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An Interesting Chinese Idiom About Making Things Personal 看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài)

Our innate capabilities to bond with people allow us to create social circles suited for us. However, in these circles, you have an inherent duty to play. Members must keep an unspoken truce regardless of their differences. Nonetheless, there are instances where we cross the lines drawn. Consequently, people take offense at things we do, even if it does not mean anything.

Such a scenario is most common among friends. We love to bicker and joke with each other. In cases where the joke went too far, people will brush it off and forgive. Why wouldn’t they? Friends are for life. They don’t mean anything by the jokes. However, a few takes offense to these kinds of bickering. That causes them to treat people coldly and differently. They become aloof, hostile, and snobbish; in other words, they become 看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài).”  

chinese disk
Chinese disk

1. Introduction of the Interesting Chinese Idiom

“看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài),” is a Chinese idiom as old as time. It literally translates into “watch people who serve dishes.” Perhaps that is an inside joke to service crews. People are aware that they do awful things to people’s food when they’re serving an abhorrent customer. However, in Chinese semantics, it means differently. It can mean that a person can not treat people equally,  or that they often treat other people differently, and even give different treatment to different people they dislike. In summary, we can translate “看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài)” as “being snobbish.”

The interesting Chinese idiom 看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài) is a popular idiom, especially among social circles. Another interesting factoid is that its meaning has evolved. Initially, we use this idiom to describe a reaction. However, in today’s semantics, people often use this to downplay hostility. If someone takes offense to another’s joke and starts to treat them coldly, aloofly, and snobbishly, then you can say, “don’t take things so personal 看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài).”   

2. Reminder

看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài) also applies in many situations. Just keep in mind that its meaning predicates upon a hostile reaction after a meaningless joke. It’s similar to the western’s “no offense” clause. However, it is quite different. It requires a “snobbish” reaction.

While the idiom allows for bickering, it does not allow for an offense. It is not a medium for people to cross any professional and personal line. It is an idiomatic expression, not a catchphrase to undermine someone’s feelings. Consequently, be constantly reminded to honor any unspoken barrier set in interpersonal interactions. Act according to the perceived level of friendship or relationship with the person.

3. Explain the knowledge point

看人下菜 (Kàn rén xià cài), means making things personal and being snobbish.

“看 (Kàn)”, fourth tone.

“人 (rén)”, second tone.

“下 (xià)”, fourth tone.

“菜 (cài)”, fourth tone.

For example

 Tā men kàn rén xià cài, jié guǒ wǎng wǎng bù jìn rú rén yì. 


They make things personal, and not in a good way.

Qǐng bú yào kàn rén xià cài dié.


Please don’t be snobbish.

Tā xǐhuān kàn rén xià cài, suǒyǐ dàjiā dōu bù zhīchí tā.


He likes making things personal, so people don’t support him.

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