Compliments are a conventional part of everyday life; we receive compliments on our appearance, personality, and skills and respond in a particular way that does not only reflect our attitude to and perception of the compliment but also cultural values and linguistic norms we usually employ. Depending on the individual’s culture, social values, and language, both compliments and compliment responses can differ significantly.
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Holmes (1988) defines a compliment as “a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually, the person addressed, for some „good‟ (possession, characteristic, skill, etc.) which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer” (p. 446). Compliment responses are the act of responding to an explicit (or implicit) compliment. Ziaei (2014) points out that although compliments and compliment responses are treated as separate units, it is important to remember that they are linked acts. Normally, Holmes (1988) points out, compliments are used to attribute good to the addressee.
Even if the compliment targets a third person, it still can serve as indirect praise of the addressee. At the same time, compliments can serve either as “positive politeness devices” or as a “face-threatening act” when the compliment becomes a redressive strategy (Holmes, 1988, p. 487). In this case, a compliment can be seen as a threatening act, for example, when the compliment addresses something that the individual is interested in.
Thus, complimenting and responding to compliments are complex sociolinguistic skills as they can either enhance the solidarity between the interacting individuals or be perceived as face-threatening acts (Holmes, 1988). Additionally, compliments might express more than one pragmatic force; in some countries and cultures, they are used as a form of encouragement or support.
Pomerantz (1978) examines compliment responses as “the behavior where actual performances are often discrepant from ideal or preferred performances, and where actual performances are often reported as… somewhat problematic” (p. 80). Also, Pomerantz (1978) notes that compliment responses can be embedded in the agreement/disagreement system, where agreements (with the compliment) are perceived as preferred second assessments and disagreements as dispreferred assessments.
Differently put, normally, an agreement with compliments is a preferred response; at the same time, it is dispreferred to express agreement with a depreciating comment. However, in general, a self-deprecating comment is a form of assessment that is expected to be perceived as preferred. In this way, the roles of agreements and disagreements may shift. Compliments and compliment responses are linked to each other through specific sets of chained actions. There are two sets of such actions: acceptance/rejection and agreement/disagreement. Members of these two sets are also interrelated, namely, acceptances are related to agreements, and rejections are related to disagreements (Pomerantz, 1978).
Pomerantz (1978) also divides compliment responses into two groups: evaluation shifts (praise downgrades) and referent shifts (subsequent praises to other referents). Returns are more common for opening and closing interactions, and various classes of compliments can be collected in different sequential environments. Acceptances and rejections often depend upon the recipient’s decision to minimize self-praise.
Herbert’s (1986) more detailed model of the compliment responses is based on the research conducted by Pomerantz (1978). In this model, Herbert (1986) suggests that compliment responses can be divided into three major categories that include twelve types of such responses; the response types are taxonomized in accordance to the pragmatic function that they have and fill in discourse. The three major categories are agreement, nonagreement, and other interpretations (Herbert, 1986).
The category “agreement” consists of acceptances (appreciation token, comment acceptance, praise upgrade), comment history, and transfers (reassignment or return). For example, a comment acceptance would be as follows: “Thanks, it’s my favorite too” (Herbert, 1986, p. 79). Nonagreement consists of the scale down (“It’s really quite old”), question (Do you really think so?”), nonacceptances (disagreement: “I hate it” or qualification: “It’s all right, but Len’s nicer”), and no acknowledgment (Herbert, 1986, p. 79). At last, other interpretations include requests. If the compliment is treated as a request, the speaker cannot provide any compliment response since he or she does not view the phrase as a compliment.
That is why such compliments can be approached with a question, as stated in Herbert’s (1986) example: “You wanna borrow this one too?” (p. 79). While some of the categories oppose each other (for example, nonagreement vs. acknowledgment), question responses cannot be placed either in acceptance or nonacceptance categories since questions are often neither. This statement means that questions or requests, such as the one in the example, do not carry any value as compliments for the listener. As a result, this form of interpretation does not signify an accepting or non-accepting response.
As can be seen, all response types have their function. For example, an appreciation token serves as a verbal or nonverbal acceptance of the compliment. In praise upgrade, the speaker believes that the praise is insufficient and enhances it. In comment history, the speaker prefers to shift the compliment from the speaker and comments on the complimented object. For example, hearing someone say that one looks good in his or her jacket, they could transfer attention to the piece of clothing and offer a comment such as “It was made in Italy.” In this situation, a personal compliment becomes shifted to the object included in the compliment.
In return, the praise is always shifted or returned to the complimenter (Herbert, 1986). The question implies that the recipient questions the sincerity of the complimenter. In nonacceptances, such as a disagreement, the recipient indicates that he or she believes the object does not deserve the praise that is given to it. When the recipient does not acknowledge the compliment, he or she deliberately ignores the compliment by either shifting the topic or not responding to the praise (Herbert, 1986).
Another important aspect is the role of social status in compliments and compliment responses. As compliments often have an evaluative function, the approval expressed by it is often directed from the more powerful to the less powerful, which determines the choice of the response (for example, from a professor to a student: “This essay demonstrates a great level of self-reflection, well done” / “Thank you so much.”). In this case, the professor uses the compliment as a form of encouragement.
The compliment from one student to the other would be perceived differently, as in this case, both participants of the conversation have the same status (not an interaction between the supervisor and the subordinate). Thus, such compliment could be seen as an expression of solidarity and could trigger a variety of responses (“Wow, your essay is so thoughtful and insightful!” / “I wrote it at 2 a.m.” / “Yeah, I know, it’s the best in the class” / “I could do better,” etc.). At the same time, a student’s compliment to a professor can also be a form of encouragement in some way (e.g., “today’s lecture about dolphins was very interesting, let’s discuss them more often”). Nevertheless, compliments from a person with higher social status to a person with lower social status are more common.
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Compliments and compliment responses are directly related to sociolinguistics; without sociolinguistic competence, individuals would be unable to accept, interpret, or reject compliments correctly (i.e., as expected). Their inability would interfere with the effectiveness of the communication; for example, Holmes (1988) provides an example of such misinterpretation when a Pakeha woman compliments a necklace of her Samoan friend, who in response suggests that she should take it.
The Pakeha woman feels embarrassed due to this reaction as she is unaware of the specifics of the Samoan culture, where such response is typical, partially because the addressee is placed in the complimenter’s debt. Thus, multicultural communication can also result in such misunderstandings since sociocultural norms often define our responses to compliments, and these responses can be perceived as unusual by representatives of other cultures.
Herbert, R. K. (1986). Say” thank you”- or something. American Speech, 61(1), 76-88.
Holmes, J. (1986). Compliments and compliment responses in New Zealand English. Anthropological Linguistics, 28(4), 485-508.
Pomerantz, A. (1978). Compliment responses: Notes on the co-operation of multiple constraints. In J. Schenkein (Eds.), Studies in the organization of conversational interaction (pp. 79-112). Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.
Ziaei, N. (2014). Translation on the basis of frequency: Compliment and compliment response. Translation Journal, 16(3), 1-4.