Stating the Obvious

Even after you speak Chinese, you may encounter an uncomfortable phenomenon: Chinese people seem to like to state the obvious.

For example, In my very first months in China, when I was jogging around my campus I ran past two strangers and I nodded and smiled to them as I passed. Their response was not a smile nor nod back nor even a “ni hao.” Rather one of them said with a straight face:

  • pǎobù a! 跑步啊 = You’re jogging, huh

And another simple said,

This was a little bit uncomfortable for me because a) I know I’m jogging, b) I know I’m a foreigner, c) I didn’t know what in the world could be gained from either parties stating these obvious facts.

However, now that I’ve been in China longer, I realize the Chinese like to state the obvious and label things.

For example, after I tell a funny story, my Chinese friends will often say to me (in English or Chinese):

  • You are very “humorous” (“yōumò” 幽默)
  • That was very “funny” (“gǎoxiào” 搞笑)

I thought their exuberant laughter would have been a clue enough that they thought that way, but no. After the laughter died down, they also felt it necessary to tell me. Admittedly we might do that in English sometimes, but it seems like the Chinese people like to do it more.

I don’t know why. Perhaps Chinese people feel stating the obvious is good because:

  1. It’s better than saying nothing
  2. It’s a friendly was of starting a conversation (like talking about the weather or something)
  3. It deflects attention away from the speaker

The most uncomfortable situation for me was when I was playing tennis a few days ago. I have to pay to use the university tennis courts, but the P.E. teachers don’t because it’s obviously part of their facilities.

The other day, one P.E. teacher was sitting with the money lady when I came up to pay for the court time. As I handed over the money, the P.E. teacher said:

  • jiāoqián a! 交钱啊 = So, payin’ money.

It was hard to hear it as anything but gloating, “Haha! You have to pay money and I don’t.” But from what I know about the teacher, that’s a little bit out of character for her. So…my theory is that she was just in “state the obvious” mode, and didn’t think about the specifics of what she was saying.

I would LOVE to hear any of your thoughts on this phenomenon. Has anyone else noticed this?

42 Replies to “Stating the Obvious”

  1. I definitely agree with this. The one I noticed most was my Chinese roommate saying 你回來了!(you’ve returned!) whenever I came back to the room. I started using it too.

    This point about it being a good start to conversation is interesting. I never could get him to talk about the weather.

  2. I’ve actually noticed this in Japan; it really frustrates the hell out of me, but in the end I try to think of them as conversation starters or as basic greetings almost since they don’t ask “how are you?” unless you’ve been sick.

  3. Each language has its quirks. In English, American English that is, people often say “That’s cool.” To a foreigner studying English, just what in the hell does that mean: it’s not quite cold, or it isn’t hot? Certainly not. Could this possibly confuse people just as we are confused by indirect usage of someone else’s native language.

  4. I’ve noticed the same as Ben here in Taiwan. The security guard in our building says 你回來了 every time I come home. Usually I’m walking past him as he says it, and it always feels awkward. The only appropriate response seems to be a simple “對啊!”

  5. I know exactly what you mean. I especially run into this when I’m told, multiple times a time, that I’m 很高 (very tall). Well, yes, I am. I stand at 1.95m, so I guess that makes me officially tall. But you know what, I already know I’m tall. It’s hard to take such statements in stride and remain my charming self every time I hear it.

    The other common one is where strangers on the street will say laowai, or even mouth a horribly disfigured ‘hellooooo!’. When I’m in a good mood, I shrug it off. I politely return their hello. However, when I’m having a bad day, I’ve been known to go up to these people and ask them, in Chinese, what exactly it is they want their message to convey. I’ve startled a few (I believe not very well-meaning) people like that.

  6. I think it’s just a way of saying hello. When my girlfriend’s roommate comes back home from work everyday, (they are both chinese btw) my girlfriend always says “下班了” (finished work, eh?) which does seem to state the obvious. But it can’t be any worse than saying “how are you?” right? 😉

  7. What Albert has said is definitely the truth.However, nobody seems to hesitate when using the “subtle, ambiguous, genneral, vast,heterogenious” word of Chinese to describe the Chinese, especially when the description is based on their own (true but limited) experience in this huge country named China which has vast territory and highly diversified culture.

