Apr 212009

It’s difficult to play the game when the rules of engagement are different

By: Floris

Learning to give and respond to compliments is a constant challenge for me in the US. Perfect strangers make comments like ‘I love your accent/eyes/earrings/…’, and more embarrassingly, colleagues say things like ‘Great job!’. Very confusingly, compliments are frequently used as an invitation to begin a conversation here, rather like I might say ‘Nice day today, isn’t it?’ in the UK.

So I have to keep reminding myself that the rules and rituals are different. In the UK (and other negative politeness cultures) compliments are dished out more sparingly. They could be a bit of an imposition because the person receiving them might think ‘What right have you got to make a judgment about me?’ Or they might feel obliged to pay you one back, so it could suggest you were fishing for a compliment yourself. And in the UK, we’re very fond of understatement, so too much earnest and vocal enthusiasm could signal sarcasm.

I’m still a long way from mastering American compliments, but here’s some advice I often give my Asian students:

When an American pays you a compliment, don’t hesitate. Get in quick and say ‘thank you’ in a very positive, upbeat sounding way. For goodness sake don’t show any signs of disagreement or it really screws things up. The American won’t know how to continue or they’ll feel compelled to pile more compliments onto you which you’ll feel compelled to deny, and it will all get horribly embarrassing. So if they say you’re looking good, thank them and say you think you’re looking good too. And perhaps add that you really like their hairstyle/hat/socks/smile/dental work, or whatever seems appropriate. Remember that in American this ritual simply means you’re happy for the conversation to continue.

It’s a handy rule of thumb for the compliment-challenged like me, but it’s an oversimplification. Americans may think that the polite way to respond to compliments is to say ‘thank you’, but conversational research shows that, in practice, they generally don’t. Like the rest of us, they have a variety of ways to avoid accepting them, so they’ll share the praise, downgrade it, ignore it or whatever. They do seem to be less likely to disagree though.

What’s going on here is conflicting politeness rules. There’s a social requirement to be agreeable and disagreeing with a compliment might suggest that we think the other person is stupid to admire something that we don’t. On the other hand, there’s another social requirement to appear modest. So accepting a compliment might make us appear bigheaded. Some cultures (such as the US) tend to emphasise agreement. Others (such as the UK) tend to emphasise modesty.

A lot of Asian cultures favour negative politeness, like the UK. Chen has done some lovely research into the ways the Chinese respond to compliments. My favourite Chinese example (translated) went something like:

A: Wow Zhang! You’re looking good
B: No, I’m very old and wrinkled.

Zhang’s response simply wouldn’t cut it over here.

 Posted by at 1:13 am

  19 Responses to “Compliments”

  1. Great advice… and nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Another thing to consider is the way some cultures lavish compliments which they don’t necessarily mean, as social lubricant.

    Why else would the Japanese be impressed by a foreigner using chopsticks – something the average Japanese five year old can do? Some people choose to interpret it as a kind of racism, but I think it’s more likely that they are not actually impressed at all, it’s just a pretence.

    But it adds another layer of confusion.

  2. […] and I love to read what she has to say whenever she comments elsewhere, too. This one about compliments is facsinating – particularly the advice for Asian […]

  3. Thanks so much for discovering this Darren. I’d forgotten I’d written it! And many thanks for your kind words at http://www.livesofteachers.com/2010/05/21/a-vast-pool-of-human-knowledge-neglected/

    I wonder when compliments about chopsticking skills are dropped into conversation. Perhaps the timing would indicate the function they are meant to perform? Might it happen when there’s a conversation lull? Or might they mean “Generally speaking, I approve of you, but with limitations”. Is there an unsaid ‘but’ attached and if so, about what?

  4. I’ll listen out for the timing in future… although I don’t hear it much anymore. I’ve been here so long I’ve gone past the ‘Ooooh, a foreigner’ stage to ‘Are you still here?’.

