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.

Cards in the streetIt 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.

Telling liesThe 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.

PinocchioOne 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.

Chinese boxingThe 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.

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About Eli

Eli is an Atlanta native who has lived in Chengdu for 8 years. He works in the logistics industry.

25 Responses to “China’s Social Institution of the Polite Lie”

  1. I have so many stories of this happening, many very similar to the ones that you tell in this article about the taxi driver and the restaurant. In those cases I have a difficult time understanding why they would do that – the lie seems to unnecessary and their will to not do what I ask isn’t unreasonable.

    One of my most memorable experiences of this was in Sanya at the airport. I was standing in line for a taxi and people were constantly cutting in line. I kept my mouth shut and waited for what felt like an eternity and when I got to the front of the line, an old lady cut in front of me. I told her that she couldn’t cut in front of me and she acted oblivious. I told her that I’ve been seeing people cut in line all night, I knew that cutting in line happens all the time in China, but that I wasn’t going to allow her to cut in front of me. I’ll never forget her response: “We Chinese people never cut in line – we love nothing more than waiting in line!”

    This is something that Troy Parfitt spoke about at length in his book, Why China Will Never Rule the World. Not just the polite lie, but making an argument by stating things in the exact opposite terms of how they really are.

    Great post, Eli.

  2. Killed it, nothing more to say. I routinely call out the polite lies and hold them up to the light. I laugh though, and everyone laughs with me, because I truly find it amusing. Chinese are well aware of the bulls it and call each other out constantly. Checking lies improves the lie, kinda like great mama insults ups the game.

  3. Ray

    ha ha when i had my dreads here i’d often get comments. remember walking home one night, passing a young local couple, and hearing in Chinese something along the lines of “he looks like an animal. i wonder if he ever washes it”. Somewhat pissed off, I turn around and challenge him “what did you say!?”. Guy gives the most sincere, apologetic look ever: “No, you heard wrong”. Polite lie par excellence…

  4. I’m puzzled. The guy said his taxi had no gas but you could see from the dashboard that he did. The meter doesn’t function unless the ignition is on. It would be highly unusual for a taxi to park up and leave the ignition on.

    Was this a little white lie, too?

    • Roger,

      That is an astute observation. I cannot guarantee the accuracy of that particular detail. That story was told to me years ago, and I had to strain to remember the details when I was writing this. Also, when I heard the story, it was already an experience that had happened years ago to the program director who was telling it.

      It is fully possible that I misremembered it, or she misremembered it, or that one of us fabricated details to fill in the narrative. I do however stand by the underlying point of that antidote, which is that cab drivers use the polite lie liberally when they don’t want to accept a fare.

  5. This takes on political implications as well. I remember seeing an interview of one woman that was held from from the early 50′s to 76. After being released, she asked why she was held for so long. The answer she got was something along the lines of, “you were suppose to have been released many years ago, but someone misfiled your paperwork, and we have only now corrected it.”

    Or have your business permit revoked because your paperwork was “incomplete.”

  6. I experience the taxi “lies” all the time when they pull over to stop but then notice my 3 children. There’s something I don’t really understand though, and that is this: Why do they worry so much about saving face in these situations, but feel so comfortable telling me that I am fat, that my haircut is bad, that I put too much sugar in the birthday cake I made them, that I underdress my children? Maybe it’s that these things don’t do damage to your “face,” and don’t offend Chinese people? Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate their ability to be honest and straightforward about their own personal appearance and not offended when someone comments on it. I’m a bit jealous that I can’t stop caring. But I could really wish that directness could also translate into important matters, too, like when I NEED the police to give me all the facts up front about a case they are dealing with for me. Etc.

    Anyway, thank you so much for the article! It’s fantastic. Any thoughts on how to deal with line-cutting (is it just me or is it almost always middle-aged/old women?), either saying something or being philosophical about it and not caring?

  7. As a side note, I should give some props here to the program director who told me that story years ago, because this article is largely a recapitulation of an idea that she passed along to me. I believe she used the phrase, ‘the social institution of the white lie,’ and that particular wording bounced around in my head afterwards. Her name was Sandra, and she was a Canadian China hand who had been in China for several decades at the time that I met her. Smart lady.

    • Great article, Eli. I remember Sandra calling it the “white lie,” and it came up fast when we wanted to sit outside a restaurant at night, and just order tea. “We’re out of tea,” the waiter said, and we all felt jostled. “What!? How could a restaurant be out of tea?”

      Great quotes from your article:
      “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.”

      “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.”

      “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.”

      • You’re right – I think she may have called it ‘the social institution of the white lie’. I remember the word institution was in there somewhere, because it felt like she was treating something small with an academic weightiness.

