Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them?

(This post comes with a soundtrack; you can play it while you read! ;) )

C’mon baby, go ahead ‘n’ liiiie to me!

This is the unedited version of an expat magazine article about Chinese-American interpersonal miscommunication. It’s mostly to help new foreigners in Tianjin, especially Americans, deal with a common cross-cultural miscommunication problem.

It’s a little cheesy; just some basic Cross-Cultural Communication 101 kind of stuff in an area that routinely trips up American-Chinese communication (I’ve heard that Germans can be pretty bad about this particular problem, too).

To Lie or Not to Lie – that is (not necessarily) the question

Interpersonal communication ‘with Chinese characteristics’: A little understanding goes a long way when feelings get hurt by Chinese/Expat miscommunication

Cross-cultural conflict flashpoint: “honesty”
“Honesty” is a common miscommunication flashpoint between Mainlanders and Westerners – especially North Americans. Sometimes foreigners feel like their Chinese friends lie to them. They say they agree even when they don’t, and reply, “OK” even when they mean, “Not really.” Even if the foreigner later realizes that their Chinese friends didn’t intend to disrespect them, the foreigner might then feel like Chinese politeness requires lying. Chinese cultural expectations sometimes seem to demand a daily dose of “white lies” and multiple possible meanings to the word “yes.”

But things look different on the Chinese side. Our “undercover foreigner” friend confirms what the culture scholars are already telling us. She reports that one of the biggest complaints her Chinese friends have against their Western friends is that foreigners too often think that Chinese people lie to them. From their perspective, they’re communicating perfectly clearly and often being extra courteous. It’s frustrating and offensive when friends accuse you of lying, especially when you’re going out of your way to be nice!

In every culture there are genuine liars who disrespect and cheat others. Other than not be one yourself, there’s nothing you can do about this. But your Chinese friends probably don’t intend to deceive you any more than your other friends do. If it seems like they are, most likely you’re just reading them wrong. The problem is largely about conflicting culturally-conditioned communication styles, not dishonesty, and it plagues personal relationships, workplace discussions, and even international business negotiations. But you can understand “interpersonal communication with Chinese characteristics” and learn to use it without feeling personally compromised or overly suspicious toward your Chinese friends.

The “Meaning Beyond the Words” (言外之意): So, you’re saying “yes” really can mean “no”?
Every day we each “say” a lot without using words. Even when we do use words, nonverbal “statements” can be so powerful that the meanings conveyed by our posture, tone, facial expression, timing, or the context in which we’re speaking can sometimes completely override the literal meaning of our words. Sarcasm is one obvious example.

But different cultures don’t all rely on nonverbal signals to the same degree. Chinese typically express more of their meaning through nonverbal signals than Westerners do – especially Americans. We all make regular use of both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, but comparatively, Americans are more “tuned in” to the words; Chinese are more tuned in to nonverbal channels.

A style of communication that especially emphasizes nonverbal signals makes it easy to clearly communicate a meaning that is different or opposite of the words’ literal meaning. To Americans, who focus relatively more on the literal meaning and fail to “hear” many of the nonverbal cues, this can easily look like lying.

It often happens that when a Chinese person wants to communicate a certain meaning to their American friend, they take their intended message and express large portions of it through their tone of voice, delivery, posture, and timing of their words. The actual words themselves may be relatively understated and hinting. But their American friend notices the literal meaning of the words more than anything else. The American may also notice some of the nonverbal signals but he might not understand all of them, and he wouldn’t think they’re that important anyway. The American leaves thinking he’s understood his Chinese friend clearly, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s disappointed. His Chinese friend will probably act on the meaning he intended to communicate, much of which was determined by his nonverbal signals. But the American’s expectations were built mostly on the literal meaning of the words that were spoken. And when his Chinese friend doesn’t do what he “said” he would do, it looks an awful lot like lying to the American.

