While we’ve talked about names in Chinese before, it is important to know how to address people using the proper titles. While Westerners can generally be forgiving for not knowing the local customs, those that are able to follow the proper conventions correctly can receive a big edge when developing relationships.
Unlike English, the Chinese equivalents to “Mr” and “Mrs” – xiānshēng and tàitai follow the person’s last name. These two terms can also be used to refer to one’s husband and wife respectively. In Southern parts of China and Taiwan, these terms can also be used to address service people such as waiters, clerks and taxi drivers. In Northern parts of China, the term shīfu meaning “specialist” is used instead.
Where possible, it is advisable to find the person’s position and use it instead. Addressing someone as Wáng lǎoshī for “Teacher Wang” or Lǐ jīnglǐ for “Manager Li” shows them a lot more respect than a standard “Mr” or “Mrs.” It is also common practice to refer to someone with a definite position in the third person, using just their title and nothing else. If you’re shopping for goods, and are hoping for a good deal from the shop owner, referring to him as lǎobǎn for “boss” may gain you some favors.
Family relationship titles can be quite complicated. Traditionally, it was common for several generations of family members to live together, which meant it was important to accurately address each other. Family members are addressed differently based on whether they are older or younger than you, as well as whether the relationship is a paternal or maternal one. Close friends can also address each other as if they were in the same family. So a friend might refer to another friend as his older brother. This can also extend to a close friend’s family – where you address his relatives as if they were your own. This is similar to Western culture where a couple might affectionately be called Auntie and Uncle by younger generations.
Nicknames are also quite popular in Chinese culture. Two brothers surnamed Chén might be identified among friends as Lǎo Chén and Xiǎo Chén to indicate “younger Chen” and “older Chen” respectively. While in Western culture, it may be considered rude to directly refer to someone as old, in Chinese culture it is considered a sign of respect and refers more to the person’s wisdom and maturity than to their specific age.
While these rules about relationships may seem confusing on the outside, the best way to prepare yourself from uneasy situations is to observe others in action, and see what terms they use to address each other. To ensure that you use the right titles, it is also advisable to ask the opinions of others to make sure that you use the appropriate term.