        I’m glad that you remember that tea incident – I forgot you were there!

  8. Ray

    Generally i can do the Polite Lie Shuffle: example: hot pot. My feelings: disgusting, viscous, inedible . Local invites me. I decline. “Oh, it’s too spicy for you foreigners!” me. “Yes too spicy”. But sometimes, goddamn if it ain’t fine to say it like it is. Example: recently waiting for someone. 45 mins late. Me: “Where are you?”. Her: “I’m just leaving home now”. Me: “yeah, I dont feel like waiting. I’m going home”. Felt good…….

  9. Saving face in simple circumstances is fine, but the polite lie is just one vehicle in the traffic jam of making excuses for incompetence and not giving a damn about others. Great write-up from the POV you picked, but I think that’s the most innocuous part of the topic. Cheers!

  10. I admit that the polite lie is a social norm in China. However, in other places, such as UK, it’s not unheard of. For example, a woman tells a man that she cannot go out with him because she needs to wash her hair.

  11. Eli’s insight observation of China’s cultural corruption developed during the long histry has made me even more acertain of China’s current Social Status in the Global village.We tried but failed 3 decades ago to bring in a thourough change to it in the Cultural Revolution…

  12. I have basically dispensed with this bullshit and I call people out all the time. I know I already said this, but I wanted to make it 15 comments and I also remembered an example:

    We are going to get on a shitty raft and float slowly down a river. i say no not into it. SOme girl says aloud, will we get wet? Dude is like 应该不会 and I start laughing because that is THE polite bullshitism of the country right there. and I go, anytime a Chinese person says 应该不会, you know that 肯定会. Everyone busts out laughing. The dude says, you’ve been here too long, we can’t fool you anymore. I flex.

    True story.

  13. Ray

    Had a primo one yesterday: teahouse. Drinks menu comes. Cheapest tea listed is 68 kuai. I know this place has 25 kuai garden-variety tea, but they dont put it on the menu. I say to waitress “I just want the 25 kuai one” Her: “we don’t have any at that price”. Me: “Funny, cos last week you did”. She says “I’ll check”. Returns: “We can give you some but it comes from the shop next door. It might be bad quality” . Me: “Fine. Thank you”. Some times I can play….

  14. Thanks for the article. It is very informative. I’m local but have been abroad for too many year to understand why people don’t say what’s on their mind. It has been frustrating. Friends and relatives kept on telling me “This is China”, now I’m starting to get it. I’ll probably try it now too. It keeps one sharp, no?

  15. Rick in China

    Great article and solid point Eli, also something I found extremely frustrating and unique upon arrival. I remember my first serious girlfriend here – over the course of 3 years, this habit was my *biggest* complaint by *far*, she’d often tell me little ridiculous lies that served, seemingly, no purpose whatsoever to me and it would frustrate me to no end. Never lied about anything important (that I know of), but little things…fuuuuuuuck, just habitually.

    I’m with Sascha on the call outs. While it may be more beneficial not to say anything directly, I can’t help it and rather accept the social consequence..

  16. “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.”

    This.

  17. Eli, Enjoyed this read. I’ve been trying to keep a correct perspective on the issue of the Polite Lie. A Lie is only a Lie if your culture recognises it as a Lie. In China if it involves face or avoiding conflict there is no recognition that what you are saying qualifies as a Lie. In America we do the same thing. We teach our children at a very early age what is an “appropriate lie.” The phone rings, your 4 year old daughter is headed to the phone. You say, “If that is your grandmother tell her I’m asleep.” The next week your daughter breaks a vase. She’s the only one in the room. The daughter tells you, “I didn’t do it.” You tell her, “You know I’ve tought you not to lie.”
    Really, is that, in fact, what you taught her.
    It is easy to get frustrated living in China but people living in glass houses should not be so eager to throw stones.

  18. Different view of Chengdu, very interesting

  19. Zak

    Eli, Great article. A few things stood out.

    First, I’m glad to know that all of the mom jokes are an expression of fraternity.

    Second, “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.” We’ve talked about this a few times, and you worded it really simply, really accurately here. This ought to be a thesis of another article.

    Third, pre-empting a follow-up comment to the tune of “Oh, the mom jokes with you are serious, not an exercising of our fraternal bond,” it is in fact you, sir, who has a lovely mother.

    Great read. Now take one on about Chinese humor?

  20. Eli, another great piece on Chinese culture. Appreciated when reading you say that “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.” Then again, white/polite lie can be found in most, if not all, cultures.

    Calling it out may make you feel “righteous” but would it serve any good? especially when you need to get things done? if not, why not play the game as it really is?

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