Is all this really necessary? You bet your face (面子) it is!
All this laborious subtlety can annoy Westerners. Why can’t Mainlanders just be blunt and “say what they mean”? They certainly have no problem being blunt when they’re using guān xÄ«n talk” (关心) and publicly commenting on how fat we are, asking about our personal finances, or telling us what we ought to wear, eat, or how to handle our kids!

First, it helps to remember that we all make regular use of nonverbals and subtlety, it’s just that Chinese people usually do it differently and do it more. Second, Chinese rely more heavily on nonverbals for a very big reason: it’s safer. In a social environment where concern for “face” (面子 / miàn zi) governs social interaction — one Chinese scholar calls “face” Chinese culture’s “social grammar” – blunt, direct talk is reckless. Indirect, implicit meanings are less potentially threatening to one another’s “face.” Of course, “face” is a concern that Americans neither understand nor care much about, but it’s an unavoidable characteristic of Chinese interaction.

Enough with the theory! Give me a real life example!
I was surprised one day when my Chinese teacher told me to “lie.” That week several people had pressured me for English tutoring, which usually involves asking for my phone number. This is common in Tianjin, where there are plenty of mothers willing to haggle a foreigner into some sort of English tutoring agreement. But I don’t want to just blow people off; often these are people I’ll continue to see regularly, like neighbours. Plus, I don’t blame them for taking a shot when they have the chance.

I asked my teacher how to refuse in a way that works – meaning they “get the message” and quit bugging me for English – but allows me to keep up a relationship with them.

My teacher suggested that making up a deliberately transparent excuse is better:

You can tell a ‘lie.’ Tell them that you’re in the middle of getting your phone number changed and you don’t have the new number yet.

I passed this suggestion by several locals and heard unanimous agreement. But in North America, that’s a lie – relatively harmless and obvious, but definitely a lie.

However, we’re not in North America. Does that make a difference in this case? What if everyone involved understands the words “my phone number is being switched at the moment” to actually mean “I don’t want to give you my phone number, but I also don’t want to create any bad feelings between us and I care enough about our relationship to protect your face in front of your coworkers”? The spoken words aren’t meant to be taken literally and they won’t be, but plenty of meaning is still accurately conveyed. The meaning isn’t in the words; it’s “beyond the words” (言外之意 / yán wài zhī yì).

They might not like that I refused, but they’ll see that I’m refusing in the nicest way possible. In fact, my teacher joked that if I tell this ‘lie,’ “…they might even think, ‘Wow, this foreigner really knows Chinese culture and how to be polite!’”

The experts’ advice
Learning to tune into our Chinese friends’ nonverbal cues will take time. Having a good friend who is patient with our lack of understanding and comfortable enough to be honest is invaluable. The following parallel advice from two Chinese cultural scholars* reflects the ideas I’ve written above.

Advice for foreigners interacting with Chinese:

  1. Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  2. Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and pauses.
  3. Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.

Advice for Chinese interacting with foreigners:

  1. Focus on what is said; try not to read too much into the words or be oversensitive to nonverbal nuances.
  2. Learn to accept what is said.
  3. Develop a belief that verbal messages and feedback are powerful and effective.

*From Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (1998) by Ge Gao and Stella W.C. Ting-Toomey, pp. 85-86.

22 thoughts on “Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them?”

  1. Man, that just sounds hard for both cultures to get. I’d be training to learn how to communicate in Chinese for the rest of my life. I’d wear a shirt every day that said, “I’m sorry for my nervious reverse communication body language.” in perinthesis it would say, “I’ve been dignosed with body language turrets.

  2. My assistant asked me something like “do you have experience with giiiiirls?!?” which in that situation meant in bed.

    I didn’t say anything and just overloaded her brain with big English sentences until she nodded.

  3. Interesting the use of the word “foreigner” as opposed to being “Chinese”. Isn’t being a “foreigner” a state of being, i.e. Chinese people are foreigners in the U.S? Perhaps “Westerner” vs. Chinese is better stated. Anyway, that’s not my point. A good fall back for foreigners unsure of the subtle communication is to push the point when in doubt. If something is said and you are not sure your Chinese counterpart is just being polite ask again once or twice. The person may crack and give a small hint of displeasure seeing that you are not getting it. That has happened to me many times when I push the point and the person gives me a small hint and I finally get it. Even Chinese people do the same thing amoung themselves “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat. Really? Really?”

