Modesty and Honesty

I had a full weekend, and I’m feeling a bit lazy. So rather than write about one of the new topics bouncing around in my head, I’ll make a sequel to my last entry, which generated an absolute fury of comments. I’m thinking that there may be so many at this point that some people don’t want to read any new ones.

So this entry consists mainly of a comment by Wayne (the original inspiration for the last entry):

John, you neglected to mention that we were also talking about ‘false modesty.’

The Chinese laugh at the concept of ‘false modesty.’

Here is some more food for thought.

Suppose Garry Kasparov (the great Chess champion) walks into the room and a journalist asks him, “Garry, are you a talented chess player?”

And Garry responds, “I am so-so.”

Question: Did Garry just lie?

It is quite obvious that Garry’s chess ability is better than ‘so-so.’ He is in fact not telling the truth because his ability is far beyong ‘so-so.’ Therefore, it is fair to declare Garry a liar, i.e. he is not telling the truth.

However, most Chinese would think it is absurd to say that Garry is lying because being modest exempts one from lying!

Hmmm, I guess the question here is: did the journalist honestly not know how good Garry was, and if not, did Garry know (or suspect) this? That would make the difference between an intent to deceive and polite modesty.

On the subject of modesty, I find Chinese modesty tiring. I know that it’s an important part of their culture, so I do my best to adopt it. But I feel so fake deflecting compliments with formulaic responses every time when I’d rather just smile and say thank you.

Some Chinese people would probably argue that it’s perfectly fine for me to just say thank you, that nowadays some Chinese people do that. But I feel like it’s not the norm, and I don’t want to just play my foreigner card; I’d like to handle these social situations the Chinese way when possible.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I don’t think the false modesty thing is limited to Chinese people; I do it too, and know plenty of other non-sinologue whiteys who self-deprecate upon receiving compliments. Not that I never just say “thanks” — but the Chinese way of doing it doesn’t strike me as all that awkward.

    The protocol for giving and receiving gifts, on the other hand, is incredibly tiresome.

  2. Chess players are known to boast with absolute self-confidence to “psych out” competitors and never admit to be second best. So I find it a bit odd that Garry would want to be quoted that way.

    On the other hand, the comparison between Chinese and Western views on false modesty sure is an interesting topic.

    I was told the following story not long after my first arrival in the US and I have continued to observe evidence to support this.

    Two friends, one American and the other Chinese, were asked which one of them could fix a lawn mower (substitute any minor job here). The American would beam confidence: “Hey, no problem, I’ve done it many times and I can get it running in no time.” The Chinese would beam modesty (if modesty can be beamed): “I can give it a try but I am not that experienced, I mean I’m not very good.” Thus our American cowboy got the job first. He fiddled with the machine this way and that for a while and fell flat on his face. The Chinese came up and fiddled with the machine for a longer while and got it fixed. His American friend went: “You lying SOB, why didn’t you say you could do it? You had to use your goddamn Chinese brand false modesty to lower expectations and embarrass the hell ot of me?”

    Question: who lied?

    I should disclaim here that this contrast is not to be generalized to every American or every Chinese, but statistically speaking the contrast between the two cultures seems to hold. Often confidence gets one the job and modesty loses one the interview, but there are exceptions. One American cowboy by the name of George W Bush is said to be particularly good at playing lowered expectations to his advantage.

  3. Believe it or not, I sometimes type “beyong” when I mean “beyond”. Seems I’m not alone. 🙂

  4. It’s interesting that you are discussing this topic. When I was growing up in China, I had always had a hard time responding to other’s compliments. It made me feel good and proud, and I knew I welcomed it. But I had to be “modest” and “correct” others that I was not that good. And I hated it when my parents said I was not “as good” as others in this and that, especially when they said “look at so and so’s kid…”. This “putting down” business made me feel hurt. Deep down, I knew I WAS worth of every single compliment I got, and I wanted more.

