How to Answer Direct Questions in China

Living in China for some time makes one see that many aspects of one’s Chinese textbook were written in a foreigner-friendly manner. In particular, the actual questions that Chinese people ask can be much more direct and personal than one may have expected. This can come as a shock to those who are used to people avoiding certain topics or asking about things in an indirect way. Though many Chinese people are nonchalant when asked these common questions, foreigners who are unprepared may feel anxious and uncomfortable. For example:

The best thing to do in this situation, of course, is to avoid taking offense when none was intended. Getting offended would only worsen the situation, and there is simply a different communication style within China than in other countries, such as the U.S.A. Regarding questions about one’s significant other, foreigners need to realize that in China, getting married is a big deal and there is a greater sense of urgency to marry as one ages. Although one may be accustomed to equating success with ambition and work-related matters, in China, there is a balance between the success that is derived from one’s career and the success that is derived from one’s family. Single foreigners should keep in mind that the majority of Chinese people may comment on your single status. The younger generation in China is quite open to the idea of interracial relationships, even in small cities such as Dongguang.

When someone in China asks about one’s age, it can be shocking not because of what they are asking but because of how they are asking. Again, it is very helpful to remember that in China, people are accustomed to being less direct about feelings and more direct about factual matters, which is the opposite of how the rest of the world approaches conversation. If you keep in mind that your age is simply a number and it does not have to define you, then you will have an easier time when people inquire about it.

One’s salary is another difficult topic to discuss. As a foreigner, you will generally be paid a higher rate than what most Chinese people who do the same or more difficult work are earning. Therefore, it may be helpful to respond to the question of one’s salary by stating an amount that is somewhat less than one’s actual salary. This isn’t a question you can really avoid; people who see you every day will continue to inquire about it until you give them an answer. Only if you are asked by someone you won’t see frequently or if you are a tourist should you completely skirt around the question; there is little repercussion for avoiding it under those circumstances. For those who plan to live in China or currently live there, however, it is best to have thought of a response to such a question. It may be less stressful in the long-run to tell a white lie about your income than to continually attempt to avoid the question of your income.

After living in China for some time, one may realize that the motivation behind such queries is simple curiosity and an attempt to form a connection. In general, Chinese people do not ask about wealth for the purpose of making you feel inferior (or guilty, if you are very well-off). Unless you sense that the individual asking about your income has bad intentions, it is best to simply accept that Chinese people have a different communication style, and adjust accordingly. After some time, one may find the brutal honesty to be quite refreshing.