  4. I’m using “foreigner” here in the way it’s usually defined in China, meaning: non-Chinese people, especially the white ones. I realize that’s not necessarily the best way to define it, but that’s the way we experience it in China and the way it exists in Chinese culture, so when talking about China, China gets to define the terms a bit. It’s how Mainlanders organize the world; it’s kind of scary actually that we Westerners just unconsciously adopt those categories when thinking, talking, or writing about China. See? They’re already taking over!!

    When I feel like being annoying, I’ll ask Chinese friends, “If you go to a America, are you a 老外?” Haven’t got a straight answer yet. But I’ve heard that in Chinatowns people sometimes still refer to the Westerners as 老外, even though technically it’s the Chinese immigrant who’s the foreigner.

    One of our Tianjin friends just came back from a year of teaching Chinese in the States. It was her first time to leave China, and she said she was surprised when people didn’t stare, point, and call her names. And this is a university-educated, married-to-a-老外 Mainlander.

    I’ve also heard of instances where someone’s English student will say something like, “We need to learn English curse words so when we go to America and strangers yell at us for being foreigner, we can yell back.”

    It’s natural and unavoidable for people to use their own culture as a template for thinking about other cultures, but unfortunately that’s just begging for misunderstanding.

  5. Yea, I know what you mean. I did the same thing when I came back from Asia then one day it dawned on me “Wait a second I am not a foreigner!” Whenever I say to Chinese people “Nǐ cài shì wàiguórén”, they act like it’s the funniest joke they have ever heard (guess it’s called Zhōngguó” for a reason). Regarding your friend expecting people to point and say things about her. I was so used to that in Asia when I moved to Barcelona I thought the same thing would surely happen (being a ‘foreigner’ again). And was shocked when I just blended right in. Of course in China/Taiwan people point, some rubber neck so much they nearly fall off their moto che’s, but generally, in my experience, not mean-spirited, just very very curious.

  6. yeah, I’d say over 90% of the special attention we get is not meant meanly, and most of it could probably even be considered within the realm of polite. “中国” – no kidding! They sure weren’t joking when they named the place.

  7. Nice piece. Here in Taiwan you do run into these miscommunications, but it’s far less common for me than in the mainland- not sure if that’s because I’m getting better at communicating, or Taiwanese were better to begin with from more contact with foreigners.

  8. Looking back at our one year in Taibei, which was our first year in a Chinese cultural context, I wonder about several particular situations and if this dynamic was at play. And definitely got a different general impression from Taibei than I do from Tianjin.

  9. I agree that deception is deception, and that there’s no shortage of deception in China. However, deliberate deception and misunderstood nonverbal communication are not the same thing. This post is about not mistaking the latter for the former — a common cross-cultural communication mistake.

    I also agree that Western nations are often overly tolerant in certain areas, to their/our own cultural detriment.

  10. Hi Joel and Jessica! I just found your blog and wish I had read this post a year ago. We’ve been working in Beijing for a year, and have been “a little” frustrated with the lies that our boss sometimes tells us… I think it will continue to annoy me, but at least I can now understand that she is in fact being polite.

    Maybe you can shed some light also on another pet frustration. People never seem to give us any information, or if they do, it will be a one-line email which leaves us guessing about its meaning. This happens both when we request information and when they are “volunteering information”. Any ideas of whether this is typical, and any ideas why?