    At the time I did not know that one could just say “thank you” and accept all the compliments in other parts of the world. I was taught to be modest, learn from the weakness to achieve higher, rather than ride on the wave of accomplishment and reach new high. There will always be someone better than you, and you have to learn to accept that and be humble. That’s how you can learn from others and improve yourself. To a certain extent, there is truth and value in that. But I was never able to accept the “modesty” part, and being totally “humble”. To my parents and lots of people in my years before I came to the States, I was always too over-confident. Well, I was never obnoxious though.

    After coming to the States, I was happy to realize that I could actually accept compliments rather than “rejecting” them. To my surprises, i am still considered “modest” about myself here. And I have have been upset with other people’s over-achieving qualifications of themselves on their resumes and records (including my fellow Chinese). It seemed all of a sudden lots of the Chinese people suddenly became SOOOO good at what they do and are not ashamed of over-selling themselves.

    This is a complicated issue. Being modest to me does not mean you have to under-represent yourself. And it certainly does not mean you have to say “oh, I’m not as good as you said I am”. To me, the important thing is to be objective about oneself. Know how good you really are, and not over-stating it, and definitely not under-stating it. The American way some times is too much.

    The things is, there is a fine line between being “modest”, being “honest”, and being “over-selling”. Everone has a ruler in him to evaluate things. It’s up to this person how high or how low his own standard is. If he sets standard toohigh, then he is more than likely in trouble for under-stating himself. If the standard is low, then over-selling is hard to oviod. It’s hard to be objective about oneself.

    It’s not entirely about truth or lie. Maybe in that person’s mind/by his standards, he really WAS not that good, or that bad. When we hear it, we put them through our own evaluation system to percieve if he was being modest, or falsely modest, or over-selling. The standards may very well be quite different. And one’s intention may very well be wrongly taken.

    It’s not comfortable to see someone under-estimate himself, but it’s even harder to see someone over-stating himself. A lot of the Americans tends to dothe later. But again, it’s probably a cultural thing. Kids are brought up being praised for every effort they made, and for their effort. Yes, it boosts their confidence, but at the same time, it also make them more easily to over-estimate themselves.

    Being modest and being confident is a balance. Tipped toward either one, you will have an un-true representation of yourself. But this balance is hard to achieve right, really hard to maintain all the time.

  5. Nice comment Alice! I think one thing I notice having spent time in China and with Chinese in NZ is that the false modesty thing wears off pretty quickly once they leave China. I have proof read so many CVs and cover letters for Chinese, and many times I’ve had to ask them if I can change them. Who wants to hire someone who thinks they know everything and can’t learn??

    I guess you just start to ‘read’ what people really mean. I used to get so embarassed in China because people constantly commented about my looks (a real no-no in NZ, for someone you don’t know anyway — basically means you think a woman has no personality/brain). Because I’d never had to ever deal with people commenting like that before, I felt really embarassed and managed to pull of the modesty thing quite well (although it wasn’t false…). Generally I just gave a tongue-in-cheek “Nali, Nali, Nin guojiang le!” (Which was invariably followed by “Wow, you’re Chinese is so good!” can’t win).

    What I was actually going to comment about was a tv programme I saw (here in NZ), where an expert educator had ‘genius-making’ classes for expanding kids brain power. Mostly it involved group chanting of “I am a star” “I am like Einstein” “I am good at singing” and so on. My first thought was, Oh My goodness, what if you had a whole class of kids who thought they were stars, a whole generation? Everyone thinks they are number One and then imagine the conflict! It’s bad enough when you have one or two people in a group… (and people who think they can sing but can’t???)

    I definitely think modesty and a humble (humility to me also involves truth) appreciation of yourself are good, and its probably better to err on the side of modesty than overreach yourself as ‘a star’.

