“Nothing is so silly as the expression of a man who is being complimented” (Andre Gide)
Who doesn’t like to receive a compliment? It may be because we have performed a work task well, cooked a wonderful meal or simply because we look nice, but even small compliments can go a long way to enhancing our confidence and self-esteem.
So what are they? Well in the world of Intercultural Communication compliments can be defined as ‘face enhancing speech acts’, intended to have a direct positive effect on the recipient. They can be used to express admiration or approval (well done – that was great!), replace greetings or gratitude (oh you are such a star for helping me!), soften face-threatening acts such as criticism (you did that really well but next time should consider doing it this way…) or simply re-enforce desired behaviours (it makes me so happy when you do that…).
However, individuals can respond very differently when receiving compliments. There are three main ways in which responses to compliments are made:
- Acceptance (‘thank you’ or ‘yes I know’)
- Deflection (‘I bought it on holiday’ or ‘do you really think so?’)
- Rejection (‘oh no I’m not’ or ‘don’t be silly’)
So do individuals from different cultures respond to compliments in the same way or are there differences in their behaviour? Much research gives weight to the argument that differences do exist. A study conducted by Barnlund and Araki (1985) examined how Americans and Japanese individuals pay and receive compliments. They found that whereas the Americans accepted or justified their compliments when receiving them, the Japanese denied them, simply smiled or did not respond at all. For example, if a student had got a good grade for an assignment and the lecturer said ‘well done – your work was great’, the American student may say ‘thank you, I worked really hard on it’, whereas the Japanese student may never dream of responding in such a manner. Other studies, for example by Chen (1993) and Nelson et al (1996), support this suggestion. This indicates that there is a clear link between the individualistic (e.g. American) and collectivistic (e.g. Japanese) attitudes present in a society and the way in which compliments are perceived and responded to.
It must of course always be remembered that whilst the general population of a culture may share common traits and behaviours, individuality also plays a role, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that there are always people who do not ‘follow the norm’.
So in the future, before throwing out compliments left, right and centre, maybe spend some time to think about the person you are giving them to, and don’t be surprised if you do not get the response you expect!