  5. I loved this post. I’ve always been fascinated with cultural differences. Amazing how different people are, depending on where they live.
    I myself am careful with paying compliments, as they really come from my heart. When I say one, I really mean it and it makes me sad to see some people around using them so easily, without a special meaning. As for returning compliments – it is strange in my culture. I’d rather say “Thank you” with a big smile , than pay one back.

  6. Great blog, Vicki! Just discovered it and am reading from the beginning.

    Growing up in an Irish home in New Jersey, I definitely got mixed messages on this. Eventually I learned to say “Eh, I was just lucky” to my parents and “Thanks, you did good too” to American friends, but it took a while 🙂

    If you haven’t seen this, you’d find it interesting:


    The US and the Rainy Isles are on opposite sides of this spectrum, I suspect!

  7. Oh, big, big welcome Agata and Emmet!
    Agata, I adore your blog. Poland and Brazil – two of my most favourite cultures on earth all rolled into one blog!
    And Emmet, what a great link – and it led me to more interesting links as well. In fact I think you have inspired a new posting. Thank you!

  8. […] while ago Darren Elliot raised a very interesting point on this site here. He pointed out that foreigners in Japan will often be lavished with compliments for being able to […]

  9. Actually. . . As an American who grew up in more of a “ball-busting” than a compliment giving circle of friends, I had to focus on this as my circle of acquaintances expanded, too.

    I find that, for me, a good rule of thumb is this: try to recognize the positive traits in others that I feel like I’d want recognized if the roles were reversed (“Good job handling his complaints. That’s the kind of thing I’d have botched.”) And, in parallel, never seem to be too full of yourself (“You get enough difficult customers, you develop the knack” — it acknowledges that you’re good at it, but makes it seem as though anyone could be.

    More, Vicky, I’d like to know if you’ve run up against the Americans–me–who like putting people down (the aforementioned ‘ball-busting’) as a way of bonding and how you’ve reacted.

  10. Oh, really interesting, Toby. That trying to ‘recognize the positive’, is something that I’ve found I have had to work hard too as I’ve been trying learn tospeak ‘merican – and it’s still a bit of a challenge for this Brit. It’s also interesting that you mention putting people down ‘as a way of bonding’ because yes, I’ve certainly seen that it happen here, though perhaps not as much as in the UK. Or thinking about it, it’s not so much the quantity that’s struck me as type. Accompanying winks’ and “Just kidding”s are unlikely to be present in the UK though.

  11. You know, Vicki. . . I don’t think my (old) friends and I used the accompanying wink or a ‘just kidding.’ I think we were supposed to recognize from the tone of voice that it was meant as a joke.

    Also, we often make fun of people for actual faults. I once bought my roommate–who was overweight–a cake to celebrate ‘Fat Tuesday.’ He laughed and we shared the cake. Or, my family knows I hate being called ‘German’ now that I live here and so we’ve become ‘the German side of the family.’ (Yes, it makes me crazy. No, I shouldn’t have let it show.)

    So, we’re not always kidding. I’d say we’re just having fun and, if I had to defend our behavior, I’d say we’re showing we accept each other the way we are. Or, we’re just jerks.

  12. Ha! Toby, This blog often focuses on the curious differences between British and American culture, but I think your description is a lovely illustration of how similar we can all be as well.

  13. […] It’s generally easier to pay a compliment than respond to one because there are competing politeness principles at work. One the one had we need to be agreeable, but on the other hand we need to be modest. For more on this see here. […]

  14. […] while ago Darren Elliot raised a very interesting point on this site here. He pointed out that foreigners in Japan will often be lavished with compliments for being able to […]

  15. […] all too often. I’ve been putting it down to Americans being more liberal with compliments (they’re commonly used as an invitation to talk here) but you’ve just helped explain it to me. It’s not that he’s a wonderful dog so […]

  16. […] while ago Darren Elliot raised a very interesting point on this site here. He pointed out that foreigners in Japan will often be lavished with compliments for being able to […]

  17. […] Compliments  Posted by Vicki at 10:05 pm […]

  18. […] Another post on compliments: https://www.merican.vickihollett.com/compliments/ […]

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