All around the world, there are different rules in different places about polite standards of what to do or what to say in certain situations, formal or informal; this is true here in Hong Kong as well. In some cases, these standards can affect what we say and how we say it.

Mistake:

A: …we got married last month.

B: Congratulations! When are you planning to have a baby?

Explanation:  

Traditional attitudes to marriage and having children are changing all over the world, so it’s a good idea to avoid asking questions about marriage or children to people who you don’t know very well. 

If you don’t know the person well, wait for the other person volunteer any additional information. A happy ‘congratulations!’ really is enough. If you’d like to keep the conversation going, you might want to ask about the wedding day itself, or perhaps about the couple’s honeymoon plans.

Correction:

A: …we got married last month.

B: Congratulations! What was the wedding like? / Are you planning on going anywhere for a honeymoon?

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

1. 

Mistake:

A: How long have you been working in finance?

B: I’ve been working in the field for about 10 years.

A: Really?! You look so young!

Explanation: 

In English, we tend not to make direct comments like this about people’s appearance, especially if we don’t know them very well, or if the comment is not very complimentary. In this situation, the listener may even assume that you don’t think they are qualified for the position or that they seem inexperienced because of their youth. 

Suggestions:

Try asking a polite question to find out more about their work, or compliment their experience by comparing it favourably to your own.

A: How long have you been working in finance?

B: I’ve been working in the field for about 10 years.

A: What do you like about finance?

or

A: Oh, right. Which company do you work for?

or

A: That’s great – I’ve been working in my field for eight years and it’s nice to have so much experience.

2.

Mistake:

A: Wow, you look so handsome!

B: …

Explanation: 

Remember that what looks like a simple single-word translation (handsome/英俊) from Chinese to English might not match the context of your conversation. In English it’s fine to call your husband or boyfriend handsome – but what about a male colleague or neighbour?

If you simply want to compliment someone on their appearance, male or female, it’s a bit more natural to say something that could refer to their clothing, rather than their face: ‘nice outfit’ / ‘you look great today’ / ‘nice shirt’.

Suggestions:

A: Nice shirt! / That’s a great tie.

B: Oh, thanks very much!