Chinese New Year is arguably the most important holiday in the Chinese lunar calendar. Traditionally a time for friends and families to congregate and catch up with one another, many of us anticipate its arrival with excitement – especially for those still “eligible” for hong baos!
However, the holiday can bring about emotions of fear and anxiety for some, particularly if they prefer the quiet sanctuary of their own homes over the noisiness (and nosiness!) of the New Year festivities.
No matter your view on the holiday, a ‘customary’ practice that many dread are the barrage of unwelcomed comments that friends and relatives will no doubt make. These comments are often made in jest and without malice, and usually not intended to hurt the recipient – they might even be well-meaning. However, some of these comments might be hurtful and appear judgmental to the recipient, especially if it is something that they are struggling with.
Here are a few comments to avoid during the festive period:
You’ve gained / lost weight.
Weight is a sensitive topic for many.
Numerous studies have established a link between a person’s body image/weight and how that person views themselves. Body image has been identified as a contributing factor for disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Females in particular are at higher risk of body image dissatisfaction compared to males. However, this does not mean that males do not have struggles with body image – men are also susceptible to weight and body image issues.
You’re looking prosperous! – A frequently heard alternative
Looking “prosperous” is often a euphemism for weight gain. Whilst this synonym is a more ‘polite’ way of remarking on a person’s weight, and often without malice, it is preferrable to steer away from making such comments, especially if you are unsure about how the recipient will feel about such comments.
Consider saying instead, “you look happy” (but only if you genuinely mean it!).
When are you…
… getting a boyfriend / girlfriend?
… getting married
… having a baby?
All in due time. While the intention behind these questions might be well-meaning, recipients of these questions often experience some form of discomfort or distress.
For example, the recipient might have been going on dates but has been unable to find a suitable partner. Or the anxious couple might have been unsuccessfully trying for a child for some time. Such questions often put all parties concerned in an uncomfortable or upsetting situation.
Ask instead, “have you been taking care of yourself” or “have you been treating each other well”?
Have you gotten a job?
Job seeking: a process that ranks, in terms of stress, up there with the most stressful of life events. It is often difficult to find a job that meets our expectations, and especially so in the current climate.
Even without our meddling, the recipient is likely already trying their best to gain employment. Such questions do not help with the situation and merely triggers or increases the recipient’s feelings of inadequacy and distress towards their situation. It should come as no surprise that long-term unemployment has been associated with poorer mental health outcomes.
So instead of pointing out the obvious “oh 5 months still no job ah?”, provide affirmations of their skills and strengths. You may offer them some advice on the job search if (and only if) you have helpful insights or experiences to share AND if they wish to learn more information. But otherwise, refrain on forcing your advice onto them.
How did you do for your exams / what school did you get into?
If you’re lucky enough to be of a school-going age, this is a much-dreaded question (especially if you are in an important exam year such as PSLE or ‘O’ or ‘A’ Levels).
These questions are often accompanied by brutal (and somewhat stinging) comparisons between the recipient and other branches of the extended family or friends. Recipients who perceive themselves to be on the ‘lower’ end of the comparisons might suffer from lowered self-esteem especially if they feel they are not performing ‘up to standard’.
No one likes to be told that they are not as good as someone else (especially if that someone else isn’t even part of their usual circle of family or friends). Try to celebrate their achievements instead. For example, congratulate them on their CCA achievements. After all, the holidays are not a time to be comparing who is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ and certainly not while in the presence of extended family and friends.
For those who genuinely want to help the recipient improve academically or with his or her choice of schools, consider making a time with him or her to discuss the matter privately. They would appreciate your concern and discretion (or politely decline and tell you its none of your business!).
Why are you studying an arts / design / etc course? Business / accounting / etc is more useful!
While these remarks are often borne out of concern, if your relative is happy pursuing a field or specialisation that they love, encourage them instead of trying to change their minds! It is often said that there are “different strokes for different folks”. The world is made up of many different talent and skills, and there is no one ‘fixed’ path to follow in life.
So, what are more appropriate things to say?
What are you looking forward to this year?
This question allows your relative or friend to share as much or as little as they want about their hopes and plans for the year ahead in an open-ended format. Recipients with whom you are close to might feel comfortable in sharing their plans in detail, while those who are more reserved might provide a more conservative response.
You may even wish to share your own hopes and plans for the year ahead (or to commiserate together about not being able to travel!).
How have you been doing? / I hope that things are going well for you.
Another question in an open-ended format: such questions allow the recipients to elaborate as they wish. If they respond positively and in detail, great! This provides an opportunity to celebrate their achievements and progress in the past year. If they respond in a negative way, it allows you to show concern by asking them about their concerns and feelings. Validate their concerns and feelings without passing judgement or criticism.
Compliment their outfit (in a non-creepy way)
Most people try to look their best during Chinese New Year, so why not make it a compliment?
Talk about shared hobbies and interests
We might only see extended relatives and friends once a year, so talking about shared interests is a good way to bond and strengthen ties. It might also give you and your relatives and friends an ‘excuse’ to meet up more than once a year!
Chinese New Year greetings
When in doubt, stick to the traditional Chinese New Year greetings and well-wishes! Chinese New Year is, after all, a time for celebration, well-wishes and good food.
Have a joyous Chinese New Year, and we wish you great health!
This article was written by WhiteCoat’s Mental Wellness Programme partner, Annabelle Psychology. Click here to find out more about how you can teleconsult with mental wellness professionals on the WhiteCoat app.