Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #1: Compliments—Don’t Flatter Yourself

This is the first post of a series called “Cultural Conundrums.” Periodically I will post various cultural observations that Westerners might find interesting, humorous, or downright strange.

Anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time with Chinese people will notice that they are often very hospitable and warm toward others—especially toward foreigners. This takes many forms, but as someone studying Chinese I have found that it most often comes in the form of compliments.

“Your Chinese is amazing!”

“You speak very well!”

“You’re so fluent!”

But there’s a catch. Consider this recent experience to see what I mean:

I needed to buy a SIM card for my phone. So I went to the one place where I knew they sold them. It is a giant multi-story building that sells all sorts of electronics.

I made my way up to the top floor and stopped at one of the booths selling them. In retrospect, I should have reviewed some words that might be helpful to know…but I didn’t. Usually things work out.

LONG story short, I “spoke” with this lady for about 20 minutes trying to buy a SIM card. I say “spoke” because there really wasn’t any
communication happening. I questioned whether she was even speaking Chinese. I could barely even pick out one or two words.

She would give an explanation of some sort of phone plan, and I would tell her I didn’t understand. Then she would re-phrase everything.

“I still don’t understand.”


“I’m so sorry, do you mean _____?”

That’s not what she meant.

This went on and on. I had no clue. She pulled out a paper and did some pointing. I didn’t know the Chinese characters (symbols) she was pointing to. She ran to the other end of the store and grabbed another sheet. She did some more explaining. I still didn’t understand.

Eventually, I just pointed to a plan that wasn’t too expensive and said, “I want that one.” She explained a lot more and I just said, “OK,” not knowing what she said.

As soon as she left to get the card, I heard a voice in English right behind me:

“Your Chinese is so good!”

Apparently, a Chinese guy—about college-aged—arrived at the very end of our “conversation.” We spoke in English with each other for a few seconds, then he left.

I’ve learned by now just to gratefully accept any compliment, no matter how unreasonable or untrue it is. It’s also very common in Chinese culture to appear humble and play down compliments by saying things along the lines of, “Oh, I’m really not that good.” But then there ensues a sort of polite argument trying to determine if the complimentee is worthy enough of the compliment. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

And thus, my conclusion: Gratefully accept compliments from Chinese people, even if they stem from inadequate or faulty evidence—but don’t flatter yourself.

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