Ethnography of Speaking

Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Sociolinguistics



The interaction takes place in a local restaurant in Beijing, China. The term local is used here to describe any restaurant that caters to people who are originally from Beijing and/or the surrounding area of China who dine out on a limited budget. A restaurant that locals frequent is one where the staff and customers speak Mandarin as their first language and their ordinary customs and practices within this setting reflect Chinese rather than Western traditions. Any decorations or table settings will reflect Chinese tastes and styles which are subject to the restaurant owner and cannot be succinctly described here. Usually locals eat in these types of restaurants for lunch from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from about 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. since it is customary for locals to eat dinner into the late hours of the evening. Traditionally, plates, cups and utensils used in these settings, both formal and informal, are wrapped in plastic to abide by the government sanitation laws, so it is not unusual to have to unwrap items you want to use when eating. It is also important to note that Western utensils are often not available, even when requested, in these types of local restaurants as the Chinese custom is to use chopsticks. Any signs or menus that are available in this restaurant will be written in modern Chinese characters and may sometimes have accompanying pinyin script written with it. However, the use of pinyin in a local Beijing restaurant is not required. One should not expect wait staff to be ready and able to translate the menu or to speak in any other language other than Mandarin.

The communicative exchanges that occur in these scenes are based on the understanding that the “customer is God.” There is a common, underlying belief that anyone who is paying for any type of service or good in China should be treated with the utmost respect, regardless of whether his/her attitude is positive or negative. Therefore, however the customer chooses to act is entirely up to him/her and should not be questioned or challenged in any way. Often times this means that the use of pleasant phrases or polite small talk is not expected from the customer and is considered odd if used in communication.



The people involved in this exchange are usually limited to two participants, the waiter and one customer speaking for the group, within the context of a “dressing down” situation where participant roles do not change. Despite the fact that the person ordering may be eating with one or more people, it is customary for only one person at the table to order because the dishes ordered are customarily shared by everyone at the table. Depending on the group one is dining with, there may be discussion on what to order with the group by the primary speaker. However, it is important to note that this does not always happen as a primary speaker may be inclined to order without consulting with others in the group. This is not uncommon and should be expected when eating with locals who do not adhere to Western values and customs for dining in restaurants. It is a speaker-listener dynamic where the waiter simply writes down the orders given to her/him by the primary speaker.

It is not customary or expected for the waiter to make sure s/he addresses all people at the table (for drink orders, additional dish orders, etc.). As with the primary speaker at the table, the role of the waiter does not change. They will only be required to listen and write down orders and to answer any questions the customer may have about the food and how it is prepared. Additionally, they may take it upon themselves to help the primary speaker at the table get through his/her order more quickly using various tactics that will be discussed in more detail in the “Act Sequence” and “Key” sections of this paper.

The other members of the group are also considered participants in the conversation. However, their primary role is to remain silent and let the primary speaker order for the group. If there are serious discrepancies regarding the food order, the other members at the table may participate orally in the exchange. However, their communication is primarily directed at the speaker for the table: other members may remind the primary speaker of an order s/he has forgotten to make or request that s/he make additional orders. The other group members rarely direct these communications to the waiter.



The expected outcomes of the exchange in this interaction are straightforward. The customer and waiter are engaging in conversation in order to take down a meal order. The ultimate goal is for this interaction to take place quickly. However, it is not uncommon for the exchange to take longer if the customer solicits advice and extra information from the waiter about the various dishes s/he is interested in ordering. In this case, the waiter’s ultimate goal is not to hurry the customer but rather to provide good advice on what to order or to navigate the customer through the menu to showcase different food options and food preparation choices.

The customer’s personal goals may extend to the group of people with whom s/he is eating. For groups where the members are family or intimate friends, the personal goals that the customer has in ordering is fairly basic: s/he simply wants to make a meal order that will appeal to everyone eating in some way. However, in cases where the person ordering is in the company of potential and/or current clients or business partners, it is important to note that the personal goal of the customer may be to impress the other group members with his/her knowledge and choice of dishes. It is in these situations where one can observe how making a meal order may take a lengthier time than usual. The primary speaker in this situation is trying to impress those around him/her and so will ask a number of questions to show that s/he is exerting their “power” as the “God” customer.