    Many years from now, someone from the Mars landed on a country in Africa. He got out of his space shuttle and eysewitnessed that everybody is black, most still live poorly, and ,,,,. He came back and reported, without hisitation of course, to his “king” or “queen” or “his countrymen” that “the Earthese” is black, the Earthese lives in poverty, the Earthese likes well, “stating the obvious”.

    ^_^ This story is not to deny Albert’s account of his experience in China, but as an amendment to it.
    A truely comprehensive knowing and understanding of this country is based on every piece of limited account by everybody who loves or is interested in this country. The point is, when we encounter the term China or Chinese he or she uses the next time, we must keep in mind that his or her description may be true but may also just be a small corner of that hugely panoramic picture of the true China/Chinese.

  8. I think this obvious statement is kind of “hello” in chinese, because we seldom say ” ni hao” or “jin tian ni hao ma?” when meet face to face. especially for ” xia ban la” or “hui jia la”, we just saying to show greeting and welcome, just reply “yes” with a smile or without, that’s fine, don’t think too much.

    The interesting thing is I didn’t noticed such details would be a confusion in language learning, maybe it’s the most difficult, or could be the most attractive part for ppl to understand different culture.

  9. I have to admit that we do like to state the obvious.
    Interestingly enough, when I stated the obvious, like saying “chi fan a” in the cafeteria to my best friend, she always responded “fei hua” to me~
    That is a way of greeting, more friendly and casual than “ni hao”.
    What Sera has said is exactly what I want to say– “we just saying to show greeting and welcome, just reply “yes” with a smile or without, that’s fine.”

  10. Here’s my speculation. When we westerners say, “How are you?” as a conversation starter, we don’t usually expect a long list of all that ails the person addressed. It’s just a greeting, a social convention. I think this is the same type of category. Not so much necessarily a conversation starter (in a very crowded country where people don’t start new conversations quite as casually), but a greeting or acknowledgement of your existence nevertheless, in the same sense that “howdy do” is a substitute for the non-question “how do you do?” Ha, and then there’s the shock value of being the gweilo — everything you do is noted and subject of comment. One time I made the mistake of taking my family to visit the zoo, and I felt we were more the object of attention and were photographed more than the animals the people had come to see. So, yah, the pet laowei is running, is eating, is off work, is on work, is home now, etc. Ah, get over it! It’s not sinister in any way, really just people showing interest and being solicitous or friendly in their own abstract way. Hopefully, if you were run over by a car or didn’t show up at your house, somebody might possibly pay notice as well.

  11. I guess I take this a much more positive thing than most of the other people here in the comments section.

    Instead of understanding it as just a conversation starter, I tend to view it more as a sign or respect, or at least of ‘notice’. What I mean is that to just say ‘ni hao’ is very ambiguous. It could be said without ever really taking notice of the person. As someone might say hello without looking at you as you enter a room. It is a hello, but it is not very personal.

    But to greet someone with a statement reflecting what they are doing ‘chi fan a’ or a description of them ‘hen gao’ means that you would actually have to be paying attention to them to make such a comment. In the same vein, it is considered rude to say anything after someone sneezes because it shows that you have noticed that they might be ill. My understanding of Chinese culture definitely includes this concept of ‘notice’, though I might be blowing it out of proportion.

    That being said I don’t mean to imply that someone who greets you with ‘laowai’ is being respectful. Only that the original social convention that started the commenting trend was more about being respectful and giving notice, and not just something else to say besides ‘ni hao’. Once you get use to commenting as a form of greeting, it is easy to then turn the social convention around and be rude with it. Much like how people can use politeness to be rude in a sarcastic way.

  12. Before I came to China, I spent years speaking English, and never gave a second thought about the literal meaning of many of our daily phrases.

    (as pointed out by Alex) “How are you?” is a common casual greeting in American English – usually, if the reply is more than a few words, the listener is soon looking for an escape route.

    I find plenty of things, in both languages, a bit humorous – not laughing AT anybody or their culture – it’s just the way WE (all of us) are.

