Dec 082011

Ask an American what the polite way to respond to a compliment is and they usually tell you to smile and say thank you. I don’t think they mean to mislead you. They are just unaware that that’s not what they actually do in practice. In studies, it’s been found that around two thirds of the time they’ll do something like deflecting, downgrading or questioning the compliment to avoid accepting it. There’s a handy summary of some research into American compliments here:

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













There’s a nice video over at the British Council site that demonstrates how to give compliments. But more importantly, I think, it demonstrates different strategies for responding to them. For example:

Thanks, it wasn’t too difficult (downgrading the praise)

Do you think so? (questioning the praise)

Thanks for noticing (repaying one compliment with another)

It’s just an old thing (commenting by adding information)

Another common strategy people use that doesn’t appear in the video is sharing the praise – e.g Oh, I couldn’t have done it without the help of your wonderful team.

If you’d like to use the video in class, after your students have watched it, perhaps they can work out what strategies the woman used to avoid accepting the compliments. A nice round off activity could be getting the students to think of and pay a compliment to another student in the class. In my experience, the students listen avidly to one another’s compliments, and then you can analyse what strategies everyone used to respond. Do you think it’s something your students might find useful?

Click here for another of my posts about American compliments

 Posted by at 7:27 am

  19 Responses to “How to pay a compliment – and respond to one”

  1. Yes! This is a great idea for a lesson, especially with a group of students that I’m just getting to know. Thank you!

  2. Kathy, I’ve just visted your blog and discovered you’re based in Philadelphia too! Great to meet you neighbor!
    I’ll add the link to my blog roll, but for folks who want to read another Philly based ELT/ESL blog, here’s the link:

  3. Hi Vickie:
    I liked your post, but don’t thank me. I’m just trying to put you on the spot. As the foregoing indicates, many compliments seem gratuitous and simply have the effect of putting the ball in your court. That’s true whether you’re British or American.Many compliments are often given for routine activities which exhibit no need for a compliment. The last makes the receiver doubt the sincerity of the giver. Than there’s the paraprosdokian compliment: “You really look great today!(pause)Who dressed you?
    Compliments have the unfortunate ability to make the receiver obligated in some way to the giver. As someone who largley shares the British gift(curse?)of understatement, I find most compliments embarassing, unless they are given for specific achievements by persons for whom I have a great deal of respect.

  4. Accepting compliments can also be a strategy for aborting a conversation right off. In an office cubicle: “Hey, nice poster you have there.” “Thanks.” (meaning, Let me get back to work, will you?)

    In sexual harassment training courses (which anyone who works in corporate America will get sooner or later), men are now told not to compliment women on appearances that they can’t control, but to stick to things they can. Crudely put, “Nice blouse” is fine, “Nice tits” is definitely not! Of course the actual examples are more subtle than these.

  5. Marc: The important thing about American compliments is that the vast majority of them are sincerely mean. See this Lynnguist posting:

    I don’t have to approve of you in order to compliment you, I just have to find a fragment of you that I can approve of in order to develop a relationship of some sort with you. One can see why this might be taken as insincerity in some quarters, but if I tell you I like your shoes and that you play the tuba well, it’s almost certainly the case that I really do like your shoes and think you’re tuba-tastic. So, it’s a sincere attempt on my part to cement our relationship with shared values — at least as far as shoes and brass instruments are concerned.

  6. Arrgh, typo alert! Sincerely meant.

  7. Yes, we’re neighbors! I’m looking forward to having the TESOL Convention right here in Philly this March …

  8. Marc, I embarrass the heck out of myself all the time with the daft things I say and do, so I have developed a pretty thick skin over time. But you hit me right on a soft spot with that compliment. You’re quite right. 12 years living the the US and I’d still have trouble responding.

    A while ago I gave a presentation about some of my experiences learning to speak ‘merican at a conference in the US and described my difficulties with handling compliments. As an example, I said imagine you come up to me at the end of this talk and say something like:
    “Wow Vicki, I really loved your presentation”
    To you, that’s probably just a signal that you are happy to pass a few minutes of the day chatting to me, but you have to understand that I can’t handle that level of enthusiasm.

    It’s going to compel me to respond with something like “Oh that’s very kind of you, but I should have done a better job”
    And then you’re going to have to say, “No, no it was really very good.”
    But that’s going to compel me to say, “But I was very nervous and forgot a lot of stuff”
    And then you’re going to have to say “I really didn’t notice”, and then I’m going to feel compelled to say….

    We are both going to wind up in an awkward situation where I’m ready to crawl under a table with embarrassment and you are going to be thinking this British woman is really weird.

