OMG your hair looks so cute! Young Chinese love American ‘praise culture.’

American culture has lost its appeal in China in recent years. Hollywood movies and Apple iPhones are on the outs. Taylor Swift is popular but gets marked down for never touring in China. But one aspect of American culture that is making inroads in some circles: Flowery compliments.

Across China, groups are forming — both online and in real life — to seek and offer praise and encouragement and appreciation, often to and from total strangers. That’s a practice common across the United States but completely foreign in China and other parts of East Asia, where showing humbleness by deflecting compliments is considered a virtue. The burgeoning phenomenon even has a name: “praise culture.”

“Compliments should not be reserved for special occasions, but should be an everyday experience,” says Chloe Sheng, a Shanghai-based fashion and travel blogger better known to her 1.6 million social media followers as the “Dare Girl.”

She was blown away by the positive remarks she received on the streets of New York City when she went out in a red coat one day in 2016. “I was originally was not feeling that great, but after hearing all those compliments, I thought, oh my god, aren’t I awesome?!”

So Sheng returned to China with a mission: To make her shop and art space a venue for spontaneous feel-good moments. “Instead of being dragged down with jealousy and self-doubt, why don’t we tell ourselves and the people around us that we are awesome?” she said.

Sheng has hosted speed-dating-style praise gatherings where attendees shower adulation on each other for three minutes before moving to the next person. She has also encouraged assistants in her shop to commend customers and give a lucky few free sessions in the photo booth, where they can capture their awesomeness on film.

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Random compliments are not a standard part of Chinese culture. During the decades of social turmoil and economic hustle that have characterized China’s astonishing industrialization, people were simply too busy and focused on getting ahead for such frivolities. But now in the middle class, especially the younger generations, have gradually shifted from rejection to acceptance in responding to compliments, scholars have noted, attributing the change to the influence of “westernization,” especially through mass media and interaction with native English speakers.

One prime example of American praise culture that made the rounds in China last year: State media and online commentators pointed to an exchange between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the end of last year. “It’s a beautiful vehicle!” Biden said as he walked Xi to the leader’s armored, 18-foot Hongqi sedan, after a long day of meeting near San Francisco.

This “praise culture” is one aspect of American life that Yang Ying, 26, a recent graduate from Beijing’s Renmin University, is looking forward to experiencing when she begins a PhD in the United States in the fall.

She’s been studying by watching videos on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, in which Chinese students in the United States highlight the cultural practice of random compliments. She recounted one video that particularly stuck with her: “One person said that even in the bathroom, the person in the next-door stall shouted to say they liked their shoes.”

After years of covid measures and unending competition in China, it’s that kind of openness and positivity that she craves.

Similar themes have resonated with the Douyin audience. In one clip, a young woman in Guangdong said she grew up being body-shamed for having dark skin and a large back side. But when visiting the United States, she was complimented on her appearance, giving her a new perspective of body positivity. Her account of this praise garnered more than 320,000 likes.

In another popular video, a Chinese mom in New York asked at a school meeting how her first-grade daughter could do better, only to be assured by the head teacher that she has the “best kid in the world.”

Chinese schools have taken note: Teachers from across the country are posting on lifestyle app Xiaohongshu about how they can motivate students and encourage good behavior by praising them more and by encouraging kids to compliment each other.

On Douban, a popular review site, more than 170,000 members of a mutual praise group actively solicit compliments for their feats, be it making a swan-shaped ice cream cake, winning a board game three times in a row or breaking up with a toxic boyfriend.

This online trend has led to offline praise sessions.

At the Dobby Tala cafe and bar outside Chongqing, owner Lu Liao hosts in-person events where strangers gather to say nice things to each other.

She started the events as a marketing strategy to attract a young crowd from nearby colleges. They soon began to draw a more diverse crowd, including gay people and single moms and migrant workers. She even hosted a night for introverts, where they could write nice things on paper and avoid the awkwardness of verbal communication.

“Praising is like gift-giving: it makes both the recipient and the giver feel good,” Lu said.

Lin Lan — who favors an all-black biker look involving a faux leather jacket and a metal necklace that her colleagues call “gangster-like” — loved the random compliments she received when she showed up to an event at Dobby Tala. One person exclaimed “OMG, look at your hair and swag!” while another told Lin that “I love your outfit!”

The 25-year-old accountant smiled shyly and only nodded at them. “But really, those comments made my day,” Lin said. She has since volunteered as a moderator for a praise party at the bar.

Such events — and praise culture more generally — are a grass-roots attempt to “cultivate a more sustainable social microenvironment” where people readily extend empathy and goodwill, said Xu Moxu, a former indie band vocalist who has hosted over 100 praise parties in Beijing and in her hometown of Suzhou since 2022.

“When I notice something that I like about someone, I will let them know rather than hold it in,” said Xu, who owns Libertango, a small bar in Beijing.

A university in Anhui province has even promoted praise culture to raise awareness about mental health. The college asked students to participate in Secret Santa events and prepare cards containing compliments.

The trend is a long way from going mainstream, but some proponents of praise culture have started seeing people around them warm up to the idea.

“Last month, I told my younger brother that he has been a very reliable person and thanked him for helping take care of Puff, my adopted dog,” said Lin. He said she was “acting weird.” Compliments, and even saying “thank you” to each other, were unusual in their family.

“You know what, these days he started sending me thank-you messages or giving me a thumbs-up when I do grocery shopping, book restaurants, or plan trips for the family,” said Lin, who lives with her parents and brother. “It feels good to be seen, and not taken for granted.”

Lily Kuo and PeiLin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to the story

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