Would you ever refuse a gift or an offer, especially when it is you who requested it in the first place?
Many foreigners have troubles to understand the importance of refusal in such situations.
While in the West, when receiving a gift, is perfectly normal to accept it right on and saying “thank you”, in China it does not work this way.
Although many businessmen know about western culture and do not mind the different behavior, for others it might be offensive to accept immediately a gift or proposal, even if very convenient.
Why refuse before accepting
In Chinese culture, as well as in Japanese and other Asian cultures, accepting immediately a gift or help is inappropriate. A conversation which normally in the West would go as it follows, in China would be different:
Luke: Hi, Andrew! I’m planning to buy a car next month, what do you think about your new Mustang?.
Andrew: Hey Luke! My Mustang is not bad at all. Why don’t I let you drive it for a while? In this way, you can see for yourself.
Luke: Oh, thank you!
Andrew: You’re welcome!
In China, the same conversation will be different. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the two are friends or family members: an instant acceptation will be still inappropriate.
Luke: Hi, Andrew! Hi, Andrew! I’m planning to buy a car next month, what do you think about your new Mustang?
Andrew: Hey Luke! My Mustang is not bad at all.Why don’t I let you drive it for a while? In this way, you can see for yourself.
Luke: No, no, it’s too much bothering.
Andrew: Don’t be so polite with me! We are friends, after all.
Luke: No, it’s too tiring for you… don’t worry about it.
Andrew: I insist, you offend me if you don’t accept.
Luke: Alright then, thank you!
So, basically, in both cases the help is welcome: but in Chinese culture, there should be few refusals first. This is to give more value to the effort done by the other person, and for general politeness.
Why refuse three times
The ritual refusals required by traditional good manners are three. In Chinese ancient classics everybody, from common people to generals, from prime ministers to even emperors, will employ them. Only negative characters – those which the readers shouldn’t follow – will skip this procedure. These will immediately accept everything, receiving a sharp judgement by the other characters or by the writer himself. The warlord Liu Bei, who is the first protagonist of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is portrayed as the ideal lord. He refused three times the proposal to be declared emperor and savior of the Han dynasty by Zhuge Liang. On the other side, Zhuge Liang himself, who was his prime minister and unrivaled man of incredible talents, earlier refused three times to help Liu Bei, saying he was a worthless man, unable to do anything to help the Han.
How it works today
For a foreigner, understanding this logic and putting it into practice is different. Sometimes the situation will make it seem much more impolite to not accept immediately, because the other person will make an “offer you cannot refuse”. In those cases, do not worry to go for three refusals: it’s your part in this social interaction to refuse with good reasons, just like it is the part of the other person to let you accept by providing even better reasons. It would be stupid to keep insisting with pointless statements when the other person makes much more sense. Nowadays people usually refuse once or twice before accepting, which means the traditional three refusals are not required at all. A very similar logic applies when paying for a dinner or a hangout. Even though today many choose to split the bill, in business it is still good manners to offer a meal. The other person should still refuse before eventually giving up and saying “I’ll take the bill next time, then” as a promise to meet again and, why not, make more business together. A similar situation will happen when receiving a hongbao (red pocket filled with money), and so on.
If you really cannot manage to handle this kind of social interaction in the Chinese way, make sure you explain the culture shock: the important thing is to not let them think that you just make it on purpose. In that case, it is likely they will think you are stingy, or, even worse, taking their help as a given, which is really a negative outcome.