The Chinese expression "smiling face tiger" (笑面虎) is defined in English at one website as "an outwardly kind but inwardly cruel person".

More broadly it doesn't need to refer to someone who is actually positively cruel. The phrase might be used to refer to a person who superficially appears nice/gracious/easygoing/etc., but actually is not at all nice/gracious/easygoing/etc.

Any similar expression/word/idiom in English?

Edit to elaborate: One suggested answer in "wolf in sheep's clothing". This is perhaps the closest English translation (especially since it involves animals) but I think this English/European idiom has an emphasis on the fact that the wolf is deliberately disguising himself in sheep's clothing, in order to deceive someone and achieve some malicious end.

What I am thinking of is someone less malicious than a "wolf in sheep's clothing" (but can nonetheless--though not usually--be just as harmful). Examples:

  • He is always smiling, greeting you, and saying "Good morning, how do you do?" and generally being absolutely courteous.

  • When he spills some coffee on your shirt he might say, "Oh my goodness! I am SO terribly sorry! I am such an absolute and horrible klutz! Please let me wash your shirt for you!" (but with no intent of actually doing so, knowing that you will probably reject the offer).

  • He often offers to help you out or do you favors (again with no intent of doing so).

  • When you inadvertently cause him some inconvenience, he might say "Oh that is no problem at all! Absolutely no problem at all!" and keep smiling and seem unperturbed the whole time (but in fact he is extremely peeved and if you provoke him just a little bit more, he is liable to abruptly erupt in fury).

These are just some examples. You can probably think of more.

Such a person does this sort of thing on an everyday basis. Unlike a "wolf in sheep's clothing", he has no malicious intent to disguise himself or to seriously harm anyone else. Nonetheless, he has somehow acquired the art of delivering a very favorable first impression and being very nice with his words and superficial acts. But when a problem actually surfaces, it is quickly revealed that he is not very nice after all.

  • 3
    "Wolf in a sheep's clothing?"
    – Kris
    Jul 31, 2014 at 6:57
  • @Kris - it's short, but the exact answer, I think :)
    – oerkelens
    Jul 31, 2014 at 6:57
  • @oerkelens I also found a reference just now.
    – Kris
    Jul 31, 2014 at 6:59
  • 1
    Hey Kenny, i can see the subtlety .. as you describe it, it's really not a "wolf in sheep's clothing", it's different. You're describing someone self-absorbed, shallow, a real two-face, superficial, a superficially friendly person - someone who gives lip-service to courtesy.
    – Fattie
    Jul 31, 2014 at 8:44
  • 2
    Such a peron is liable to wear a crocodile smile: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Crocodile+Smiles Jul 31, 2014 at 13:19

7 Answers 7


I don't know Chinese but see: 衣冠禽兽

When we hear that about a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, we know to expect someone who we can’t take at face value, but have to be careful as to what their true intentions may be. As it were, there is also a Chinese saying that means the same thing: 衣冠禽兽 (Yīguānqínshòu).

… Are you wary of sheep lest they be wolves inside?


Lip server/play-actor is exactly who/what you are talking about. Two-timer fits loosely, too. Lip-server is derived from lip service (to just say something but not actually do it. To pretend that you believe a certain thing but not practice that belief. To pretend that there is no problem when there is actually a problem etc.) http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=lip+service

A play-actor plays the part of a caring, attentive and affable individual while playing is easy, but when the chips are down his true colors become revealed.

  • I really think lip-service is the best overall match here, good one
    – Fattie
    Jul 31, 2014 at 8:45

Well, every one of the following words should serve well in describing a person that appears to be (as in easygoing, cordial, friendly etc.) what he/she is not: fake, two-face, fraud, phony, double-dealer, two-timer, play-actor, poser, charlatan, quack, sham, humbug, impostor, pretender, masquerader, cheat. These are the ones off the top off my head and there are many others out there. As far as idioms go I could only think of "a wolf in sheep's clothing" (a dangerous person pretending to be harmless)

  • 1
    +1 But, Two-Face is a Batman villain. The adjective is two-faced (from Janus). Jul 31, 2014 at 8:17
  • I think "fake" and "phony" are pretty good, but perhaps a bit too broad. One can be fake and phony in many ways other than as described in (the elaborated version of) my question. The others I don't think are too good. "Two-face" is, as UD puts it, "when a person acts a certain way in one place and acts different in another." My guy could be acting the same way everywhere. Similarly with some of the others.
    – user38936
    Jul 31, 2014 at 10:14
  • By the way, "masquerader" fits pretty well, too in the narrow sense. "Masquerader" is derived from "masquerade" which means: To go about as if in disguise; have or put on a deceptive appearance. Plus "masquerader" doesn't necessarily have a bad connation to it unlike "lip server" and "play-actor" do meaning "masquerader" pretends to be affable(nice, friendly, good-natured and easy to talk to) without malicious intent most of the time.
    – user74809
    Jul 31, 2014 at 19:14
  • Fake is a very broad and offensive word and it has a very bad connation meaning it doesn't fit at all and neither does phony when one takes into account the elaboration to your question.
    – user74809
    Jul 31, 2014 at 19:17
  • In passing, "A masquerader wearing a crocodile smile" portrays best a person you've painted in the elaborated version of your question. "A wolf in sheep's clothing wearing a crocodile" smile is somewhat good fit as well.
    – user74809
    Jul 31, 2014 at 19:31

"but I think this English/European idiom has an emphasis on the fact that the wolf is deliberately disguising himself in sheep's clothing, in order to deceive someone and achieve some malicious end."

Actually, I don't think this disqualifies "wolf in sheep's clothing" at all. There is one subtle difference though. In the European version of things, a wolf in sheep's clothing would be using the disguise to evade the herder and prey on the sheep. In the case of a tiger wearing a smile to blend in, the potential prey is different (there is no protector to fool, only the prey).

I'm not familiar enough with Chinese idioms, but might this actually be more similar to the concept behind "looking like the cat that ate the canary"? In this phrase the smile is not a diguise, but simply a predator's joy at successfully slaughtering some defenseless creature? Not really malicious at all, just what predators do.


I immediately thought of the cheshire cat when I saw the description of a smiling tiger.

  • I believe that Patricia Neal's character in "In Harm's Way" recites a limerick involving a smiling tiger. Jul 31, 2014 at 13:26

You can go with whited sepulchre (BrE) / whited sepulcher (AmE).

a person inwardly corrupt or wicked but outwardly or professedly virtuous or holy

Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

This metaphor is a biblical allusion and it is used also in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It is usually used in religious contexts but you can use in non-religious contexts as well.


Hypocrite is the word for that. As for idioms, yes, whited sepulchre as @ermanen said; I don't know of a modern-day idiom.