Fibs are for Friends: Dishonesty a Virtue in China

Saving Face

The other day I found myself in a taxi on the way to pick up my girlfriend. It was raining heavily and a we were on the way to the Zhuhai North light rail station. I knew the taxi was a little grimy inside and the driver was smoking a cigarette, so I thought I should dump it before picking her up. At first I thought, “maybe I should tell him a lie to make a stop somewhere so that I can politely switch taxis. After all, this is China and this kind of excuse should be common to save the other person’s (the driver’s) face.”

I texted my girlfriend to call me and ask me to stop somewhere in order to make the deceit believable. Her reply was something like “What are you talking about?” She was confused, at first and didn’t go along with the plot.

After I managed to find a good enough “reason” why I needed to get out early, I called her and said, “Why didn’t you go along with my fib?”

“Why did you need to lie to the driver? Just tell him you want to get out sooner.” Basically, I shouldn’t have worried about telling him the truth. Why? Because he was a stranger and we don’t have to worry about hurting the feelings of strangers by being direct.

What she was telling me was a mini-breakthrough for me here. It seems that in Chinese logic, the only people you should fib or make false-excuses to are your friends. They could be hurt by the truth and you need to protect them from it, sometimes. This is also the prime reason why Westerners think Chinese people are “liars”, but in reality this dishonesty is appropriate among friends, colleagues, etc.

When you get an invitation to do something, but you don’t want to go, you just say: “I have something else to do” or “I’m in another city right now.” When you don’t want to talk to someone in particular on the phone next to your friends, you just say “I’ve got a bad signal in here” then excuse yourself from the room. When you don’t want to drink alcohol, you say “I’m allergic to alcohol.” And if you don’t like someone’s idea, you should still agree with it or “consider it”.

The above are all common fibs that are used in daily life in China. They are meant to be polite, but they demonstrate a great divide between Eastern and Western cultures. We have white lies in the West, but we don’t use them nearly as often as they are used here. White lies are often used among friends and families in the West too. (Honey, your new haircut is beautiful!)

My mother remembers all of this as the “Mexico-Canada” fib that the Vietnamese owner of a local Asian market used once. We asked where the produce came from in his store. He said “Canada”, but when we looked on the box “Mexico” was checked off. I said, “but your box comes from Mexico.” He said, “yea, Mexico-Canada” as if Mexico were some kind of city in the Hispanic quarter of Canada.

Sometimes the fibs are funny; sometimes they are greatly misleading, but as long as you recognize that they exist you are one step closer to succeeding out here. The most important thing to remember when you detect this kind of dishonesty is to not react. The moment you challenge any of these fibs as bullshit, you will create an awkward situation… and that is a big no-no. Quietly accepting a fib is 100x better than trying to extract truth from the fiber.

Please share your funny Fibs with AL.ME!