Compliments: Research Notes

American Compliments

Compliment Categories (Manes & Wolfson, 1981)

  • A majority (85%) of the compliments used one of the three syntactic categories (appearance/possessions, performance/skills/abilities, personality traits) and 97% fell into the nine categories here.
    1. Your blouse is/looks (really) beautiful. (NP is/looks (really) ADJ)
    2. I (really) like/love your car. (I (really) like/love NP)
    3. That’s a (really) nice wall hanging. (PRO is (really) a ADJ NP)
    4. You did a (really) good job. (You V a (really) ADV NP)
    5. You really handled that situation well. (You V (NP) (really) ADV)
    6. You have such beautiful hair! (You have (a) ADJ NP!)
    7. What a lovely baby you have! (What (a) ADJ NP!)
    8. Nice game! (ADJ NP!)
    9. Isn’t your ring beautiful! (Isn’t NP ADJ!)
  • Positive meaning is carried by an adjective in 80% of the data.
    1. Nice (23%)
    2. Good (20%)
    3. Pretty (10%)
    4. Beautiful (9%)
    5. Great (6%)

Responses to Compliments

Responses to compliments derived from the following two studies.

Nelson, G., Al-batal, M. & Echols, E. (1996) [©]

  1. Accept
    1. Appreciation Token (Thanks) -- 29%
    2. Agreeing Utterance (Well, I think so too) -- 14%
    3. Compliment Return (Yours are nice, too) -- 7%
  2. Mitigate
    1. Deflect or Qualify Comment (I bought it at REI) -- 32%
    2. Reassurance or Repetition Request (Do you really like them?) -- 13%
  3. Reject
    1. Disagreeing Utterance (A: You look good and healthy. B: I feel fat) -- 3%
  4. No Response -- 2%

    (50% were acceptance, 45% were mitigations, and 3% were rejections.)

Herbert (1989, 1990) [©]; Herbert & Straight (1989) [©]

  1. Agreement
    • Acceptance
      1. Appreciation Token (Thanks/Thank you) -- 29%
      2. Comment Acceptance (Yeah, it's my favorite, too) -- 7%
      3. Praise Upgrade (Really brings out the blue in my eyes, doesn't it?) -- 0.4%

    • Nonacceptance
      1. Comment History (I bought it for the trip to Arizona) -- 19%
      2. Reassignment (My brother gave it to me/It really knitted itself) -- 3%
      3. Return (So's yours) -- 7%

  2. Nonagreement
    1. Scale Down (It's really quite old) -- 4%
    2. Question (Do you really think so?) -- 5%
    3. Disagreement (I hate it) -- 10%
    4. Qualification (It's all right, but Len's is nicer) -- 7%
    5. No Acknowledgment (Addressee responds with an irrelevant comment or gives no response) -- 5%
    6. Request Interpretation (Addressee interprets the compliment as a request such as: You wanna borrow this one too?) -- 3%

    (Agreement responses account for about two-thirds of the data whereas the subcategory of Acceptance occurred only about 35%. Two thirds are responses other than acceptance.)

New Zealander Compliments

Differences from American Compliments

  • Men also receive compliments on their appearance (40%) but the vast majority of them are given by women (Holmes & Brown 1987).

Other Findings

  • Compliments to those of different status tend to focus on skills or performance while between equals, just the reverse was true (Holmes, 1988 [©])

  • Women of higher status are more likely to receive compliments than higher status men (Holmes, 1988 [©]).

  • By far the most common response to a compliment is to accept and the least common was to reject one. There is no significant difference between the women and the men in terms of the likelihood that they will accept or reject a compliment, or evade responding (Holmes, 1988 [©])

Arabic Compliments

Egyptian Compliments (Nelson, El-Bakary, & Al-Batal, 1993 [©])

  • Arabic compliments tend to be lengthy. The average Egyptian female compliment contained 11 words and male compliment 9 words while American female compliment had 6 words and American male 4 words.

  • Compared to Americans, Egyptians compliment others less frequently. Egyptians reported that they gave, received, or overheard compliments on the average of 8.6 days before the interview, while American did so 1.6 days before the interview.

  • Most Egyptian compliments are given directly (73%), but they also offer compliment in a kidding joking way (20%). The third most common Egyptian response utilizes formulaic expressions (12%).

