Is there such a thing as too polite?

One of the first things I was told before I came here was that Chinese people accept compliments differently from Westerners.  In America, if someone pays us a compliment, we just say “Thank you.”  In Taiwan, you are supposed to refuse the compliment, and make some sort of deprecating comment about yourself.  For example, if someone tells you that you are very intelligent, you would say “Oh no, actually I am very stupid” or something of that nature. 

This is true.

The part where it gets more complicated is that I wasn’t told (and that no one will tell you, I had to figure it out myself) is that if they pay you the compliment again, after your refusal, you should accept it then, and just say thanks.  If not, you are viewed as being “too polite”…and therefore rude.  (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make any sense.  Welcome to Taiwan.)

I have run into this problem many, many times.  Usually, if I go into a small store or something, I will end up in a conversation with the clerk or owner, or possibly another customer, and at some point the conversation will turn out something like this:

Taiwanese Person: “噢! 你的國語說得那麼好!” (Oh, you speak Chinese so well!)

Me: “不,不,還不夠好!” (No, no, it’s not good enough yet!)

T: “可是真的很標準!” (But it’s very accurate!)

Me: “沒有,我還沒學完.” (No, I haven’t finished studying yet.)

T: “你太客氣了!” (You are too polite!)

The truth is, of course, that I really haven’t finished studying Chinese yet, and my spoken Chinese, while at an advanced level, still has a lot of problems.  Also, Taiwanese people have been telling me that I had great Chinese since about the second day I got here, at which point my Chinese consisted of, “你好!” (Hi!) and I couldn’t pronounce it correctly.  This sort of biases me against believing any Chinese person who compliments me about anything.

I can just see this scenario happening:

Taiwanese Person: “噢! 你的英文真的很棒!” (Oh, your English is really excellent!)

Me: “不,還不夠好!” (No, it’s not good enough.)

Taiwanese Person: *confused silence*


5 Responses to “Is there such a thing as too polite?”

  1. Goldberg Says:

    This is undoubtedly my favorite post so far. Furthermore it confirms my communication to you, which, while it is a quotation, is nonetheless appropriate to your situation. As things turn out, it is indeed crackers to slip a rozor the dropsy in snide.

  2. Sabrina Says:


  3. taiwanben Says:

    You are MAD, Goldberg…MAD, I tell you!

  4. iris Says:

    你太可氣了should be=你太“客”氣了!
    This could also mean that you are being too humble.

    Good blog, just thought i’d say hi! : )

  5. taiwanben Says:

    Iris, you’re right, and I changed it. Thanks! 🙂

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