The personal goals of the waiter rarely change. There may be elements of wanting to impress those that are dining if they are important figures in society (politicians, businesspersons, etc.) by offering elaborate advice and more pointed suggestions. However, the main goals for waiters are to get the order correct and offer any advice or suggestions to the customer as needed.



The exchange always begins with the customer loudly calling out, “Fúwùyuán” for the waiter’s attention. It is important to note here that the term is more commonly said as, “Fúwùyuán’r” in local Beijing restaurants as it is a dialect to that region. When the customer calls out for the waiter in this fashion, no eye contact or bodily gestures need to be made. The waiter may take some time to respond to the customer, so it is also not uncommon for the customers to yell out this phrase several times until they are acknowledged. When the waiter does respond to the call and arrives at the table to take the order, it is not expected for him/her to say anything to begin the exchange. However, if s/he does begin the exchange in the interaction, it is often succinct and to the point: “Nĭ yào shénme?” (“What do you want?).

The customer will immediately start the ordering process. It is not expected for him/her to greet the waiter before ordering, and it is also not necessary for customers to use polite phrases when ordering (i.e. “Please,” “I would like…” etc.). The customer will instead order each dish and drink in a succinct manner: “[Wŏ] yào…” (“[I] want…”). If s/he would like to ask the waiter a question about a dish, a phrase like “Zhè shì shénme?” (“What is this?” or “What’s in this?”) will often be used to elicit information about what is in the dish or how it is prepared. If a dish or drink is unavailable, the waiter will interrupt the customer’s ordering process with the phrase, “Méiyŏu,” meaning, “We don’t have [that].” Here, it is up to the waiter to offer suggestions or advice on other items to order in place of the one that is unavailable, but it is not required or expected that they do this. The customer will end the ordering process with the phrase, “Hăo,” or “Hăo de,” (“Okay”) to signal the waiter that s/he can now repeat back the order to check that it is correct. The waiter will first say, “Hái yào bié de ma?” (“Do you want anything else?”) to make sure the customer is done ordering. When the customer signals that s/he is done (usually with a simple “Shì” for “Yes”), the waiter will repeat the order before leaving the table.



The tone or manner in which the exchange takes place is short and precise. In general, those accustomed to more Western ideals of customer service may pay more attention to the tone or manner in which the exchanges in these restaurants take place and come to the conclusion that both waiters and local customers are rude or inconsiderate. Again, it is important to note that there is no need for the use of pleasant phrases, small talk or kind gestures between the waiter and the primary speaker ordering the meal in local Beijing restaurants. The waiter and the customer are interacting solely to accomplish the common goal of ordering and writing down an order.

Though the customer is allowed to take her/his time during the ordering process, the spirit of the interaction is still rushed in some ways. For example, if the customer is taking more than 10-15 minutes to order, or if there are long pauses between ordering items from the menu, the waiter might interrupt the customer in an attempt to bring the ordering process to a faster close. The waiter achieves this by either asking the customer outright if there is anything else s/he would like to order during any pauses the customer takes when ordering (using the phrase, “Hái yào bié de ma?” as aforementioned), or the waiter achieves a quicker close to the exchange by physically flipping through the menu with the customer to gauge whether or not there is anything more from the menu s/he would like to order.

In situations where customers cannot speak in Mandarin at all, some non-local customers may get the impression that the waiter’s tone is rude or dismissive. However, it is important to note that it is common for staff to openly laugh in discomfort or to openly show displeasure in a customer’s inability to communicate in any way in Mandarin. Usually if one is subjected to this reaction from the staff, it is important that s/he understands that they are not doing it to mock the customer. It is more exemplary of an open reaction to a feeling of disbelief or discomfort with a situation where communication in Mandarin cannot occur.



The channel of communication is happening orally with reading required, in some instances, when the customer and/or waiter need to refer to the menu. As aforementioned, the communication happens solely in Mandarin whether one is speaking orally or reading an item off of a menu. It is important for customers entering a local Beijing restaurant to understand that they cannot expect waiters to translate menus for them. Though this may happen in Beijing restaurants that follow more Western customs of service, the greater majority of local restaurants that follow more traditional Chinese customs will not provide this service through their wait staff or with their menus to customers who do not speak Mandarin. Particularly, if the primary customers who frequent the given restaurant are mostly local to Beijing or to China in general, the menus will most likely not have English translation and the waiters will most likely not speak in English, even if there are a lot of visitors who frequent the restaurant whose first language is not Mandarin.