    To me, “laowai” is mostly a neutral term – frequently, the speaker has no idea that the wai guo ren understands what’s being said – I’ve seen contract workers, on a construction site, react with complete surprise, when the laowei walked over and began to speak to them in Chinese. Even our own staff will use it, if they are speaking about me on the phone – to someone who barely knows me. Among themselves, they use either my Chinese or English name. It’s just the most practical way.

  13. I agree with Alex and Riley’s comment. When I first came here, my German friend and I used to be very bothered by the “how are you” greeting. We found that to be insincere. This kind of annoyances often come as a reflection of the self rather than the society. Looking back, I think we were at a time of culture shock phase when we reacted strongly. Now that I’ve lived in this country for a long time, I just accept its (saying how are you) uselessness and also use it as a way of greeting people.

    The same is true for Chinese. On the brighter side, for those of you who felt bothered by the Chinese way, you are already half way to be fluent in Chinese! It is a natural reaction as a result of your language/cultural immersion. It is a phase which will pass.

    Chinese in general is a fact based language. That is why we state the fact as a way of being specific and accurate and conversational. The same point can be applied to how Chinese answer negative questions.

    “Don’t you like Chinese?” In Chinese manner will be answered “yes, I don’t like Chinese”. or “No, I do like Chinese”. The answerer intend to be truthful to the question verses the English way of answering. The English way achieves a sense of absolute consistency: YES must = I do like Chinese. Once this is obtained, the YES and NO become irrelevant to the question.

  14. today i walked into my company cafeteria, for lunch (in taiwan). i’m a white guy standing in the food line with 20 Chinese coworkers, and one of the kitchen staff walks by and says to me “ni chi fan le!” then she was off. i’m thinking, “well, what else would i be standing in the food line with a plate full of food for?!”

    after reading the above comments, i really like the idea that “stating the obvious” acknowledges a person’s existence. in fact, i think it works as a friendliness. my only problem with it is I DON’T KNOW HOW TO RESPOND!

  15. I absolutely agree with Kris. Sharp comment!

    It’s part of our culture, Chines culture. Many foreigners received this Culture Shock at their first time in China, but well, you will get used to it in time!:)

    In Singapore, local people call “laowai” “Ang Moh (hong mao)” which means the person with red hair. I think Ang Moh is a less respectful
    address compared to “laowai” coz “laowai” is a neutral term.

  16. This is one part of Chinese I still have to get used to, although I am much less annoyed with it than I used to be.

    I am a vegetarian and every time I would have dinner with my Chinese friend he would tell me “You don’t eat meat.” Every time! Without fail! As if for some reason I had to be reminded. It was unnerving at first and then hilarious and even endearing.

    English speakers say dumb things with small talk too, but I think it’s especially prevalent here.

    I still hate when people shout “laowai” at me. Maybe someday I’ll get over that.

  17. Interesting thread…. To be noted however, every single Chinese study textbook or Chinese course I have seen or tried invariably has as a first lesson “meeting and greeting” where the first exchange is a reciprocal “Nin hao , nin how ma ?”.
    No wonder I find it difficult to strike up a conversation in Chinese…
    Perhaps I should try “Guandong ren / Bejing ren / Shanghai ren ?

    OK – Only joking, but I must say the Helloooo from starngers when walking in the streets did have me somewhat fascinated at first, until i got used to it.

  18. Yes, definitely true about stating the obvious.

    I am Aussie, but my parents-in-law are Chinese. When I return home and they call out, “Hui lai le,” sometimes I respond, “Mei you. Wo mei hui lai le.”

    I can tell they’re just thinking, “Yeah, nice one. Very funny.”

    Of course, there is no way that they could understand that I do this just to stay sane sometimes. I do pretty well at fitting into Chinese culture with them, but sometimes you have to express yourself.

    One hilarious thing I find is driving in the car with my wife and her parents. Not only do you get statements of the obvious, but echoes of the statements. Say you drive past a person walking a large dog. My father-in-law says, “Da gou.” Then my mother-in-law will say, “Da gou.” I often add my own repetition just to add to the joy: “Da gou.”

  19. Scott did you noticed the different tones of your parents-in-law? In fact I guess, your father-in-law really meant “look, there is a large dog” and your mother-in-law meant “yes, i saw it”
    That’s not simply stating the obvious.
    When one says that he or she does well at fitting into Chinese culture, it means he or she has not really realized what a Chinese culture is.

