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Why Chinese Girls Don’t Accept Compliments?

Shy Chinese girlRecently 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… :razz:.

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

  • Erik

    There are other ways in which one can humbly accept, yet leave an implication of not agreeing with the compliment. You can reply with something like “Thank you, it’s very nice of you to say so,” which is polite and seems to accept, but also doesn’t quite accept the compliment. You can expand with a comment refuting your complimented attribute if you want to, or leave it as is.

  • Chris

    Whenever I compliment my girlfriend she usually just agrees with me, lol :shock: But, while teaching I did come across a lot of people who were prepared to give lots of compliments, but when it came to receiving them, the responses you listed above were the standard replies.

  • Crystal

    @Erik: There are many different ways of responding to compliments. I don’t think that any of them are right or wrong. The problem arises only if people misinterpret the other side because they expect for a different reaction. All I want is that foreign guys do not get frustrated or offended if Chinese girls hadn’t accepted their compliment in the way they hoped for.

    @Chris: You are already her special one ;-). Did she receive your compliments in the same way in the beginning of your relationship?

  • Brian

    I understand exactly what you mean Crystal it was the same way in the beginning with my girl, it gradually changed over time until she was comfortable accepting the compliments…but now she has no problem with it haha

  • Name (required)

    Not really true. Chinese girls do accept compliment, but only from Chinese guys not foreign guys.

    • China Shark Mike

      I don’t think they would trust the Chinese man complimenting them. Personally I think Chinese women as a whole are not very trusting when it comes to dealing with Chinese men. A couple of my exgirlfriends refused to even date Chinese men at all. Most would prefer staying single than have a Chinese boyfriend or future husband.

      • Crystal

        Any girl (or guy) would generally prefer to date someone of the same race, nationality and culture. Chinese girls are not exception.
        Thus, I would be careful to make such generalizations. ;-)

        • Mark

          I hope you appreciate the irony of warning about generalizations while making statements about every single girl (or guy).

          I’ve also encountered Chinese girls who don’t trust Chinese guys. No idea how big a group that is though, since it’s probable those girls talk to foreigners than other girls do.

  • Chris

    @Name (required) that sounds vaguely ridiculous to me. From my experience I wouldn’t just put this down to women or girls, but also to men as well. I would regularly give compliments to my male students about their English and they would try and detract the attention elsewhere by saying “No no no” or something similar. But then again, just like any country everybody is different. Some people love the compliments, hehe

    @Crystal, That’s true ;-) I think at the beginning of the relationship I was probably too shy to say too many compliments anyway (in fact I am the type of person who doesn’t take compliments too well, I will always reply with a “no that’s not true”), I can’t quite remember now…the years are flying by, lol.

  • TLB

    Thanks for another wonderful article Crystal, ni zhen liaobuqi!

    When I first met my fiancee, I remember she once asked “Why are you always praising me” which surprised me at that time. I think she has gotten used to it now and even likes it. :smile:

    However, as you suggest, the most important thing for a foreigner to understand is that the deflection — or even denial — of the compliment should not be taken as a rejection. In my culture (USA) giving a compliment is a kind of reaching out to someone, putting the complimenter in somewhat of a vulnerable position, so the compliment needs to be accepted — generally with a “thank you”. In addition to the acceptance, the compliment can also be deflected, as in “thanks, I really had a lot of help doing this” (say, in response to a compliment from a supervisor). This shows both graciousness (accepting) and modesty (deflecting).

    As has been mentioned, it’s interesting how the response to compliments changes as the relationship grows. Recently I told my fiancee she is a much better cook than I am, to which she responded “of course!”. :razz:

    Crystal, here’s another idea for an article from you, linked to the notion of politeness: the foreigners’ and Chinese use — and understanding — of the words “thank you.”

  • Crystal

    TLB, your Chinese is “liaobuqi” :smile:
    Will you say “Thank you” to my compliment?

  • Brian

    @TLB….similar story with me haha as our relationship grew and she has become use to the compliments she will return them with a little sarcastic comment like “of course I am” or something similar haha I find it cute and of course we are joking around with eachother, but I also feel good because it lets me know she is comfortable showing me her real self without thinking about how it is viewed by me. She knows I know the real her and that she doesn’t have to hide anything…just took time and trust

  • TLB

    Crystal, yes I will, thank you very much! But of course I’ve had good teachers, and we both know that your English is much better than my Chinese (catch the deflection? :grin: )

  • TLB

    Brian, good story. Though I’m still very much in learning mode myself, I’m sensing that for Chinese there is much more difference in behavior once one becomes an intimate friend. That is to say, in the USA I still would express gratitude for, say, my wife or girlfriend’s doing something for me (just as I would when we first met).

