As local talent pools increase and companies begin hiring management from their ranks, working within and understanding cultural divides becomes ever more critical. This month—Flattery is a part of life, for some it is phony, for others it’s just a part of life. Which are you?
Last month’s article generated unprecedented feedback, and also led to a number of questions seeking clarification. The most common responses, from both Chinese and expats, were in regards to the issue of what we might call insincere compliments—the tendency of Chinese to tell you your Mandarin or Cantonese is good the first time you say anything in Chinese, or how beautiful your country is, even though they have no way of knowing whether what they are saying is true.
Most Chinese readers responded with gratitude for pointing this out, in that they had been unaware that this was a problem, but were unsure why expats would respond so negatively to what they intend as behavior to indicate friendship. Many expats responded that this was one of their pet peeves, and they could not understand why Chinese so readily made such insincere compliments.
Let’s illustrate the problem by taking it out of Chinese culture, and putting it in a context of North American culture. One of the most common greetings in North America is the ubiquitous, “How are you?” Of course, this question generally indicates no interest whatsoever in how you are; and they are not, in fact, requesting a detailed exposition on your current physical and emotional status. Unless you are the most intimate of friends, you should simply reply, “I’m fine, thanks!” And perhaps add an equally polite but meaningless, “And what about you?”
Another humorous question in this category was several expat men asking me, “Why do Chinese men always tell me I’m handsome?”
For North Americans, this is normal, and understood. Nobody considers it insincere. But go to Europe, especially those countries where English is not a first language, and you’ll find many people who consider this an annoying and insincere expression. “Why are you asking me how I am, if you really don’t want to know?” In their cultures, asking someone how they are is indicative of a sincere desire to actually know how that person is doing.
You can simply look at those Chinese compliments as being pretty much the same thing. It is the Chinese way of saying hello, and expressing friendliness. It is not intended to have any more authentic meaning than the North American “How are you?” It should not be interpreted as insincere, or as trying to ‘butter you up.’
And how should you respond? By doing pretty much the same thing, by giving polite but meaningless compliments, such as, “Your English is quite good, too” (even if it isn’t), or “China is a beautiful country too.” You’ve now completed the ritual, and can move on.
Another humorous question in this category was several expat men asking me, “Why do Chinese men always tell me I’m handsome?” Most expat men have probably experienced this, but outside of the gay/bisexual community, it is not common for men to say things like this to each other. In fact, we generally don’t comment on physical appearance at all, unless flirting.
And that’s where the key difference lays. Generally speaking, in Western culture, when people comment on the appearance of a person they’ve just met, it is indicative of flirting, of some sort of physical or romantic attraction. It’s not something that one uses as a generic greeting.
In China, just like other kinds of compliments, it generally has little real meaning at all. The Chinese guy who tells a foreign man that he’s handsome doesn’t really mean anything by it at all, it’s just a way of greeting and showing friendliness (and sorry guys, but a lot of the Chinese girls who are telling you that you’re handsome don’t really mean anything by it, either!).
John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.
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