Syrian Compliment Responses (Nelson, Al-Batal, & Echols, 1996, p. 419 [©])

  1. Accept
    1. Appreciation Token (shukran [thank you]) -- 2%
    2. Agreeing Utterance (kill taSaamiimi naajHa [All my designs are successful]) -- 12%
    3. Comment Return (w-inti heek yaa Sawsan [And you and the same, Sasan]) -- 13%
    4. Acceptance + Formula (m'addame [it is presented to you]) -- 40%

  2. Mitigate
    1. Deflecting or Qualifying Comment (A: Your body has filled out. B: I used to work out a long time ago. ) -- 25%
    2. Reassurance or Repetition Request (Is that really me?) -- 8%

  3. Reject -- 0%

Spanish Compliments

Colombian Compliments (Campo and Zuluaga, 2000)

  • Giving piropos is a way of showing masculinity and suggest that the man is 'muy macho' (Snyder, 1991). In Hispanic culture, men are expected to notice women, unlike Americans who are expected to hide their feelings in public (p. 31).

  • Some piropos found in the data refer to history and geography of Colombia; others are ones given from generation to generation. Some have their roots in the courtly love tradition and the romance ballad in which the object of attention is the woman.

  • Despite the common belief that men are the givers of piropos, 20% of the males and 40% of the female participants responded that they were not confined to females exclusively.

Japanese Compliments

Responses to Compliments

Barnlund & Araki (1985), p. 14.

  • Question the accuracy of the compliment (33%)
  • Deny the compliment (19%)
  • Explain why the compliment is not deserved (17%)
  • Smile or say nothing (25%)

Daikuhara (1986), pp. 119-120.

  • 95% of all the compliment responses are avoidance of self-praise.

    Ie, ie (No, no), Sonna koto nai (That's not true)- 35%
    A smile or no response at all - 27%
    Soo? (You think so?) - 13%

  • Other deflecting responses are similar to American counterparts Appreciation/ acceptance of the compliment (Thank you) (5%) is restricted to joking interactions between close friends.

Chinese Compliments

Chinese Compliment Responses (Chen, 1993, p. 56 [©])

  • Rejecting (96%)
    1. Disagreeing and denigrating 51%
    2. Expressing embarrassment 26%
    3. Explaining 19%

  • Thanking and denigrating
    1. Thanking and denigrating 3%

  • Accepting
    1. Thanking only 1%



Barnlund D. C. & Araki, S. (1985). Intercultural encounters: The management of compliments by Japanese and Americans. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 16 (1), 9-26.

Campo, E. & Zuluaga, J. (2000). Complimenting: A matter of cultural constraints. Colombian Applied Linguistics Journal, 2(1), 27-41.

Chen, R. (1993). Responding to compliments: A contrastive study of politeness strategies between American English and Chinese speakers. Journal of Pragmatics, 20, 49-75.

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

Herbert, R. K. (1989). The ethnography of English compliments and compliment responses: A contrastive sketch. In W. Olesky (Ed.), Contrastive pragmatics (pp. 3-35). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Herbert, R. K. (1990). Sex-based differences in compliment behavior. Language in Society, 19, 201-224.

Herbert, R. K. & Straight, S. (1989). Compliment Rejection versus Compliment-Avoidance: Listener-based Versus Speaker-based Pragmatic Strategies. Language and Communication, 9 (1), 35-47.

Holmes, J. (1988). Paying Compliments: A Sex-Preferential Politeness Strategy. Journal of Pragmatics 12, 445-465.

Holmes, J. & Brown, D. F. (1987). Teachers and Students Learning about Compliments. TESOL Quarterly, 21 (3), 523-546.

Manes, J. & Wolfson, N. (1981). The compliment formula. In F. Coulmas (Ed.), Conversational Routine: Explorations in Standardized Communication Situations and Prepatterned Speech (pp. 116-132). The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton Publishers.

Nelson, G. L., Al-batal, M. & Echols, E. (1996). Arabic and English compliment responses: Potential for pragmatic failure. Applied Linguistics, 17(4), 411-432.

Nelson, G. L., El-Bakary, W., & Al-Batal, M. (1993). Egyptian and American compliments: A cross cultural study. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 17. 293-313.

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