Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Good Compliment

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Mark Twain is credited as having said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” I think the key word in his quote is “good.” For example, if a strange man whistles at a woman on the street, while that’s technically a compliment, it’s a creepy one at best, right? A “good” compliment is genuine, personalized and meant to communicate appreciation of some aspect of the recipient’s appearance, actions or possessions.

“Teacher, you are beautiful.”

Complimenting doesn’t necessarily leap to mind as something that ESL/EFL students necessarily need to learn. After all, it is not a face-threatening act and the language surrounding it is fairly straightforward. Even if a student makes grammar mistakes, it’s usually quite easy to understand the intention behind the utterance.

But, have you ever received a compliment from a student that feels a little funny? Many years ago, I taught a young man from Georgia who used to tell me that I was beautiful. I know (or hope, at least) that he was genuinely trying to be nice, but it made me uncomfortable. A similar example of a compliment gone wrong can be found in the research of Holmes and Brown (1987) when they report a male Malaysian student saying to his female tutor from New Zealand, “You are wearing a very lovely dress. It fits you.” The tutor reported feeling a bit uncomfortable about the compliment; however, she conceded that she may not have felt that way if the speaker had been female.

These examples shed light on the complex issues that surround the seemingly benign act of complimenting. As it turns out, linguists around the world have found that compliments are not the same from culture to culture. And, while it might not seem to be that big of a deal if a proficient English speaker experiences a moment of discomfort when on the receiving end of a slightly off-kilter compliment, the problem is that “[i]t does not take massive breakdowns to create tensions between people of different cultural backgrounds. Rather, it is a cumulative process made up of uncomfortable moments and small frustrations” (Beal, 1992, pages 49-50). Just as I point out in other posts about Pragmatics (I am Sorry, but Apologizing in English is Really Difficult, Offers they CAN Refuse, The Art of Yes, But … and Can I Please Borrow your Car?), proficient English speakers usually don’t see these errors as mistakes; rather they assume the speaker is being rude or predatory.

“Teacher, you dressing nice.”

English compliments differ from many other cultures in three main ways: the topic of the compliment, the status of the speakers and the gender of the speakers. According to Holmes and Brown (1987), we tend to compliment people on their appearance when it is the result of a deliberate effort, like weight loss or a new haircut. More commonly, however, we compliment on people’s actions, as in “Great presentation today” and (safest of all) their possessions, like “I love your car”.

The status of the speakers is also an important factor in the appropriateness of a compliment. According to Wolfson (1983) “the overwhelming majority of all compliments are given to people of the same age and status as the speaker.” (Wolfson, 1982, 91) Wolfson also found that when compliments occurred in conversations between unequals, they tended to come from people in higher positions, like bosses and teachers, to people in lower positions, like workers and students. Unsurprisingly, these compliments tend to focus on the receivers’ abilities and actions rather than their appearance or possessions.

Finally, gender plays an important role in where an English compliment falls on the “creepy to sweet” continuum. Apparently, women pay and receive more compliments than men (Holmes, 1995). So, it stands to reason that the New Zealand tutor would have been less uncomfortable if the compliment about her dress had come from a female.

“You teaching me well.”

So, what does this mean for our students and our lessons? Students need to know that compliments are important in English. Americans, especially, compliment a lot. In addition to just communicating our approval of something, we use compliments to greet each other, reinforce desired behavior, and soften criticism (Grossi, 2009). We clearly need to explicitly cover this in our ESL classes because the students don’t necessarily learn this naturally. “A laissez-faire, or osmotic, approach, in which the teacher expects students to simply “pick up” or absorb relevant knowledge without explicitly teaching, risks disempowering learners, depriving them of choice and sophistication in their use of English.” (Holmes & Brown, 1987, 543) This means that teachers of students who have to interact in a native English speaking environment should spend a little time in class talking about which compliments will be appropriate and which will fall flat.

Beal, C. (1992). Did you have a good weekend? Or why there is no such thing as simple question in cross-cultural encounters. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 15(1), 23-52.
Grossi, V. (2009). Teaching pragmatics competence: Compliments and compliment responses in the ESL classroom. Prospect, 24(2), 53-62.
Holmes, J. & Brown, D.F. (1987). Teachers and students learning about compliments. TESOL Quarterly, 21(3), 523-542.
Holmes, J. (1995). Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman.
Wolfson, N. (1983). An empirically based analysis of complimenting in American English. In N. Wolfson & E. Judd (Eds.) Sociolinguistics and Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 82-95.


Comment from Сарантуяа
December 13, 2016 at 2:13 am

hi my names sarantuya I born in mongolia. I lived in mongolai. i want learn english. help me.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » You Should Be Careful When Giving Advice in English
February 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm

[…] advice? Because, like a lot of speech acts, some of which I have written about in previous blogs (A Good Compliment, I am Sorry, but Apologizing in English is Really Complicated, Offers they CAN Refuse, The Art of […]

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