand should be used in pointing rather than the index finger. Beckoning to people should be done with the palm facing down instead of up. Contrary to the West, when with a member of the opposite sex, Chinese don’t have much touching, although members of the same sex do tend to touch each other more and will stand closer to each other. Often a friendship is shown betweeen members of the same sex by hand-holding or walking arm in arm. People do not use their feet to move objects, such as chairs or doors, as they feel that this might seem disrespectful to others. You can assume that most of the American gestures have no meaning in China.