News & Events

Have you eaten?

Posted on 25 Feb 2014 in Teachers News

Learning a new language is great for global communication. But, understanding how people from other cultures behave and why, is just as important.

I just love HSBC’s advert of a British business man out to dinner in China with colleagues.  We ‘Westerners’ learn that we need to clean our plates – it’s rude not to. But as he finishes that first plate of eel and then is faced with yet another, and then yet a third, even larger, you think does he know how to handle this? Obviously not, he’s full of ridiculous amounts of eel and about to explode…

In my last Chinese lesson I learned a very colloquial way of greeting – it’s Chī le ma?’ This translates to ‘have you eaten?’  This was fascinating to me and got me thinking about the importance of food and gathering in Chinese culture, and about the many ways people greet each other around the world.  These are things that are so connected to culture that to an outsider seem bizarre but when you dig down you can see values that really affect how people communicate.

Over much of the planet, people shake hands when they meet. In many other cultures, they also kiss. Some kiss on one cheek, some on both, and others kiss three or four times. Then you go to Oman and someone might shake your hand then kiss you on the nose. In Bangladesh, a relaxed salute of the hand is more normal. In northern Mozambique you could find people clapping their hands three times before they greet you.

These rituals all point towards very different cultural identities and the clues also come through direct translations of how people actually say “hello”.

In Bhutan they ask, “Is your body well?” In Georgia their word for hello literally means, “Let you win”. In Swaziland don’t be surprised at, “I see you!” In Mauritius get ready for some villagers to simply say “Speak!”

Perhaps the nicest greeting is from the South Pacific island of Niue: “Love be with you.”

Cultural difference doesn’t stop there of course. Take a situation where people disagree. There are a myriad of ways to do it. Someone from Germany would simply say “I don’t agree” because direct communication means honest communication to them.

A French person might mix directness with a sense of politeness and say, “I’m afraid I don’t share your opinion.” In England it gets more confusing with something like, “I agree, up to a point.”

Then we get to the crazy extremes.

In the US, “You gotta be kidding!” will come at you without a moment’s hesitation. In Finland, “Let’s have another coffee” is their way of making light of the situation and avoiding conflict.

In China, “We agree and disagree” will leave you wondering what to say next. Hmmm.  Which part didn’t you agree with? Should we go over the middle bit?

Thankfully I’m not at the stage of negotiating a major business deal in Mandarin, but if you greet me and ask if I’ve eaten yet, I think I can handle that: Chī le’(I’ve eaten)  or … ’hái méi yǒu’ (not yet) and importantly, even if I haven’t eaten I’m not expecting you to take me to a fancy restaurant to have eel.  It’s just ‘hello!’