    I am learning that for a Chinese person, intimacy means the setting aside of much of that kind of talk — it’s not so much seen as an expression of gratitude as it is talk between people who don’t know each other well (hence the term “keqi” or “guest talk/attitude”) and is therefore not welcomed. For me (brought up with Southern manners) it’s a hard lesson to learn.

  • James Roberts

    Dear Crystal, ni hao (hope I pronounced that right)
    I appreciate all of your helpful articles, but this one raised another question.
    I took your advice and talked to my beloved about what presents I could bring her parents. She insisted that they are simple people and bringing gifts was not necessary. My question is…How do I know if this isn’t just a case of….(A will insist on inviting B to dinner even if B has already explicitly expressed that A needs not do it.) :?: She has told me that her parents already like me because I make her happy, and if she is happy they are happy.
    Should I show up empty handed? maybe let her father take me to his barber for a haircut? or just spend the money on my beloved, and make sure she is happy?
    My trip is coming up fast and I find myself both excited and nervous. Thanks a very xie xie James

  • Thomas J.

    I will jump in and say my thought and then Crystal can also share her ideas. If your girl is a typical sincere, modest Chinese woman, then she won’t demand that you bring gifts. Very similar to the issue of deflecting compliments. Of course your girl loves to hear compliments, but she has been raised to be modest. Even if she says to not bring gifts, it is in your best interest to bring something for them. One way to determine the best gift is to indirectly ask your girl more questions about her parents, and through this you can get some good ideas. Also keep in mind that you probably won’t have a lot of space in your luggage, so smaller gifts are better. Crystal has mentioned about cigarettes before for her father (if he does smoke). One thing I have noticed is that the duty-free shops are cheaper for American brands than buying them here. I took a carton last time and then realized at Pudong airport that I could have waited and bought almost three! But these are things you will learn with experience. The short version: no matter what, take some token gifts. Good luck!! ;-)

  • Crystal

    I totally agree with Thomas.
    The girl and her family will be definitely happy if you bring some souvenirs.
    In fact, it doesn’t have to be something expensive.

    And… since you were the first to mention your haircut ;-) – then I would bet with probability of 99%, that making a shorter haircut will be appreciated by your girlfriend’s family.

  • James Roberts

    @ Thomas-First I’d like to say Thanks Thomas on the great article! It is nice to get your perspective, seeing as how you have been through this. Now for the bad news-Her father was a banker throughout his career and does not smoke. When I asked what he enjoys doing I was told he likes walking and watching T.V. When I asked about his hobbies I was simply told “no”.
    Now on the other hand her mother is a Doctor, unfortunately her Mother is a Doctor of gynecology -so gifts relating to that field are out. :shock: :shock: :shock: I really don’t want to show up empty handed, but I don’t want to show up carrying a big screen T.V. and a box of latex gloves either :lol: I am still stumped if you have any ideas they will surely be appreciated Thanks James

  • James Roberts

    @Crystal Dear Crystal Thank you for your blog, it is so wonderful of you to help total strangers-I know it has to be time consuming. We all Thank You!!
    You had wrote “Then I would bet with probability of 99%, that making a shorter haircut will be appreciated by your girlfriend’s family.” What only 99% sure? Then I had a :idea: My gifts will include a pair of scissors and a pair of umbrellas(As my chopstick usage is not so good either)
    Thanks James

  • Crystal

    Mmm… if you haven’t yet decided what to take, you can try a nice pen or wallet for her dad; and a purse or bag for her mom.
    Those are just general ideas: anything nice and not too extravagant would be OK.

  • Thomas J.

    Just more of my opinions:
    If your girl is happy with your hair, then you don’t need to cut it, but to be honest, longer hair in men is not normal by Chinese standards. Her parents may have real issues with this, but the main thing is that you are both happy. It is a balance. I guess as Americans we love our individuality and express ourselves as we wish, but keep in mind that your girl might want to “groom” you…this is not an indication of her displeasure…just another way that Chinese women show love.

    As far as gifts, Crystal is right, keep it small. Something that might be good would be a Leatherman multi-tool. Actually a Gerber would be better, since many Chinese think that German products are superior to American (this is evident in the cars you will see…no Chevy’s but plenty of Audi alongside the little Chinese made cars). Ultimately, as long as the gift is a genuine gesture, they will appreciate your effort. Good luck!

  • TLB

    JR I agree with the others that you should press the point a bit and not show up empty-handed. Keep in mind that the gifts should not be expensive; you might also ask your girl to help you find some gifts after you arrive (if you’ll have time before meeting the folks).

  • James Roberts

    Thank you Crystal, Thomas, and TLB-I find it amazing the people who write and follow this blog are soooo :grin: friendly! The advice on the gifts is truly appreciated, and you might be happy to hear my hair appointment is for Thursday 1:00pm :shock: and just “to pay it forward” for your help -The hair is going to be donated to cancer patients for wigs. I will post a new picture after Thursday ….just to see how friendly you really are. So no :lol:
    Thank you All!!! James

  • rolfen

    Maybe something to do with experience, like they got other guys before so they heard these already and they don’t like hearing them again, especially from someone else then their “first guy”. Chinese girls like flowers, just do that. Forget the rest (compliments, etc…), it is dangerous.
    Good luck.