  20. This post is great and confirms what I have referred to for years as the “Howard Cosell” syndrome in Chinese culture. For you youngins out there, Cosell was a famous sports commentator who, like all commentators, would report the blow-by-blow of the athletes’ actions. One thing that most posts seem to say is that it is used as a greeting. I’ve noticed that, but also noticed it can be used at any time, as one post mentioned seeing a large dog. The other thing not discussed much, is how the heck to respond. One time I asked a Chinese friend: “Why do Chinese people always say what I am obviously doing?” She said that people do that because it shows the speaker is noticing the listener and this shows kindness and respect. Then I said “But what do you say when someone does that? How am I supposed to respond?” She said the best way to respond is to repeat exactly what was said. So if someone sees you leaving work and says 下班了! You can respond likewise with 下班了!Or if it is clearly raining and someone says 下雨了! You can echo that with 下雨了! One other way to respond is to add to the thread of stating the obvious. So if some says “It’s raining”, you can respond with “It’s cold” or “getting soaking wet”, or if some says “You’re eating!”, you can respond with “It’s good”.

  21. Hi, I teach Chinese in the states and study how to teach it in the summers. In our linguistics classes, the ‘experts’ all support what everybody is saying here: making observations about people is a way to show you’re paying attention and that your relationship is on talking terms. Obviously, if you just walk by and say nothing, that’s not very friendly. If you always say ‘Ni hao!’ it sounds like you’re never getting past the initial stage of the relationship. Another common greeting that I got used to via English from my Chinese roommate is to just say someone’s name, nothing more. My roommate would walk into my room and say, “Bob.” and I would say, “What?” And he would just smile. 🙂 Probably the strangest observation I’ve heard of is “Chu han le.” “You’re sweating.” Said to someone coming home on a hot day. Great thread!

  22. i tend to see it alot here too. (aka the us). its more of a confirmation. when you ask someone “what is (blank)” and they respond by saying “you don’t know what (blank) is?” well obviously if i asked i didnt know. right? it’s like saying “i’m surprised you didn’t know what (blank) is. I assumed you knew”. Also when you come out of your room in the morning and someone says “your up?” well i’d hope so, or else i have a sleepwalking tendency. it’s like saying “Oh! your up. good morning!” its just a confirmation

  23. Can one comment on a 2-year-old blog post? Let’s see…

    Being a westerner in Australia, I don’t have much chance to talk with Chinese people, so I have to find some way to break the ice with random Chinese people, for example, when I’m on the train.

    You can’t really start a conversation with “nihao” – it’s too widely known by westerners who can’t speak Chinese. But after I read your blog post, I realised that there’s no reason why *I* can’t state the obvious too! It shows you have some ability, in a non-threatening way.

    Lady with bag: “去过购物”. Man with sandwich: “午饭”. And so on! Turn-about is fair play, and I’m really getting into it!

  24. Mitch. This two-year-old post is still active, isn’t it? Am I stating the obvious?
    I was taught that to start a conversation with an English speaker one has to talk about the weather. ‘Nice day!’…well, obviously. I see it too.

  25. When I lived in Java I noticed that friends often asked questions I’d already answered. Is my Indonesian that unclear? No, no, I was told.

    It was only when I overheard them talking (once I learnt enough of the local language, Javanese, to follow conversations) that I realized it’s perfectly normal for them to ask the same question, perhaps worded a little differently, 3 times. I felt much better.

  26. This is very common but I would like to know if this happens to any Chinese people or perhaps a I don’t know what to say to the 老外 thing? I will go ask them now actually… 🙂

  27. Yep, we all got our quirks. I think English is worse. Why we always have to say “how are you?” at any given moment is beyond me. It doesn’t mean anything, but I can’t stop myself from saying it. Somehow, it just feels natural I guess.

  28. Interesting. I found this cite because I was extremely frustrated with two asian women that I work with here in Canada. I never know how to respond to them when they state the obivous in a tone that implies that I didn’t know what they just told me. Every morning one tells me what the weather is like… it’s raining or it’s windy… I know, I just came from out there. I guess we would say, ‘wow, it’s windy out there, isn’t it’ or some such thing. I thought this was how they learned English – by making statements, but it interesting to learn that they speak this way in their native language too. It’s the tone that irritates me. If you have an suggestions for me, I’d be pleased to hear them. Thanks.

