China’s Social Institution of the Polite Lie
Recently I was reminded of something I learned ten years ago, while studying in Beijing. It was a month ago, and I was walking into a restaurant in Chengdu, around closing time, with a group of my wife’s friends. It was nearly 9pm and most of the staff were eating their shift meal or clearing tables, waiting for the last diners to finish. I asked a waiter if we could get some food and he responded apologetically that they were closing. Knowing that our dinner options were dwindling, I pleaded our case, asking that they seat us. To deflect my request the waiter said, ‘sorry, we are out of gas’. I knew it was a lie, but I did not take it personally.
It brought to mind the director of my study abroad program in Beijing, who had introduced me to what she dubbed “the social institution of the polite lie.” The polite lie is a lie that a stranger tells a stranger to avoid the discomfort of being direct. She told a story of trying to catch a ride from a cab driver that was playing a game of cards on the street. “I would take you,” he said, but my car is out of gas. She could see that he was playing cards and did not want to leave his game. She could also see the dashboard of his car, and she pointed out that he did in fact have gas in his car. “That gauge is broken,” the driver retorted without looking up from his game.
This phenomenon seemed to pop up frequently after it had been pointed out to me. On one occasion I ran into a group of friends eating at a restaurant. I sat down at a table beside them, not intending to eat. As we chatted, a waiter approached and asked what I wanted to order. “I’ve already eaten, but I would like some tea,” I said. “Sorry, we are out of tea”, the waiter said casually and walked away. I was stunned by the slap of the lie; I felt a mixture of confusion and insult. I see now the waiter was just too busy to serve me. I was announcing that I was not going to be a paying customer, and he was announcing that he was not going to be giving me complimentary tea.
Though it seemed interesting from an anthropological perspective, the polite lie always bugged me. I love China, and this niggling social convention felt like the most disingenuous part of it.
One frustrating encounter happened last year near my apartment. A new toy store had opened at the corner, and I wandered in to peruse their wares, idly chatting with the cashier as I fondled a magnetic floating globe. “So you guys just opened,” I asked. “We’re open every day from morning till night,” she responded. “No, I mean this location,” I clarified, “you just opened this store.” “No, we’ve been here for a few years, you probably just didn’t notice,” she replied matter-of-factly. I was infuriated by her suggestion that the opening of a new toy store near my house could have gone unnoticed by me for so long. I was instantly fuming, and then instantly amused at myself for taking offense at the remark. But I still couldn’t understand why this woman would want to dupe me over something so inconsequential. There had to be a functional purpose for this evasive rhetorical device.
Then it suddenly dawned on me. She wasn’t trying to trick me, she was trying to cover up her own unfamiliarity with the business. I knew the store had just opened – I had seen it under construction – she must have just been hired. Maybe she didn’t even know the store’s history. “How long have you been working here,” I asked. Her face reddened, and she acknowledged that it was her first day.
I brought up the polite lie with an expat friend of mine, another long-time Chengdu resident, and he mentioned that he had often encountered the polite lie with his Chinese friends, though not as its recipient. He told me:
My Chinese friends would invite me to go do something, and I would tell them, ‘sorry, I can’t, I have to watch my kids.’ And that was the truth. And my Chinese friends would say ‘Okay, okay, okay, its okay, I understand. No problem.’ And I could hear in their voice that they thought I was just making up an excuse.
The Chinese friends assumed they were being told a polite lie, happy to accept it. Social pleasantries utilize coded language, and if you are attuned to detect it, the polite lie is not so much an affront, as a form of indirect communication.
There is no question that face plays a role in the perpetuation of the polite lie as a social convention. Rejecting someone outright can cause them to lose face, and a polite lie allows you to avoid that by fabricating an excuse. It is in some ways a gesture of respect, demonstrating a desire to avoid contradicting the other person. A polite lie can be a lifeline, allowing you to deflect the wrath of a social superior. In that way, I can imagine how these micro-doses of mistruth function as a kind of social lubricant, diffusing status conflicts, maintaining norms, and preventing the loss of face.
So when I was recently hit with the explanation that the restaurant was out of gas, I was neither insulted nor dissuaded. Most restaurants in China close pretty early by Western standards, and I had been welcomed and denied by wait staff in similar situations in the past. So while I knew we might not be served, I also knew that the possibility was negotiable.
If you want to overturn a polite lie, directly confronting it is not advisable, since the lie was concocted with the courteous intention to avoid confrontation. The way to diplomatically counter such a lie is to build upon the provided scenario, to give the other person an option to reverse their stance without losing face. You give them a step down (一个台阶下 ) as they say in Chinese, a way to yield without embarrassment.