There may be a chance that some local restaurants may have English translations on the menu to help if oral communication in Mandarin is not possible, but being able to communicate in basic Mandarin is necessary without a translator in one’s group. Menus may even provide pictures of some of their dishes for those who are unfamiliar with Mandarin to look at and order. However, it is important to note that not every picture on a menu represents a dish that the restaurant makes. Again, restaurants that practice more Western service customs will have better translations in English provided on the menu, but it is important to be wary of these accommodations, particularly if one has a food allergy or specific diet preferences, as the English menu translations may not explain in full detail everything that is in a given dish.



The exchanges in these settings allow behaviors of speech to be loud and succinct. It is not surprising for people who are unaccustomed to the ways in which waiters and customers communicate to think that both parties involved in these exchanges are being inconsiderate and/or rude. A customer speaking loudly and, seemingly, harshly to a waiter is not uncommon and not considered rude by any local present in a given restaurant. The waiters are not offended when spoken to in this manner as it is expected and common for customers to perform their speech behaviors like the “Gods” they are: because they are paying customers, they are expected to be loud, to ask as many questions as they would like about the food and even to complain. For example, if the customer is upset about the price of something or about the taste of a dish they have ordered, they are allowed to express that openly to the waiter at any time. Additionally, as mentioned in the “Key” section of this paper, it is not uncommon for waiters and staff to openly express their discomfort or displeasure when engaging in a situation where the customer(s) cannot speak in Mandarin to order the meal and instead expect the waiter to speak in English and translate menu items for them.

The waiters can be equally “rude” to an outsider when compared to the western ideal of customer service. They do not have to introduce themselves to the customer(s) at any given table, nor do they have to use polite or pleasant language when interacting with customers. They may not even smile at a customer when interacting with him/her. They are also allowed to dismiss orders made by a customer when they do not understand what s/he wants. Though they may sometimes be helpful in situations where menu items are not available by giving advice on other menu options, they are not expected to do this, so customers should be prepared to find their own alternatives when something on the menu is unavailable. Customers may occasionally have a waiter that is more “helpful” during the ordering process, but it is not very common.



It is clear that the utterances being used are informal in nature. Communication takes place using short phrases that get to the point of the goal of these exchanges: ordering food in a restaurant. Customers are allowed to use phrases like “[Wŏ] yào…” (“[I] want…”) to make orders; “Zhè shì shénme?” (“What is this?” or “What’s in this?”) to ask for more information about food on the menu; and “Hăo,” or “Hăo de,” (“Okay”) to signal that s/he has completed their order. Similarly, waiters are allowed to use phrases like, “Hái yào bié de ma?” (“Do you want anything else?”) to either interrupt a customer who may be taking a long time to order or to ask if a customer is truly done ordering when s/he says “Hăo,” or “Hăo de,” to complete his/her order. There are no specific or generic utterances that waiters will use to answer questions the customer asks about particular dishes on the menu. However, in such cases the waiter may point to a different dish from the one the customer is asking about, saying something to the effect of, “Hăochī,” (“Delicious”), to redirect the customer away from what s/he is asking to something else s/he could order instead.

These utterances, again, are devoid of any “extra,” polite language that is expected by those who are used to Western customs of service. Customers and waiters do not have to introduce themselves to each other, they are not expected to engage in any kind of small talk prior to starting the meal order and the waiter is not expected to say anything in addition to repeating the order at the end of the exchange. Meaning, if a customer is used to a waiter saying closing salutations such as, “Thank you,” “I’ll be back with your drink orders shortly,” “I hope you enjoy your meal,” etc., s/he should be prepared to engage in an exchange in a local Beijing restaurant where these types of utterances will not occur. There is no general motivation or reason for polite talk in this type of speech act as the sole purpose of the interaction is to give and take a meal order. In other words, the use of polite talk does not create any useful addition to the exchange and does not contribute to what the participants are trying to achieve and so is not used.

0 comments on “Ethnography of Speaking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: