Recently I got an email from one of readers with the following question:
“Dear Crystal, could you please explain why Chinese ladies refuse to be complimented? Many times I have tried to tell my beloved how beautiful or how good I think she is, only to be told “no” followed by a sweet giggle. Then she goes on to tell me that she is just “ordinary” or “general” <…>
Is this something ingrained in Chinese culture? I just wish she could see herself through my eyes. She is anything but ordinary or general to me.“
Foreign guys are very generous in complimenting Chinese girls.
And they get confused when in response to a passionate and sincere exclamation “You are beautiful!” they hear something like:
“No, I am just a common girl” or “Don’t laugh at me” or an almost idiomatic 哪里哪里 “na li na li” (which in this context can be translated as “no, no, no…”). After few more unsuccessful attempts the guys often change their compliment to “You are the most beautiful girl in my eyes”.
In spite of a seeming simplicity of such situation, it illustrates one of the principal cultural differences and can provide an insight into Chinese mentality. I found in internet a research on this topic – “A study of gender differences in compliments and compliment responses in Chinese context”, and want to share with you the findings of research and my own observations.
Politeness – expressed through such interactions as requests, apologies, compliments and responses to compliments – is a basis of human ethical behavior in all cultures. However politeness itself in different cultures is interpreted in different ways.
Chinese politeness still emphasizes respect for the other and modesty for oneself. “Modesty” can be seen, as another way of saying “self-denigration”.
Let’s say, Chinese employee was complimented by colleague or boss:
“You did a very good job!” A polite answer (accompanied by a smile) would be: ”Oh, don’t laugh at me. I still have a lot of things to learn. You are better than me, you did a great job in ……….”
Such reaction will satisfy the boss and earn an employee some important points. As we say, “Modesty helps to make progress” (谦虚使人进步).
Sometimes, however, such rituals can complicate the interpretation of true motives and lead to confusing situations as in the following example taken from the aforementioned paper:
A will insist on inviting B to dinner even if B has already explicitly expressed that A needs not do it. A Chinese will think that A’s act is not intrinsically impeding, but polite, and the A’s insistence on the B’s accepting the invitation serves as good evidence of A‘s sincerity.
However, people learn…
The cited research studied the traits of university students and it found that the sophomores whose major was English language were more ready to accept compliments.
Well… my major was English and I remember that first time when teacher told us that foreigners usually answer “Thank you” to such compliments like “Your dress is very nice” or “You look great” or even “You are amazing”, we just wowed. Anyway, as a good student, I wrote a memo in my notebook about the foreign habit to say “Thanks” in response to compliments… .
Before Olympic Games in Beijing there was a big campaign in media explaining how to talk with tourists. One of the items was teaching Chinese to accept compliments. Nowadays, lessons about giving and accepting compliments are quite common in syllabi of English speaking tour guides and other students who are supposed to communicate with foreigners.
In conclusion let’s return to Chinese girls and figure out the best way to compliment them.
It’s important to know that unlike English speakers – Chinese more often praise performance than appearance. Thus, it would be more polite to begin with neutral compliments about some achievement of the girl. One of the “safest” compliments with least chances of being rejected is praising the cooking.
Finally, I want to note that it is very easy to get used to good things.
So, once you begin saying sweet words – you can’t stop, ok?
Beautiful in someone’s eyes, Crystal Tao