  29. You could comment that their hair was still black (or grey), or that they are still female or still sitting at the same desk, or anything incredibly mundane.

    I started a conversation with a guy on the train tonight by saying 你下班吗?. Totally obvious, but it did the trick. Anything but 你好!

  30. I am have similar problem here in Australia as Valerie does. ‘G’day’ is meaningless to my Chinese ears. I never want to answer ‘How you going?’ because my life is always miserable.

  31. When asked “how are you?”, I’m so tempted to tell them I have an in-grown toe-nail and my wife doesn’t love me any more. Neither is true, but if they didn’t really want to know, why ask?

  32. “How are you?” is a common casual greeting in American English – usually, if the reply is more than a few words, the listener is soon looking for an escape route.

    I am strongly agree with it. And took me a while to get used to it. I was thinking if you don’t wanna hear what I am going to say, why bother to ask.

  33. You guys, they’re not stating the obvious, they’re just saying “hi” or “okay,” basically acknowledging that the two of you are in each others’ presence and aren’t ignoring each other. This is how Chinese speakers interact with each other. It has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a foreigner.
    In fact, pretty much nobody except a foreigner would say 你好 unless it’s a fairly formal situation. So, when you come home and your neighbor says “你回來了”, this should be translated as “hi.”

  34. Isn’t this similar to how English-speaking people would ask “How are you?” to each other back and forth repeatedly – I’ve literally come across this – without really expecting a meaningful reply?
    At least when people ask 您最近还好吗? or in some cultures/places 吃了没?,they mean it, e.g. they’d offer you food if you hadn’t eaten (I’m sure this isn’t exclusive to Eastern cultures); otherwise they’d just not ask it for it looks pretentious. In its place people would just greet you with the appropriate family term or whatever appropriate title/honorific that befits you or a simple good morning.

  35. So you answer that you’ve eaten, and they still try to force feed you. Chinese don’t like to have to say no, but they also don’t like to hear no either.

  36. The one that always bothered me was 小心. If I slip, stub my toe, or cause some sort of accident, my wife or her family will respond with 小心. The blood gushing from my arm is a sign I should be more careful, I don’t need you to tell me. It sounds very sarcastic to me even though I know it isn’t meant that way.

  37. I think the stating the obvious thing is, as everyone else has said, essentially meaningless. It’s what they called phatic communication. It can be polite or rude, depending on the speaker and the tone of voice.

    Interestingly though, I find that written Chinese is infinitely more full of the same kind of utterly redundant content than any other language I have come across. In a medical journal article, you might find a sentence like:
    “Patients with anxiety, irritation or depression should be referred to a psychologist to treat their anxiety, irritation or depression.”
    Or even
    “General anesthesia should be used for patients with asthma during the FESS procedure, so that the effect of such factors as the patients’ emotional reactions, as well as their sensitivity to pain and the duration of the procedure can be minimized.”
    These are examples taken from Chinese medical journal articles written to be read by Chinese medical professionals, who obviously do not need to be told what anesthesia is for. There also tends to be a phenomenal amount of repetition of unnecessary information (which I won’t bore you with examples of here).
    Now, here’s my theory: some languages emphasize ‘new’ information and others emphasize ‘important’ information – English falls into the first category and Chinese falls (very emphatically and with a super loud ‘plop’) into the second. For a Chinese speaker (or writer) it is normal to state that Beijing is in China (as in the formulation 中国北京) whereas in English this is not normal as there is no other place called ‘Beijing’ in the world. Furthermore, in English we tend to use a certain amount of ‘elegant variation’ (i.e. ‘Beijing’ might be mentioned once, and might then be called ‘the Chinese capital’, then ‘the smog-bound metropolis’ or whatever, depending on the nature of the article); Chinese speakers, by contrast, are happy to repeat the same word over and over again. (Incidentally, some languages, like French and Portuguese, are far fonder of elegant variation than English is.)

    If you bear in mind the contrast between ‘new’ and ‘important’ in the linguistic mindsets of English and Chinese speakers, you may find it easier to cope with their apparently idiotic observations.

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