  11. Hi, Anke!

    Thanks for reading; I hope it helps. In this post I mentioned non-verbal communication and “face” concerns as two factors that make it seem to Westerners that Chinese often lie. Those are two big ones, but there are others as well, especially when it concerns bosses/leaders, and the sharing of information. Chinese-style leadership and the relationship between boss and employee, both in practice and in its ideal, is quite different from Western style leadership. There are lots of reasons for this. Also, information often isn’t as freely shared here as we (Westerners) would like. There’re lots of reasons for this as well. I can’t go into them all here (maybe one day if I ever figure it all out!) but if you want an accessible, short intro to these issues, I’d recommend “The Chinese Have a Word For It” by Boyé Lafayette De Mente. It’s not perfect, but each chapter is only about two pages on a self-contained topic/aspect of Chinese culture. Several of them talk about how bosses treat their employees and how people handle information, and how these things conflict with typical Western expectations.

  12. Thanks for the recommendation! I am really intrigued by the book, especially after reading the comments on Amazon (which are not wholly positive, but people do seem to agree this book is insightful). I hope I’ll be able to get my hands on it soon. In the mean time, I’ll just keep reading your blog, which is great!

  13. Sorry, I feel like I’ve got to blow a whistle on this one. I’ve lived in Taiwan for eight years, and I am pretty sure that Chinese lie a lot. A helluva lot. And it is not simply “cultural misunderstanding”. The problem is that they go so far out of their way to lie. They make up all sorts of stories. I feel rather sure on this point, not merely because of my own experiences, but by watching my Chinese friends and acquaintances interact with each other. If it were merely a matter of culture, then they would know when they were merely being coy or indirect. But, I have watched them pull this number on each other, and time after time, they believe the other party.

    Another confirmation is in the fact that the Chinese are so suspicious of each other. This is precisely what some of the great Chinese writers of the May 4th Movement described and decried in their own writings. One writer went so far as to call the Chinese “cannibals” (in the figurative sense). Just read “Ah Q” or “The Ugly Chinaman”.

    I think you are doing foreigners a tremendous disservice by telling them that the failure is on their part. To get honesty from a particular Chinese person (in general), it takes years and years of hard work and boundless patience, and often it is limited to a burst of incoherent emotion.

    I do not blame the Chinese per se. They place such a high premium on selflessness and devotion to family, friends, and others that they have no choice but to put up and maintain a “face” to everyone. When they openly indulge their individuality, it often comes out in childish and reckless ways. In general, they are so confused about what is their genuine self and what is their face that I frankly doubt they know when they are lying half the time, especially the girls.

    As for what to do about it, don’t stay too long, or try to join in the dishonesty. You can avoid a lot of trouble in the short term, but in the end you always have to pay a price.

  14. John,
    I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that Chinese people lie (deliberately deceive) a lot (is there a society that doesn’t?). The big distinction I’m trying to draw here is between deliberate deception and cross-cultural miscommunication that looks like deliberate deception.

    I don’t care what culture you’re from or what your communication style is: deception is deception. Failing to read non-verbal cues that most everyone else can be expected to understand, however, does not equal being deceived. I think both happen a whole lot in China; this article was only addressing the latter. Given the dynamics of culture stress, the average expat’s lack of cultural understanding and language skill, and the fact that without a loyal Chinese friend/spouse there’s not much they can do about getting deceived if a local really wants to deceive them, I think I aimed the emphasis of this article in the right direction.

    That big China-friendly caveat out of the way — and I hesitate to admit this because it sets off all kinds of alarm bells from my training, which tells me to withhold judgment for much longer than our 2.5 years and that harshly negative judgments of one’s host culture are almost always highly coloured by lack of understanding and ethnocentrism (not to mention the personal issues of relationally dysfunctional expats!) — I totally feel where you’re coming from when you write that Chinese people seem to be exceptionally deceptive. There are a lot of cultural clues that seem to suggest that this is a low-trust society where deception is exceptionally rampant: the automatic suspiciousness and cynicism regarding others’ motives; the cold, callous, dehumanizing posture toward anyone who isn’t family or useful; face and form over truth and substance; the deep social scars left from communist social engineering disasters of the 50s and 60s and the Cultural Revolution; and (last but not least) critiques of traditional Chinese culture and society by the Chinese themselves (many of these things come out in our “Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics” series).

