In his Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis defines true humility as a kind of “˜self-forgetfulness’ ““ the ability to take joy in the fruit of one’s own accomplishments, but without taking any more joy than if someone else had done those same accomplishments. If false humility can be defined as the exact opposite of the above definition, then it can be said that Asians like false humility.
This is ironic, because the Asian penchant for hard work and overachievement means that most Asians have a lot to be falsely humble about. This false humility manifests itself many places in Asian life. For example, at the dinner table, you will never hear an Asian mom say that she just cooked her best or her favorite dish. Instead, she will say something like, ‘Oh, this is nothing,” or ‘I just put it together in a few minutes. Please excuse the poor quality.” This is despite the fact that the dish in front of you is probably twenty times better than anything you would ever find at an Asian restaurant.
Asians will also bring false modesty to many other aspects of their lives. For example, beauty (‘You look nice today.” ‘Oh, no not really. I didn’t even have time to do my makeup.”) or academics (‘You’re so smart.” ‘No, no, I just study a lot.”). It is important to differentiate false humility from discomfort with accepting praise. Many Asians are uncomfortable receiving praise or being singled out. When complimented. they may look down and mumble something incoherent.
False humility is a different animal altogether. The Asian in question, rather than being uncomfortable, revels in the praise. By playing it down or denying it all together, they are able to lower expectations and thereby make their own accomplishments seem greater in comparison. At the same time, they appear modest and humble, which are traditional Asian virtues.
What should you do if you are confronted with this phenomenon? Under no circumstances should you agree with the Asian person. Instead, continue to insist that your compliments are true. This is one of the few times you can directly contradict an Asian person in public without deeply offending them. Keep in mind, however, not to continue insisting that your compliments are true if the Asian person keeps on pretending that they are not, which would lead to an endless cycle. Eventually, they will become aware of the ridiculousness of the process and start to feel slightly uncomfortable. Instead, smile and nod politely.
Alternatively, you can say something like, ‘Oh, you’re so modest.” This achieves the dual effect of insinuating that the Asian person is in fact very good at what they do and at the same time praising their humility. Follow these instructions and you will go a long way towards earning an Asian person’s trust.
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