Cultural differences: praise

In the first year of marriage to my Chinese husband, the cultural difference that has stuck out the most is praise. Or lack of it.

I grew up in the West, where I was praised for my achievements. Where love was vocalised and praise was given freely. My mum used to say that a child needs to be praised 5 times for every 1 criticism, and she was proactive in this. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t criticised or called out on my mistakes. Nor was praise given where it wasn’t due. It was a very positive environment, both at home and at school.

My husband, on the other hand, grew up in China and from what I gather, criticism was used to motivate him to be better. He was a young table tennis player and his dad was his biggest critic. I’ve worked in a Chinese middle school and seen students criticised for not being the best. I’ve read about Tiger Mothers. My husband studied in the Chinese education system until he went to the UK for his Masters degree, so the environment was more negative.

It’s definitely a cultural issue, but these approaches are not confined to these cultures, it depends on the parents’ approach. It’s carrot vs stick.

The issue has arisen multiple times. I guess I’m insecure, as many people are. I guess I need a lot of praise, as well as support and encouragement. My husband doesn’t know to provide this. It’s not what he’s grown up with. When I’ve asked for this, he has expressed frustration with this need. I’m needy. It’s stating the obvious. It doesn’t need to be said.

On the flip side, he has criticised me more than I am used to and this can be hard to take. In my experience of relationships, my own and of others, I have learnt that you must try to accept the flaws of your loved ones. Sure, there are always ground rules and deal-breakers, but we acknowledge that no one is perfect and concentrate on the good points. So to be criticised on my appearance, behaviour and character can be hurtful. Doesn’t he accept me for who I am?

R has also expressed concern that too much praise makes you complacent, or even arrogant. If he calls me beautiful, I may think I don’t need to lose that extra half stone. If he did a good job at table tennis training, he won’t improve for the next tournament. A foreign concept to me.

As touched upon in Speaking of China‘s post, Chinese people don’t often, if ever, say I love you. I had to explain to my husband that our love wasn’t the same as his family’s (eternally unspoken) love and had to be vocalised and nurtured.

I can see that my husband is taking on board what I’ve asked. He tells me he loves me, and since it’s not every day, I usually feel I’ve done something to earn it. When he says it I feel he’s really saying ‘I love you a little bit more today’. And he is starting to praise me too. Not often, but again, I feel every time has been earned. So when he says I’m a good mum, I know he appreciates something I’ve done for baby Z and sees the hard work I am putting in. When something is rare, it feels more special.

The interesting thing is, I see how much praise my husband himself needs. He may have not had that much of it, but I can see that it really helps. I hope I make him feel good about himself. I hope our home is a safe place, full of love and support. I hope he is the happiest he has ever been.

I also hope that I’ve made some changes too. Perhaps not in this sense, but some cultural compromises. Things that though foreign to me, R appreciates. And now that we have a child to raise together, I hope that baby Z gets the best of both worlds. With lots of love.

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12 thoughts on “Cultural differences: praise

  1. My wife as well (as most CHinese) didnt grow up with praise at all. Her memories of her mother during her childhood are pretty much of a nagging women who sees mistakes in everything she does. Even though she grew up like this she gives praise when deserved and also saying from the beginning of small things like “Thank you” etc. But I guess this is more due to the fact that in order to learn better English back in her High School days (so she could go to Europe to study) she watched tons of American TV shows and movies and learned from it more than just a better understanding of the language 🙂

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  2. I suppose I’m lucky. My husband has always been pretty affectionate and usually quite generous in his praise. . . towards me. Toward my step-daughter, it’s a different story. And I guess it’s just the general parenting style among Chinese. You show your love by pushing your child to always do better and make them work hard for even a little sliver of parental pride. I don’t really agree with it, but I’m starting to understand it more and more.

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  3. I can relate with this so much! Sometimes I feel cheesy for telling my boyfriend “I love you” every single day. Sometimes I really would like to hear these words coming from him, I think it is because of what I’ve always seen while growing up (movies, friends, family,…). The few times my bf tells me “I love you” is usually when I am down for some other reason, and he tries to cheer me up in the way he knows I am used to. But when I really feel that he really means it is when he expresses his love in his own way: cooking delicious dishes for me, fixing my cellphone issues,…I know these can look just mundane actions, but I know he only does it for me and for my own good. And when this happens, I am the happiest person on Earth.

    Similar issues with kissing in public places. There are so many occasions that we are together and when I look at him I really feel like hugging him and kissing him (nothing too horny, I am talking about public places XD). But for him that’s awkward, so I have to content myself. And then, when in some rare occasions he does kiss me in public places. just a quick kiss…I know that’s a special occasion for him as well and I feel so blessed to share that moment with him.

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  5. My Chinese-American husband gets plenty of praise from his parents — but he never hears it! To me and others, his parents will tell me how smart he is, or how kind, or how handy around the house, how competent he is in the kitchen, etc. But to Andy’s face, it’s, “You eat too much ice-cream, you were a fat child, you fell off your bike…”

    He’s always shocked when I tell him what his parents said out of his hearing. I’m not entirely sure he believes me.

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  6. My fiancé is really good at giving praise and saying I love you every day but that’s because he knows I need verbal affirmation. I kind of trained him to learn what I like and he is teaching me what he likes. He’s told me that his other Korean friends who are married aren’t as affectionate as we are, but I think the younger generation in Korea really loves expressing their love outwardly and to one another. I really love the couple culture and how the two of us find our own unique ways of doing things. But he often criticizes me or tells me I should try to fix things about my appearance and personality and I was really shocked and upset sometimes. He is learning not to do it so much but I know it’s out of love, so I try not to get as offended.

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  7. Interesting. It’s the opposite for us. I grew up in the West in a family where praise wasn’t really given. In the beginning of our relationship, my Japanese husband (then boyfriend) had to literally ask me to praise instead of criticise him. When I was teaching in Japan I was told to praise all students constantly (even if they weren’t doing a good job). Many years later I’ve learned the value of praise and use it generously. When I went back home and interacted with my family they thought I was being sarcastic while praising someone. But now it has rubbed off on some of them. Praise is powerful. It feels good to give and receive.

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