When you started learning Chinese, you probably noticed that Chinese people are often really generous with their compliments about foreigners’ Chinese language abilities.
You may know from experience that one decently pronounced “nihao” is sometimes all it takes for someone to give you a “thumbs up” sign and tell you that your Chinese is great.
So then what do you do? How do you respond?
We are usually taught that it’s impolite and considered arrogant in Chinese culture to just say “thanks” when you receive a compliment.
That's why beginners often learn that a more appropriate response to a compliment is “nǎ lǐ, nǎ lǐ (哪里，哪里), ” which is easy to pronounce and remember.
In case you need a crash course on this phrase - and China's compliment-denial culture in general - Yangyang went through this in detail in Unit 24 of the Yoyo Chinese Beginner Conversational Course. She also explained the reasoning behind using “nǎ lǐ, nǎ lǐ (哪里，哪里)” to deflect a compliment. Click below to watch it:
In any case, “nǎ lǐ, nǎ lǐ” will get the job done if you just need an easy response that will convey a modest attitude, but once you’re no longer a beginner, it’s time to move on to some other responses that will sound a bit more natural.
That’s because, in everyday conversation, Chinese people don’t seem to use “nǎ lǐ” all that much.
So what are the alternatives?
In my experience, Chinese people usually respond to compliments by using one of five strategies: feign surprise, deflect, share credit, return the compliment, or disagree.
Let me show you how those sound, taking the “your Chinese is so good” compliment as an example:
(Tip: If you need help pronouncing the pinyin below, use Yoyo Chinese's free video-based pinyin chart. It includes video explanations and audio demonstrations of each Mandarin sound: link):
The Five “Strategies”
So let’s say someone just said to you “Your Chinese is great!” 你的汉语说得很棒！(Nǐ de hàn yǔ shuō de hěn bàng!) Here’s how you could respond, using each of the five strategies:
1. Feigning surprise
真的吗 (zhēn de ma?)？ - Really?
是吗 (shì ma)？ - Is it?
还行吧 (hái xíng ba)。 - It’s okay, I guess.
还好吧 (hái hǎo ba)。 - It’s alright, I guess.
3. Sharing credit
是我的中文老师教得好 (shì wǒ de zhōng wén lǎo shī jiāo de hǎo.) - It’s just that my teacher is really good.
4. Returning the compliment
还是你的英文说得比较好 (Your English is better)! - hái shì nǐ de yīng wén shuō de bǐ jiào hǎo.
哎呀，不行，不行 (āi ya, bù xíng, bù xíng)! - Geez, no it’s not!
说得很差 (shūo de hěn chà)！ - It’s really bad!
Getting the Hang of It
Would any of those responses come naturally to you?
For me, as an American, the only strategy of those five that it’s difficult for me to get used to is the “disagreeing” one.
But with the exception of that one, it seems like all these strategies are mostly very similar to what you’d say in English in some situations.
Even though it’s more common to just say “thanks” in response to a compliment in English, there are plenty of times when it’s just as appropriate to deflect or use some other strategy for acting modest.
Still, there is kind of a unique art to coming across as both modest and sincere in Chinese.
Even though most of these types of responses never felt too “foreign” to me, it still took me a while to get to the point where they came to me easily in conversation.
Like with practically every other skill in Chinese, one of the best ways I found to learn was just to pay attention to the conversations around me. Basically, I did a lot of eavesdropping and stealthy note taking!
To give you a better idea of how the five strategies sound in other everyday conversations, here are some dialogues similar to the ones I listened in on.
1. FEIGN SURPRISE (Think: “Really? This old thing?”)
A: 这个颜色很适合你 (zhè ge yǎn sè hěn shì hé nǐ). - That color looks nice on you.
B: 是吗？我平时不怎么穿红色。我不太懂时尚 (shì ma? wǒ píng shí bù zěn me chuān hóng sè. wǒ bú tài dǒng shí shàng)。 - Does it? I usually don’t wear red. I don’t really have a good fashion sense.
A: 很好看 (hěn hǎo kàn)! - It looks good!
B: 谢谢 (xiè xiè)! - Thanks!
2. DEFLECT (Think: “Meh, it’s just okay.”)
A: 这菜很好吃啊 (zhè cài hěn hǎo chī a)！ - This food is delicious!
B: 很简单，随便炒炒的 (hěn jiǎn dān, suí biàn chǎo chǎo de)。 - It’s just something simple that I threw together.
A: 真的很好吃 (zhēn de hěn hǎo chī). - Really tasty.
B: 那就多吃一点 (nà jiù duō chī yī diǎn)! - Eat up, then!
3. SHARE CREDIT (Think: “I couldn’t have done it without the team.”)
A: 这次会议你安排得很好 (zhè cì huì yì nǐ ān pái de hěn hǎo). - You did a great job arranging this conference.
B: 我得感谢大家的共同努力 。这个星期大家每天都加班了 (wǒ děi gǎn xiè dà jiā de gòng tóng nǔ lì. zhè ge xīng qī dà jiā měi tiān dōu jiā bān le). - I have to thank everybody for their hard work. Everybody stayed late this week.
A: 恭喜你考进复旦大学！你真了不起 (gōng xǐ nǐ kǎo jìn fù dàn dà xué! nǐ zhēn liǎo bu qǐ)! - Congratulations on getting in to Fudan University! You’re amazing!
B: 过奖了，这得感谢我的父母和老师的支持 (guò jiǎng le, zhè děi gǎn xiè wǒ de fù mǔ hé lǎo shī de zhī chí). - I don’t deserve the compliment, and can only thank my parents and teachers for their support.
4. RETURN THE COMPLIMENT (Think: “No, YOU’RE the best!”)
A: 喜欢中国吗 (xǐ huān zhōng guó ma)？ - Do you like China?
B: 喜欢！中国很好啊 (xǐ huān! Zhōng guó hěn hǎo a)! - Yeah! China is great!
A: 可是中国没有西方国家干净 (kě shì zhōng guó méi yǒu xī fāng guó jiā gān jìng). - But China isn't as clean as Western countries.
B: 可是那里很无聊, 还是中国比较有意思 (kě shì nà lǐ hěn wú liáo, hái shì zhōng guó bǐ jiào yǒu yì si)! - But it’s boring there. China is much more interesting!
Here's another on how to return the compliment:
A: 你家装修得很好看 (nǐ jiā zhuāng xiū de hěn hǎo kàn)! - I love how you remodeled your home!
B: 一般般。你们家才好看 (yì bān bān. Nǐ mén jiā cái hǎo kàn). - It's alright. Your home is the nice one.
5. DISAGREE (Think: “Nah, you’re just saying that.”)
A: 你篮球打得真棒 (nǐ lán qiú dǎ de zhēn bàng)! - You’re really good at basketball!
B: 我打得不行 (wǒ dǎ de bù xíng)! - I’m terrible!
Like I said before, this kind of dialogue doesn’t always come naturally when you’re learning Chinese.
It can be tricky to find exactly the right words when you want to sound genuine and sincere with your response, but also want to have the right amount of modesty so that things don’t get awkward.
But like anything else, it gets easier to craft these types of responses over time.
One good way to start practicing is by complimenting Chinese people on various things (successes, possessions, appearance, and skills are the big four), and paying close attention to how they respond to you.
Then practice what they said, so you’ll be prepared to try a different response each time someone compliments your Chinese. See which ones get the type of response you like.
Then, before long, you’ll be completely skilled in the art of modestly-but-sincerely responding to a compliment in Chinese.
So now that you pretty much know all the ways to deflect a compliment in Chinese, tell me which "strategy" you'd be most comfortable using in the comments section below!