  6. Tell him the stardard bar when you ask someone what do you think of himself. I do not think he is a liar, to him, the stardard bar might be very high, that might be the reason why he is better than others. Just so-so is compared to that high bar.

    Some chinese do tend to be modest to avoid unneccesary jealousness among those who have same values in life. Imagine 100 people around you value high grads as good, and you got it, they can be so jealous and just want to isolate you to feel better of themselves. Can you handle that?

  7. Yknow, in my English-speaking cultures class these past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing education, primarily in the U.S. (what I know personally and best). We recently discussed the differences in college applications – namely, the difference in emphasis on exams (the U.S. has no national examination system, only the SAT which is administered by the private company ETS, and some major universities no longer even require the SAT) and college essays and interviews. I was think about how in the essay and interviews, you basically have to sell yourself, and whether that self-promotion would be difficult for Chinese students. Next week I’m going to go over some essay questions and samples, and maybe give them one to write for homework. Will their modesty make their essays less compelling or too rhetorical?

  8. In some cases, false modesty is a pretext for laziness. People say, “Oh my English is so poor” in order to avoid being called out in class. Perhaps in Gin’s story, the Chinese guy just didn’t want to be bothered to fix the lawnmower. (Or perhaps he didn’t want to risk losing face by trying and failing to repair the lawnmower.)

    I don’t think you have to go overboard on the false modesty to fit in. I typically use a simple ÄăºÓÐ? and change the subject. But maybe I’m gravely offending everyone.

  9. Or perhaps he didn’t want to risk losing face by trying and failing to repair the lawnmower.

    Wayne, I think you got it, though some would say it just out of habit (cultural training as Alice has described).

    My wife has a way to deal with compliments in both cultures. She gives a mere, sweet smile. However, sometimes an American would object to that by an “I mean it.” Maybe in China it does not work all the time either, where if you don’t repudiate a compliment you might get a “¿´°ÑËýÃÀµÄ(kan ba ta mei de, look how smug that got her)” on your back.

  10. My basic point:

    A mediocre piano player who claims to be a fantastic piano player is a liar.

    A fantastic piano player who claims to be a mediocre piano player is not a liar.

    What is the difference? One is overstating their ability and the other is understating their ability.

    Why should one be deemed a liar and the other not a liar?? There seems to be an inconsistency of logic here.

    You make the call…..

  11. Ending my lawnmower fixer story I posted a semi-rhetorical question: who lied. My own answer would be that both lied. At the same time both told the truth, too, because it was in a speculative statement and the opposite (the American fixing the mower) could have resulted.

    It can be argued that overstating (one’s ability) could be more harmful, but understating , too, could cause damages (for starters, the potential employer loses almost equally).

    The cultural divide in this modesty issue is very real. American kids are taught “confidence will get you places.” Chinese kids, at least my generation, were taught “modesty will get you places.” I am saying both people follow their respective cultural training. Alice and Kaili described Chinese students overblowing their resumes, is it a reflective rebellion against their own cultural training, passive dirty trick for survival, or something else? Read on for that something else.

    Both Chinese and Western cultures also teach their kids “honesty will get you places.” Do each of us follow it?

    The cultural divide in handling of compliments is also very real. There it is best (avoids misunderstanding) to try follow (or mimic) the local conventions, instead of your own habit.

  12. This is not the most intellectual comment you have received, but I still want to share it with you. The other day my boyfriend and I were eating at Mc Donald¡¯s (GASP! American’s in Mc Donald¡¯s.. sorry! We are guilty. We are everything that is wrong with our country!) when we were approached by one of the employees. He had a very basic conversation in Chinese with my boyfriend and then in English he said, “Your Chinese is very good.” My boyfriend responded back, but in Chinese, with “Oh no, I can only speak Chinese a little bit.” Needless to say the Mc Donald’s employee was shocked. He then refuted with “You aren’t supposed to say that. It is your culture to say ‘Thank You’!” It was as if we ruined his foreigner experience or something.

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