Why Chinese say "have you Finished your meal" as Greeting?

(Last Modified: 2019-05-30 14:53:30    Author: jinyu)

For those who are travelling in China, they may be bewildered by one of the Chinese local's special greeting manner: Asking about their meal for the first time they meet. In western countries, if a person has been asked whether he had his meal or not, he might be invited to join the other's dinner.

chinese greetings cover

Now the problem is: everybody, no matter intimate friends or normal acquaintances, is asking all the time in this way. Apparently, your Chinese friend is not intended to give you a treat at that time. So, why this strange thing happens?

3 Reasons for Chinese-style Greeting

1. This is a kind of historical legacy. As we all know, China has a long feudal history, when agriculture developed to such an extent that most of the residents were relying heavily on the land they cultivated. Nearly all of the income was coming from crops they farmed, which was supporting families in every aspect.

chinese farm land

Throughout the whole feudal history, the amount of Chinese peasants occupied a great proportion. Like other peasants around the world, they were diligent, peaceful and hopeful. Unfortunately, our poor forefathers were always suffering from:

  • Natural disasters. During ancient times, there were neither advanced technologies nor powerful solutions to tackle rainstorms, floods, aridity and plagues of insects or even to anticipate them. Any of the abnormal weather could cause reduction of crop production, and thus greatly affect people's income and their lives.
  • Corruption. This is also a "time-honoured behaviour". Emperors, governors and officials from all dynasties were making laws or regulations at their own will, most of that includes raising official revenue, which led to agricultural taxes soar. Meanwhile, bribes were universal, which in turn increased internal financing problem.
  • War. Among all ancient dynasties, there was little time that our country was in a peaceful diplomatic environment. Invaders were coming from north, west, or even overseas. Wars were needed for China, no matter its resistance were active or passive. A large number of common citizens, mostly peasants, were summoned for mandatory military service. This also caused enormously unbalanced productivity for farming crops.

Therefore, most of our ancestors were enduring starvation caused by above problems. Being physically full had thus been their principle desire. All along, they asked about meal to each other in order to express their most sincere concerns. As time passes, it has gradually become a particular custom. Even though those problems will never happen again today, people are still using the inherited greeting manner.

2. This is a commonly accepted way. Like British people initializing conversations with weather discussions, Chinese do that similar thing for a safer and easier talking. In some situations, it is embarrassing or offensive to start a chat with such topics as money, politics, family, or jobs. In other situations, one cannot get effective or sufficient response when talking about unpopular things. According to our local survey, below are some topics and their properties:

Topics types for Triggering Dialogs
Private Neutral Unpopular
Salary, Family, Plans, Relation, Activities Food, Weather, News Science, Music, Economy, Policy, Industry

Among the above topics, only those in neutral column are suitable for generic conversations. For Chinese, the weather in most areas is not as mild or changeable as that of Britain, and thus cannot simply draw people's attention. News topics are the same. What's more, although most of news is neutral, two speakers may not easily be interested in news of the same field. Therefore, Talking about meal has been commonly accepted by Chinese for initializing conversation.

3. This is a way of detecting other's mood. When people are talking about the meal or the weather at the beginning of their dialog, they are waiting for positive response to continue. That's why speakers often avoid mention the real topic straight forward: if somebody is not willing or not available to start a communication, there will be no good results. Normally, when people are responding listlessly or grumpily, he might have some problems to talk properly.

mood detecting greetings

How to Respond

The principle is simple: just tell the truth - if you have had your meal, say yes; if not yet, just say no. That's why this kind of manner is prevailing, as whatever your answer might be will never get you or the listener embarrassed.

But there is a thing you should remember, some will invite you to join his dinner if your response is "not yet". However, in most cases, the speaker is not really attempted to give you a treat by saying that way. As a sort of manner to convey politeness, most of this kind of "false invitations" is always expected to be declined.

Therefore, to simplify the greeting process, we can use expressions like "I am going to eat" to replace "not yet".


Chinese people are doing greetings by asking about each other's meal, because this was what our ancestors did, and it's a polite and common way to commence talking. You can take it as a friendly manner to express concerns and can answer it truthfully.