Thursday, December 20, 2012

Responding to Compliments: Do I Really Have to Say “Thank You” or Can I Just Spit Three Times?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

Advice about Compliments …  the Surprise of the Hour

“Well, at least they have a healthy pile of magazines I can shuffle through,” I consoled myself after hearing that it would be a bit longer before the doctor could see me.  Passing over the monthlies dealing with sports, cars, and teenage-hood, I settled on a magazine concerning lifestyles–and that’s where I found the surprise of the hour… an article entitled 10 Things Your Mother Never Taught You, which included a section on how to take a compliment.

“Really?” I thought, questioning the piece’s relevance to the average American audience.  To my at-least-somewhat-assimilated mind (which has lived in the US for about ten years now), most Americans seem to accept compliments almost automatically.

Responses to Compliments…  Spitting

As I began to read the section, I recalled having to adjust my reactions to compliments when I relocated to the US.  In Poland, where I was raised, people almost invariably downgrade or even reject compliments.  Reading on, I found mention of someone’s relatives who, in the face of a compliment, spat three times in order to avoid bad luck.

The Formation of Compliments…  the Basic Patterns

Forming compliments is actually fairly easy in (American) English. As Manes and Wolfson (1981) explain, there are three top basic sentence patterns for compliments.

  • Noun Phrase + be/look + (really) Adjective:

              Your eyes are really beautiful.

  • I + (really) like/love + Noun Phrase:

             I really love your new office.

  • Pronoun + be + (really) Noun Phrase including an adjective:

             That’s a really impressive essay. 

Attitudes about Compliments…  Cross-cultural Interpretations 

Many ESL lesson materials which are designed to teach students how to make and respond to compliments engage students in discussions about the ways compliments are used in various countries. This makes sense because such lesson content is a must if we want our students to succeed not just linguistically but culturally, pragmatically.  We need to aim for understanding, and to help them avoid embarrassing themselves or offending their (American) interlocutors.

Here are a few statements illustrating cross-cultural interpretations of compliments.

  • New Zealanders think that Americans’ compliments are rather insincere because they are paid relatively frequently (Wolfson 1981).
  • Nigerian English speakers accept compliments at a very high rate (93%) since it is culturally important for them to be in agreement with others and to be cooperative (Mustapha 2011).
  • In Arab societies, where humility is a virtue, deflecting compliments is much more common than accepting them. Interestingly, compliments on someone’s skills at something are often viewed as requests for help (Falasi 2007).
  • The Japanese seldom use compliments, and when those are paid in English,  “linguistico-cultural” transfer often results in a response like That’s not true in order to show politeness (Daikuhara 1986).
  • Poles will accept a compliment if it seems sincere.  For example, if you compliment a Pole on a positive change in appearance (like a new hairdo), the change must be significant.  Otherwise, the comment will likely be considered spurious (Bhatti, Zegarac 2007).

Dilemmas about Compliments…  Circumstances and Questions

Even if paying and responding to compliments is not overly challenging in terms of the sentence structure and diction required, the pragmatic concerns of cultural context compound the difficulties surrounding compliments.  Added to this set of circumstances is a set related to the personal preferences of individual speakers.

Unfortunately, the pragmatic complexities of compliments are often under-treated in ESL textbooks.

The Teaching of Compliments…  The Need to Tweak Our Materials  

I recently revisited some teaching materials which focus on compliments, and I found that they suggest various discussion topics, list sample sentences, and outline role-play activities.  Moreover, some also suggest the approach of observing native speakers’ natural responses to compliments, which certainly appeals to reason, particularly if students note the age, sex, etc. of the native speakers involved.

However, while many textbooks and lesson materials may more or less effectively guide students toward a competence in accepting compliments, very few include content aimed at helping students succeed at deflecting flattering comments.

Even though Americans routinely accept compliments with a Thank you or some equivalent, it is culturally permissible to deflect a compliment on grounds of personal preference.

Regretfully, many ESL students finish their courses without sufficient ability to express their personal preferences in the face of compliments, and too often end up saying what they can say rather than what they want to say.  

To insure that our students can react to compliments in a culturally-acceptable yet personally-natural way, our lessons on compliments should include exercises not only on how to accept compliments (however culturally typical this may be), but also on how to turn them down.

A Fuller Lesson on Compliments…  The Acceptability of a Range of Responses

While preparing a lesson on a more complete range of compliment responses, which would include those expressing some level of rejection or non-agreement, we may consider the compliment response strategies classified by Pomerantz (1978).

Among those which express acceptance or agreement, one finds strategies such as those of comment history (exemplified by a sentence like I bought it in an antique store in Maine.) or reassignment (exemplified by a sentence like Oh, my mother knitted it for me.).

Response strategies for expressing a level of non-agreement fall into the following categories:

  • scaling down        It’s really very old. 
  • questioning          Are you sure it matches my shirt? 
  • disagreeing          I actually really hate these shoes. 
  • qualification         They are not bad, but I do need a new pair.

While practicing non-agreement responses as well as agreement responses, students may be provided with a list of compliment scenarios and a set of small cards indicating the types of responses to be practiced.  Such cards may be stacked for pairs of students and then drawn from so that students compliment each other and respond in turn.

As a result of such an approach, our students, we might expect, would later be able to express their thoughts or feelings in response to compliments more effectively and naturally.

For instance, if one of them honestly believes that a T-shirt on which she or he has just received a compliment should have been relegated to duty as a garage-shelf-cleaning dust rag long ago, our student would have the means to express that belief accurately and appropriately, downgrading, questioning, or actually disagreeing (diplomatically) with the compliment.

May we never see, in any doctor’s office, a magazine article entitled 10 Things Your ESL Teacher Never Taught You, one of the things being “How to Reply to Compliments in a Culturally Acceptable and Personally Preferable Way”…


Bhatti, J. and Zegarac, V. “Compliments and Refusals in Poland and England: a case study.” Research in Language 10  2007): 279-297.

Daikuhara, M. “A study of compliments from a cross-cultural perspective: Japanese vs. American English.” Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 2 (1986): 103-134.

Falasi, H. A. “Just say ‘Thank You’: A Study of Compliment Responses.” The Linguistcs Journal 2 (2007): 28-42.

Manes, J. and Wolfson, N. “The complement formula.” In F. Coulmas (Ed.), Conversational Routine. (1981). The Hague. Mouton.

Mustapha, A. S. “Compliment response patterns among speakers of Nigerian English.” Journal of Pragmatics 43 (2011): 1335-1348.

Pomerantz, A. “Compliment responses. Notes on the cooperation of multiple constraints.” In J. Schenkein (Ed.),     Studies in the Organisation of Conversational Interaction. (1978). New York, San Francisco, London: Academic      Press.

Wolfson, N. “Compliments in cross-cultural perspective.” TESOL Quarterly 15 (1981): 117-124.

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