  • Crystal

    @James: looking forward for your new hair-style :cool:

    @rolfen: maybe the post’s title is misleading, but deflecting compliments is characteristic both to Chinese men and women

  • James Roberts

    Hi Crystal, Is that laughing I hear? A promise is a promise-I just hope my love still wants me-I am enclosing her picture—–> :shock:

  • Crystal

    I couldn’t help laughing – the picture is so funny :lol: And I am very happy for you. Hopefully you will have very good time in China. Good luck to you, James!

  • TLB

    WHO STOLE JAMES????? :razz:

  • Hans Engnell

    This is actually a pretty common behavior in Sweden (my country) as well. Swedes are generally rather shy and are tought not to pretend they’re better than anyone else. Big compliments are therefore often a bit embarrassing, not from your loved one, but from the boss at work, from friends and especially from foreigners. This is beginning to change among younger people, but older people would often not accept a compliment with a “thank you” but reply that “this was nothing much”. :smile:

  • Niles

    That happened to me in Beijing in 2008. There was a nice girl in the Olympic Village, responsible for our team. I liked her and after doing some small-talk, I decided to make a sincere compliment, took all my courage and said , “I like you, because you are such a good student…and…you are a pretty girl”. I swear, I will never forget what happened then.

    Girl : “…no,no,no, that’s not true”
    me : “it is true, you are a good student. you speak so fluently”
    Girl : “uhh, ohh (starring down)…giggling…ehh..”

    At first I was confused but after a few seconds I realised that it must have been a typical chinese reaction and left it for good. God bless, that I did not mention her beauty twice

  • Crystal

    Mmm… did the story have any continuation?

  • Niles

    Dear Crystal, thanks for reading my comment

    Well, since I was polite and gentle and not playing tricks, she gave me her number.

    When we left the Beijing-Terminal heading towards Europe I felt sad, because I was so deeply hooked by that country, its beauty, its people. I sensed that the whole country was moving into another time.
    What took 300 years in Europe, will take one-tenth in China.

  • Mike_In_Zhengzhou

    You know, its kind of mind numbing.

    Being complimented onanything really. Sometimes, if you’re truly good at something, you should stand up and accept the compliment. Sometimes it is quite necessary to both give or recieve credit where credit is due.

  • China Shark Mike

    It’s par for the course to be humble in China. Do not really know too many Chinese that aren’t apprehensive about receiving compliments. As a whole Asiatic cultures tend to be more humble than their western counterparts. One of the few I’ve met that was not like this was an exgirlfriend who was Chinese but was educated in Europe, hence the conditioning was that of a European and not like a traditional Chinese woman.

  • Patrick

    Hi, there is this beautiful Chinese girl working at the shop down the street, I understand the shop is owned by her brother. I told her that she is very beautiful and she just laughed. She only understand a few words of English. I needto get this girl to understand that I like her a lot. Is there any gift that I can get her that will get the message through. Please help

  • Jose

    With Chris, the second response on this. First time I told my girl she was attractive, I got this indignant….. “Yes, I know…..”. Acted like she was quite bored hearing this. And that, of course, made her just all the more attractive.

  • Teresa

    I am would like to send a Christmas gift to my employee in China as a token of appreciation for her excellent work for me during the past year. Sadly, I have never had the opportunity to meet her in person. I also would like to send her daughter (11 yrs old) a small gift as well. Would this be a good idea? If so, does anyone have ideas as to what an appropriate gift might be? What would be a cool thing to send? Thanks for any input.

    • Crystal

      First of all I am sure that your employee will be very surprised and excited to get a gift from you.

      To start from the gift to a girl, you can send some cute doll or Santa Claus. Just make sure that it doesn’t have the label “Made in China” :lol:

      As for employee herself why not to send a postcard with personal greeting and enclose the red envelope with some little money (just make sure that the amount consists of LUCKY numbers!)

  • Teresa

    Thank you for the ideas, Crystal. I appreciate the prompt response and will definitely proceed. My best to you!

  • Rich

    When meeting a Chinese woman online, she asks for a “gift” She says it is a “Chinese custom”. I always believed it is a Chinese custom to give a gift when you meet someone in person. Should I wait until I see her in person?

  • Michael Hansson

    ‘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”’

    This is just amazing! This kind of things would seen as being a weak person in the western society!

    There is one rule I always follow, never sell yourself short. If I’m terrible at say singing, I would never tell anyone ‘I’m a terrible singer’ I would just focus on selling my ‘good’ attributes!

    I’m Swedish and usually Swedes are very humble and modest, however I’m not.