    Believe me. It’s happened to me.

    So I suggested a compromise along the lines of “Vicki, your presentation wasn’t bad”. I can handle that with aplomb and move swiftly onto another topic.

    Or something like this wouldn’t phase me:
    “Vicki, I managed to stay awake in your presentation”
    “Oh that’s good”

    So anyway, the conference went on all day and it was a sociable affair with lots of mixing going on. But I noticed a strange phenomenon. Smiling Americans who I didn’t know but who had been at my talk would advance towards me as if they were about to come and say ‘Hi’, but then suddenly they’d swerve in another direction – like they’d suddenly changed their mind.

    I think they were being kind.

  9. Oh Kathy, I’m going to be speaking about learning to speak ‘merican there! Please come and say hi and connect. And please ignore everything I just said to Marc about compliments and feel free to say as many nice things as you like!

  10. John, somehow I’d missed that Lynnguist post and it’s a gem! Thank you for that link! She’s spot on – as always. And some of the comments were brilliant. Please notice that BrE use of ‘brilliant’ that can make Brits sound overly enthusiastic to ‘merican ears.
    Your point is very true, I think. American compliments are generally sincere in that there is no ulterior motive other than an desire to seek a brief connection. It’s a conversational routine amongst strangers – a habit. The closest parallel I could think of in BrE, I’ve already mentioned, which was ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’. But of course ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ probably isn’t as frequent in BrE as “Your … is really …”, “I love your…” , “That’s a really nice…”. . In BrE we don’t like to impose, so if we’re standing in a lift or sitting in a railway carriage together, we’re reluctant to break anyone’s bubble of privacy and intrude.

    American compliments can be hard for many foreign students to get their heads around. “This person doesn’t know me, so why do they feel they can pass a judgement like this?”, they think. “All this friendliness” they think. “How fake is that?” I portray it as being as fake as a Tagalog speaker who greets someone with “Where are you going?” expecting the answer “Over there”. Or a Taiwanese speaker who greets someone with “Have you eaten yet?” when they have no intention of inviting them for a meal. I argue that they are just conversational routines and rituals, as Marc said. Who is to reason why they happen – but my students need to know that they do. And as you suggest, it’s all about context too. So a compliment about something extraneous like my new handbag/purse is one thing, but a compliment about who I am and my achievements is another.

  11. Vicki:
    This wholecompliments thing falls partly under the rubric of phatic communion, a phrase created by Bronislaw Malinowski to describe the interchanges we articulate on meeting. I see you and say, “Hi, Vicki, how are you?” and you respond, “Fine, how are you?” whether friend or froe, we really don’t expect a rundown on our health oh either side of the exchange. Th same is largely true of th compliment scenario. If we ritualized compliments count6ry to country, it would be muchsimpler. Then we would aLL

  12. Pardon the typos; I hit the wrong button. The last sentence should read: “Then we would all understand the weight of the remark within the context of the specific culture.

  13. Vicki, I’ll definitely look for your presentation, say “hi” and drop a few compliments!

  14. “All this friendliness” they think. “How fake is that?”

    Well, no, it’s not fake, that’s the point of Lynne’s article. Nor is it simply ritual or phatic communion. It’s sincere but limited in scope. When I compliment you on your presentation (or shoes, or tuba playing), I really do like it. If I didn’t, I might not be openly critical, but I would say nothing — assuming I don’t have some ulterior motive for brown-nosing you. What might or might not be true is that I really do like you to the extent that the compliment might suggest.

  15. Oh John, how complicated this is! How are foreigners to work out where those suggested limitations might lie?

    And the idea that ‘mericans are direct and hence easy to understand gets bandided about. No wonder Brits (and much of the rest of the world, I suspect) are confused!

  16. As an English teacher in Bangkok Thailand, I found this subject very interesting.

    Compliments are an interesting subject, American culture, English culture, Asian culture all see compliments from a very different understanding.

    I personally enjoy giving compliments, and have noticed ladies enjoy them more than men.

    I read somewhere ” A lady grows/blossoms from receiving compliments”

    A genuine heart felt compliment is a beautiful thing.

    Thank you Vicki for your site.

    Ray 🙂

  17. Thanks Ray – I am blossoming here.

  18. Im having a small issue. I cant get my reader to pickup your rss feed, Im using msn reader by the way.

  19. Apologies for my slow reply. Yes, I have been having problems with my feed for some time now and am doing my level best to fix them. I hope to have a whole newly designed site up and running very soon and will post the new links then.
    Thank you for your patience.

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