A Chinese friend repeated the staff’s message for me, “They said they are out of gas. We should go.” I ignored her. “Maybe you have enough gas for just few more dishes?” I said to the waiter. “We have aaaaaall these people – I gestured to our group – I don’t want them to be hungry.” Perhaps sensing oncoming hassle, the staff relented and ushered us upstairs.
Avoidance of hassle can be a key motive for the polite lie. A Dutch friend, newly arrived in Chengdu, asked me to help him find a tailor who could execute some fashions designs that he had. His ideas were pretty straightforward, and he was frustrated that every tailor he visited had told him, “We can’t do that” – it should have been a snap
for any experienced tailor, he reasoned. I explained to him that the reason he was being given was probably not the whole story. When the tailors told him “we can’t do that,” they were really saying, “you look like a big hassle, and I don’t want to deal with you.” They were excusing themselves from the interaction before it even began.
One of the most confounding things about the polite lie is that it is deployed when it seems unnecessary. The lies of the tailors did not even register as lies to my friend – after all, why would anyone even bother lying about something like that? Why do I even care how long a toy store has been open? I can cope with the harsh truth if you just don’t feel like keeping the restaurant open for me. There is part of me that refuses to accept that casually lying to a stranger can be anything other than socially harmful. But then I catch a whiff of my own ethno-centrism.
I remember a Chinese friend who refused to accept my (heartfelt) assertion that an American friend and I graphically joking about each other’s mothers was anything other than disgracefully insulting. The more I joked about my American friend’s mother, the angrier the Chinese friend became, and the funnier it became to me, exacerbating the situation. To me, the suggestion that my American friend could possibly be offended by such remarks was absurd. After all, I would not dare to insult the mother of anyone but my dearest friends. To me, the mother jokes were an expression of fraternity.
If I can embrace the idea of an insult as a form of endearment, I should be able to accept the possibility of a lie as a form of courtesy. Whether it boils down to the interpretation of an insult, or the interpretation of truth, context is the ultimate arbiter of meaning.
I brushed up against the soul of the matter again this past weekend. I had called my water store to order three new jugs of drinking water, and typical of their recent service, an hour and a half had passed without the water being delivered. I called the water dispatch center, irate about the delay. “This happens all of the time,” I said. “ALL-THE-TIME. Every time.” I was verging on belligerent. “The delivery guy was eating lunch,” the voice on the other end of the line shot back reflexively. Was he really at lunch, I wondered. It was around lunchtime. It was impossible to know. Either way, the real reason for the delay was more complicated.
One factor, I learned later, was that the dispatch center number I had been calling was no longer technically correct. The branch was still operational, but it had been supplanted by a newer, closer branch, which was now responsible for delivering to my section of the complex. The old branch was still obliged to field my call, because I had pre-purchased water coupons from them, but now I was out of their delivery zone. The slow delivery time was the result of my order being relayed from one dispatch center to the next, getting de-prioritized along the way.
The water delivery guy explained this all to me, when he finally arrived with my jugs. I could understand why the woman from the old branch would have elided over these details on the phone. It probably seemed a lot simpler to tell me that the delivery guy was eating lunch, than to explain the politics of delivery zone redistricting to an angry foreigner. The efficiency the polite lie must have been alluring – how quickly it could staunch my stream of complaints, how cleanly it could end the phone call.
I am averse to social conventions that perpetuate euphemistic language, so at the end of the day, even after giving consideration to its practical function and cultural context, it is still hard for me to see the polite lie as anything other than a kind of linguistic pathogen. It dilutes communication, and it normalizes a social dynamic in which two people are not always comfortable being completely honest with one another.
But there is an important lesson that I take away from the experience. If I dislike an element of local culture, I should make sure that I dislike it for what it really is, and not what I imagine it to be. In practice, local meaning trumps the pseudo-objective perspective of outsider like myself.
Among denizens of any locale there is a shared familiarity with the contours of social discourse. Language is a map of our collective cognitive landscape, and the polite lie is just one thoroughfare of communication that we navigate to reach one another’s intended meaning. I doubt that the polite lie is unique to China, but it was certainly alien to my upbringing. That makes it anathema to me, but for many others, the idea of a “friendly” insult to someone’s mother is no doubt equally unfathomable. If the people who traffic in the polite lie do not feel deceived, that should factor into how I view the phenomenon.
The polite lie is not evidence of moral failure, or a predisposition for deception, or a culture of untrustworthiness… it is just an anachronistic piece of social etiquette that rubs me the wrong way. A lie is a lie, except when it doesn’t feel like one. A punch in the face is assault, except when it happens in a boxing ring.