    Despite the ability to draw up a cultural equation that makes it look like the Chinese are the biggest liars on the planet, I just can’t buy that conclusion, even when I’m really annoyed and wanting to. Even if it were true, as a cultural outsider with piddling language skills I may never be in a position from which I could adequately make that judgment call. In the mean time, I want to try and be gracious with the people around me while not being blind to their behaviour (or blind to the cross-cultural stress factors skewing my perception).

  15. Hey, Joel,

    Sorry I didn’t get a chance to read your reply sooner. I appreciate your acknowledging that there are a lot of indicators that Chinese society is generally a low-trust society.

    I don’t think my impressions of the Chinese can be pinned to any conscious ethno-centrism, but I do believe that my own culture has inculcated a certain hierarchy of values that finds the behaviors and values of Chinese culture unacceptable. Certainly the Chinese disapprove of lying and deception–accusing enemies of being the most vicious lying thieves in history is par for the course and indicates disapproval. But, the prejudice against lying falls well below the value they attach to stability. But, never mind “lying”. Truth is not of great value in Chinese culture. The heroes of Western culture are constantly sacrificing themselves for “truth”, but Chinese heroes sacrifice themselves for sentiment and/or duty. There is no Achilles or Socrates or Jesus.

    But, to get back to the point I was responding to originally, I think it can be dangerous to tell foreigners that their lack of cultural sensitivity is causing them to believe that their Chinese hosts are lying to them and that they should therefore be more patient and sensitive. I have seen a lot of arrogant, oblivious expats roll through here, and so there is some validity to that kind of advice, but for me, every time I ignored the alarm bells ringing in my head because of my awareness that I am a guest and a novice to the culture, I was setting myself up for a world of hurt. People will take advantage of that.

    Expats should be patient and sensitive, but they should be cunning, too, if they want to survive. The other option is to be cheerfully oblivious. When you smile, the world smiles with you. But, depending on where you are, that smile might be a warning.

  16. There is an illusion about language circulating here. There is no language that means what it means independent of the context in which it is spoken or transmitted.

    Consider the story that North American indigenous peoples referred to the American colonists as speaking ‘with forked tongue’: meaning that they said one thing and meant/did something else. Presumably the people in question may have thought they were simply telling the truth, but the context of communication meant that that wasn’t how it was received.

    In Britain, if a boss says ‘wonderful! Now could you add the total receipts to the graph’ this could be high praise or bitter sarcasm: ‘foreigners’ have sometimes been caught out by this. In that sense, what has been said here about Chinese people (a nation of nearly 1.5bn people…) is surely true of everyone else too. What probably varies is the specifics of who will be trusted and in what settings.

  17. @Oliver:

    There is no language that means what it means independent of the context in which it is spoken or transmitted.

    Ok, but…

    In that sense, what has been said here about Chinese people (a nation of nearly 1.5bn people…) is surely true of everyone else too.

    …but not to the same degree and in the same ways. And that significant, often unrealized difference is where a lot of miscommunication happens. Of course context and nonverbals play a role in most communication — Euro-American sarcasm routinely flies over the head of international students and immigrants, for example. But the degree of reliance on context and nonverbal communication varies drastically between the West and China (esp. the U.S. and China).

    Traditional notions and value of “truth” vary greatly as well, and result in different socially acceptable/tolerated behaviour. See John’s complaint above (#18), or the latest post on “lying” in China, which unlike this one emphasizes outright deception rather than China’s high-context communication culture and relatively high reliance on nonverbals. There are also links and excepts from other posts (on other blogs) about this topic, which I found worthwhile: Lying, “Lying” and Mainland China

  18. there are some very honest Chinese people.
    But the in general it doesn’t concern them too much to lie about most thing.

    most common way is to omit completely a section of important information that has resulted in a task not getting done.

    call it “face value” or politeness or whatever makes you happy, but the bottom line is this. its a LIE!

    this is a lot more common on the mainland than in HK and Taiwan.

    there is that saying you can put a monkey in a suite but it is still a monkey…. if the cap fits wear it and don’t get defensive. just try to change and tell the truth!

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