Receiving Thanks – A Cultural Dilemma

Paul Lau Chun Man (Hong Kong, UWC AC 2010-2012)

Recently, in the spirit of UWC Atlantic College and cultural learning, a dilemma came to mind. What do you do when someone gives you a compliment? How does one walk the fine line between being a big-headed jerk and looking like an insensitive, rude person? It’s a question that I’ve faced before, but it came to me again after an SAT passage mentioned it. So what does one do?

The Western Response

In Western Culture, the norm appears to be one of admittance. When complimented, one ought to say a sincere ‘Thank You’ and reply with a compliment for the other individual. Alternatively, it seems to be accepted if one chooses to simply change the subject. In this way, one shows respect for the other without seeming ungrateful for having been complemented.
On the other hand, traditional Eastern wisdom would consider that response immodest and showboating. It is viewed that one should not admit to being better or greater in anyway. So what should one do?

The Eastern Response

In such societies as China, commonality and uniformity are preferred. People are discouraged from standing out. As a result, one should always deny or reject a compliment. This is usually done by simply insisting that “No”, the compliment can’t be true. Alternatively, I’ve found that by pointing out a flaw in yourself that is of equal magnitude to the compliment, the same effect is achieved. By doing so, by rejecting all complements, you would be able to show civility and respect for others without placing yourself above others.

The Right Response?

Is there a right response? The West demands displaying of respect by accepting praise. At the same time, the East would expect continued denial in order to show humility and normality. Living in one society makes it easy. But when you’re a Canadian Born Chinese who’s lived in Canada and Hong Kong, how should one respond to a compliment.

One way to go is to become a chameleon and change response modes depending on who it is meeting out compliments. Interestingly, this requires more compromise than I’m willing to accept. It feels contradictory not to stick to one principle or another.
In order to be consistent with myself, more often than not, I simply keep my trap shut. Silence and a smile often straddle both worlds.

How would you response to a compliment, as a culture and as an individual?

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