Have your compliments been brushed away by Chinese people? Have you heard a lot “nǎlǐ nǎlǐ”(where where) or “mǎmǎhuhu” (horse horse tiger tiger)? You may draw the conclusion that Chinese people just don’t enjoy compliments. We do! We enjoy and welcome compliments as much as anybody. We just have different ways of accepting them. The reason is more cultural than psychological.
Chinese people are raised from the cradle to consider “modesty” one of the most important qualities ever to aspire to. Modesty in Chinese culture means never talking about yourself or yours in a positive way, or accepting compliments from others, without trying to “dilute” the compliment first. There’s an old saying goes “Modesty helps to make progress.”
Every Chinese kid is probably used to being put down by their parents in public. Whenever people compliment me, my mom would reject it. This really annoyed me as a child. A typical conversation would go on like the following.
Someone: “How come you get your daughter is so hardworking on her studies and does so well at the exams? She must be very smart.”
Mama: “That’s not true. You didn’t see her watch TV and sometimes she ended up second. But I heard your son is a good football player. It’s good to be good at sports.”
Someone: “This could be a problem too. Playing football will never guarantee you a satisfying job in the future.”
You may notice that to Chinese people lavish compliments on each other. It's best not to take it personally when a Chinese person deflects your compliment...even if it gets deflected repeatedly. Nowadays, due to the increasing number of foreigners in China and Chinese people going abroad, there’s an ongoing change among young people. Instead of “nǎlǐ nǎlǐ”, “mǎmǎhuhu” or “búshì (not true)”, young people prefer to say “thank you” in the western style. A good practice would be to compliment Chinese people on different things, such as their skills, appearance, possessions, successes, social titles, children etc, and then try to imitate their responses. Here comes a summary of ways deflecting compliments in Chinese.
How to Deal with Compliments
Receive the Compliment
你汉语说得很好。Nǐ hànyǔ shuō de hěn hǎo. (You speak Chinese very well)
谢谢。Xièxie. (Thank you)
你做的菜很好吃。Nǐ zuòde cài hěn hǎochī. (The food you made is very delicious.)
我从小就学做这道菜了。Wǒ cónɡxiǎo jiù xué zuò zhè dào cài le. (I learned how to cook it in my childhood)
你穿这件衣服真漂亮。Nǐ chuān zhèjiàn yīfu zhēn piàoliɑnɡ. (This coat looks great on you)
我找的裁缝特别有名。Wǒ zhǎode cáifenɡ tèbié yǒumínɡ. (I found a famous tailor)
Return the Compliment
你真漂亮！Nǐ zhēn piàoliɑnɡ. (You are really pretty)
你也很帅！Nǐ yě hěn shuài. (You are handsome too)
你篮球打得很好。Nǐ lánqiú dǎ de hěn hǎo. (You play basketball so well)
如果我再高一点就好了。Rúɡuǒ wǒ zài ɡāo yìdiǎn jiù hǎole. (If I were a little taller, that would be great)
你的发音很标准。Nǐde fāyīn hěn biāozhǔn. (Your pronunciation is very accurate)
是吗？我没注意到。Shìmɑ? Wǒ méi zhùyìdào. (Is it? I didn’t realize this)
你是一个很努力的学生。Nǐ shì yíɡè hěn nǔlì de xuéshenɡ. (You are a hardworking student)
哪里哪里。 / 马马虎虎。/ 你不知道我其实很爱玩儿。Nǎlǐ nǎlǐ. / Mǎmǎ huhu. / Nǐ bù zhīdào wǒ qíshí hěn ài wánér. (Not true. You don’t know that I often fool around as well)
There are many ways to make or deflect compliments in Chinese. What is more important is to try different ways with local people and find the most comfortable way that expresses the right amount of modesty.