I will preface this with the fact that I have some symptoms of asperger's and so, it's easy for me to make faux pas social situations, and difficult for me to judge what would be rude or not.

I think when one begins to learn a language there is a certain level of enthusiasm or excitement so it's natural to want to use it wherever one can, but also I think there may need to be some level of restraint.

Can it be considered rude or offensive to just start speaking mandarin if I don't know the person well enough?

Assume I'm in England or another English speaking western country and I've started conversation in English in a natural and polite way with, for example a shopkeeper, hotel staff, at a restaurant etc.

I'm clearly a white british person and the other person has no idea I know any mandarin just by looking at me.

Without intending to sound racist in any way, shape or form, there are certain cues one can pick up on, like the appearance of someone and whether or not they speak with a Chinese accent. If I pick up on these cues, can I just start speaking mandarin?

The reason I think it may be considered offensive is because if I do not know the person well enough then they may think I'm assuming too much about them. Also I think possibly if one starts speaking mandarin based on appearance alone it might be considered racist.

It also might be a bit too intimate for someone to speak with a stranger in their native language in a western country.

On the other hand, a chinese friend of mine said that if white british people started speaking to them in mandarin their reaction would be surprised and happy.

  • Checked into a hotel the other day with a receptionist that spoke english in a chinese accent and (without wanting to sound racist) has a chinese appearance. Our entire conversation was in english and she had no idea I am learning mandarin. At the end I say 谢谢你 and she nods but looks at me as if I've been very offensive. Maybe I should have used 谢谢您. – Karl Dec 4 '19 at 23:52
  • I think more generally this could be a question for any language, and the ethnicity that comes with that language's native speakers. It might be better placed on interpersonal skills stack exchange, but I am not sure. – Karl Dec 4 '19 at 23:59
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    (A question along the lines of "How to start up a conversation in Mandarin with strangers who I think might speak Mandarin?" would be suitable at Interpersonal Skills.) – Becky 李蓓 Jul 23 at 2:24

Chinese, Japanese and Korean are usually hard to recognize for a normal westerner, and each of these people are unhappy to be taken as another group of people... Even worse, if you take a Southeast Asian person as Chinese, Japanese, or Korean... So, it's risky to do that.

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  • I didn't think of that before, but yes you're completely correct. Sums up the situation very succinctly – Karl Dec 5 '19 at 7:21

Let's look at it from "the other side"

When as a foreign student in London in the early 70's, I had a white Londoner trying to engage me in Mandarin, without actually finding out whether I was an ethnic Chinese, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Kazakh, Mongolian.

I did not consider him rude as, like him in the above scenario, I too couldn't tell the difference, even now, between an Englishman and a Frenchman or a German or a Czechoslovakian. Perhaps that's just me. I cannot claim to speak for everyone else.

And probably the only "Eastern" language that Londoner could speak, though haltingly, was Mandarin, he had no choice but to run with it. He probably considered it the polite thing to do.

But, having said that, it is perfectly understandable some Asians, (perhaps arising from political or historical animosity), might be offended to be automatically taken to be a Chinese.

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I encourage you to watch this dude's videos. He knows a plethora of languages and he's what inspired me to learn Mandarin. Pay attention to the way he interacts with people in his videos. He always starts the conversation with something insignificant like the weather or a food item on the shelf at the grocery store. Once he has their attention he asks them where they're from and then engages them in their native language. Not to make the post political but I do have to admit that with the current political climate in the west I wouldnt be surprised if some oddballs did get offended for a white person t ok speak Chinese (glad that's something I'll never have to deal with)

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  • I've seen similar yes. The reaction is always positive in these kinds of videos, is there any situation where it could be negative? – Karl Dec 5 '19 at 1:09
  • @Karl not that I can think of – 小奥利奥 Dec 5 '19 at 1:19

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