Chinese speakers for whom English is a second language sometimes use exclamations like ‘Wow!’ or ‘Unbelievable!’ when something is really extreme or surprising. But what might require a strong reaction in one culture for social reasons might be rather normal in another culture. So when we speak another language, we should be careful about using strong exclamations in case we accidentally embarrass or offend someone (including ourselves!).

Mistake: 

A: I’ve lived here about 10 years.

B: REALLY?!?! Amazing!

Explanation: 

If you are surprised, it’s OK to respond with ‘really?’, but pronunciation is important here. If you say it in a loud, exaggerated way, it can sound like you doubt the person. It also sounds like you are really shocked, and the idea you are responding to might not be that unusual or shocking to your listener. Try using ‘really’ in a full sentence instead, and make sure you don’t emphasise it too much. Following up with a further question may also help you seem interested and polite.

Correction: 

A: I’ve lived here about 10 years.

B: Oh really, 10 years? You must really like it here. What’s your favourite neighbourhood?

Here are some mistakes common to Chinese speakers, with explanations and suggestions for alternative ways to express the same idea.

1. 

Mistake: 

A: [picks up and uses chopsticks]

B: Wow, you can use chopsticks – amazing!!!

Explanation: 

Avoid expressing strong surprise or amazement for things that some people may consider simple or ordinary, such as using chopsticks, speaking the local language or enjoying local culture. In Chinese this may be a way to praise someone, but your listener may believe you are mocking them, or saying it’s unusual that they know a skill or can do something they consider normal or basic, especially if they are from a place where that skill is something most people know. In fact, it may be better to say nothing in this situation, or to keep the conversation on something more general.

Suggestion: 

A: [picks up and uses chopsticks]

B: What should we order next? Everything on the menu looks good.

2. 

Mistake: 

A: 多謝. (Thanks.)

B: WOW, you speak Chinese! You’re so great!

Explanation: 

If a non-Chinese person speaks a little bit of Chinese, this kind of response is too strong and a bit over the top so it doesn’t seem genuine. 多謝 isn’t a difficult or uncommon phrase; in fact, it might be the first Chinese phrase this person learned because it’s so normal to say it!

Remember that people from around the world come to Hong Kong to study Chinese, and many people who didn’t grow up speaking Chinese but live in the city know at least a few words, and perhaps much more than just the basics. Instead, try something a bit more low-key – or respond in Chinese and reward their effort. 

Suggestions: 

A: 多謝. (Thanks.)

B: Oh, can you speak Chinese?

or 

B: 唔駛客氣.  (No problem./Don’t mention it./You’re welcome.) Are you studying Chinese?