Luisa Tam
SCMP Columnist
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam

How Chinese couples find it hard to show their emotions, and why saying ‘I love you’ is so important

Chinese couples tend not to show verbal affection, preferring instead to cuddle or hold hands. Reasons for this include a fear of rejection or loss of face, awkwardness and cultural traditions

Expressing love is an important gesture in any relationship. It’s because love helps nurture, grow, and reinforce intimate human bonding. Everyone exhibits love and their inner emotions differently, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” way for us to convey this feeling.

One person’s way to display love could be wildly different from another. Some people prefer verbal, some non-verbal, and it can also be presented as subtle gesture or something on a grandiose scale.

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But in general, Chinese and Asians are quite reluctant to express affection openly. Actually, to put it plainly, we are lousy at showing love with words. A lack of affectionate expression is a common thing between husbands and wives in this part of the world; parents, children, and other family members are no exception.

Many Asian couples find it difficult to express affection. Photo: Alamy

I was close to my dad, but I find it hard to recall a time he said he loved me. I told him once that I loved him on his birthday, but he just nodded. After that, I knew it would be best not to utter those words again to spare each other the awkwardness.

Saying “I love you” is an important way to show our affection towards others. It’s also a way to say we care about them and let them know how much they mean to us. But in this social media age, this tender and yet deep emotion is often excessively overexposed in the form of seemingly meaningless emojis. In other words, saying “I love you” has sometimes been rendered as insignificant as saying “I love ice cream”.

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Dr Paul Wong Wai-ching believes in the power of saying I love you. Photo: Alamy

Dr Paul Wong Wai-ching, associate professor of the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, agrees that those three simple words certainly make people feel good and help bond all kinds of relationships. This is because expressing feelings is crucial to the human experience and to fostering important relationships with our family, friends, and our other half.

However, it takes practice for some to overcome their taciturn ways, especially Chinese and Asian people because it’s not stereotypically natural for Asian cultures to be open about their innermost feelings, especially those related to love or any kind of fondness.

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Even for people who haven’t grown up in reserved households or nations, it can be hard to tell someone you love them for the very first time. However, once you begin to open your heart to such possibilities, you will eventually find yourself warming to the simple action of saying those special words to someone who deserves to hear them.

Fear of rejection or loss of face can make some couples unwilling to declare their love verbally. Photo: Alamy

It can be quite hurtful if you declared your love to someone (like me to my dad) and the person refused to say it back, hardly acknowledged it, or brushed it off with “you know I do”, or something as bad as “thank you”.

Wong explains how feelings are displayed in Chinese culture. “Chinese tend to communicate feelings through actions. Communication is often done in non-verbal ways, such as holding hands or cuddling, as these are considered to be more important and effective,” he says.

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According to Professor Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language in the 1950s, verbally transmitted communication only accounts for seven per cent of all communication. The remaining modes of communication are 38 per cent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds) and 55 per cent non-verbal, which includes eye contact, touch, proximity, hand gestures, and so on. This shows that a vast majority of communication is done non-verbally.,

“Chinese people believe verbally expressing love is not only unnatural, but it seems fake or artificial. It’s not in our DNA,” he says.

Chinese couples show affection through cuddling or holding hands. Photo: Alamy

Wong says that Chinese are more inclined to using non-verbal expressions of love because even if the other party does not respond, a lack of non-verbal acknowledgement is far less hurtful and more face-saving.

“Our behaviour can be easily explained by the positive reinforcement theory whereby our action is motivated by positive consequences. Simply put, if what we do is rewarded with a positive response then we will be more likely to repeat the behaviour. The same can be said for gestures of love.”

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People in a relationship or family members who really love each other usually want and often long for some kind of reassurance that they are loved. And if the people they love refuse to say or display their feelings non-verbally, that can hurt. It can be devastating to open yourself up to someone and not get anything back.

But make sure you mean it when you use these three little words, otherwise they will become three empty words, he adds.

His advice on bridging the gap of difference in expectation and how both parties view the matter is to find the middle way. There is no avoiding it, because the party who expects more will always feel cheated.

Being close and communicating your needs and feelings with your partner are incredibly important to your relationship. Photo: Alamy

“We are all born with the ability to talk and sing. But communication, like singing, is a skill that needs to be learned. Effective communication leads to better social well-being, better social integration, and happier lives. This has been found in rigorous   overseas studies,” says Wong.

“However, communication is a highly undervalued skill and the expansion of technology seems to have changed our ‘traditional’ communication manner.   Inappropriate use of this technology can produce a drastic estrangement and solitude of family members,” he adds.

“Against this backdrop, the University of Hong Kong is planning to develop and teach a number of communication intensive courses that aim to develop students’ communication related knowledge, skills and attributes. I really believe that our young people need these skills urgently.”

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post