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Different Responses

to Compliments in Chinese and English

Wang Yuhuan

Laiyang Agricultural College

Abstract: This article reviews the previous researches made on compliments by

well-known American linguists such as Manes, Wolfson, Pomerantz, Herbert.

The study is based theoretically on the politeness principle advanced by Brown

& Levinson. It is concerned with a cross-cultural investigation of responses to

compliments. An experiment using a questionnaire is conducted in China to

elicit responses to sincere compliments in different circumstances under parallel

situations in Chinese and English. Results are compared and analyzed in relation

to cultural values and assumptions specific to each culture. The cultural

difference reflected in complimenting responses in Chinese and English is

analyzed by comparing the results of the questionnaire.

Key words: politeness principle; compliment; questionnaire; cultural difference

1. Previous Studies on Compliments

In the past thirty years, many linguists have carried out researches on

compliments. It is generally accepted that Manes & Wolfson (1978) did the most

complete and profound research on complimentary behaviors. They (1978,

1983b,) have spent a lot of time analyzing 1,200 examples that they collected in

a great variety of everyday speech situation. They used them as data for their

research on how compliments function in the speech of middle-class native

speakers of American English.

Pomerantz and Herbert (1978) have done much research on responses to

compliments among English-speaking American monolinguals. In his study,

Pomerantz attempts to analyze the different patterns of response to compliments

and suggests that responses are subject to some separate constraint systems.

Some Chinese scholars such as Jia Yuxin (1997), Zhuang Enping (1993)

have laid emphasis on compliments as parts of their descriptions on

cross-cultural communication. This article will discuss compliments in the angle

of response patterns for the purpose of finding out some cultural values in

compliment in the English language.

2. Politeness Theory

In Recent years, many scholars home and abroad such as Grice (1975),

Leech (1983 ) and Brown & Levinson (1978 ), Chen Rong ( 1986 ), Gu Yueguo

(1992), Wang Jianhua (1998) have been studying politeness theory. Brown &

Levinson advanced the theory of “face work” which is most influential. They

think face work has its popularity. The face that a model person wants to keep in

fact is one’s public self-image. There are two kinds of face: positive face and

negative face. Positive face means that the speaker has a desire that his ideas are

accepted or approved by others while negative face means that the speaker has a

desire that his ideas or behaviors won’t be hindered or intruded by others.

Politeness is regarded as a symbol of man’s civilization. Politeness is a

rational behavior used by model person to meet his face. Politeness is a means

for people to keep positive and negative faces. To be polite is to lessen the

face-threatening act. In social communication, people should respect another

party’s positive face and take care of another party’s negative face as well. The

concept of politeness in nature is strategic to keep faces for both parties.

Compliments are communicative behaviors. People make compliments in

order to start a conversation, smooth an interaction, strengthen an emotional

exchange and enhance the mutual understanding and friendship of the people

who are involved in the conversation. When people make compliments, they

consider to show politeness in the first place. The purpose of performing an

experiment on compliments is to know how verbal behaviors are performed in

Chinese and English cultures.

3. An Experiment on Responses to Compliments

3.1 Design

A questionnaire is designed in English and Chinese. The questionnaire

consists of eight dialogues, before each of which there is a short description of

the situation, the setting, the social relations between the participants and their

social status. Topics of the eight dialogues in the questionnaire are carefully

designed in order to reflect various social aspects from different aspects. They

touch several facets such as personal attributes, changes in appearance, personal

performance, skills and accomplishments.

To the compliments in each dialogue, three optional responses are provided

in A, B and C. Each subject is to choose the one that she/he thinks most

appropriate. If the subject thinks none of the given choices proper, he may write

down his own response in D. To take reliability of the experiment into account,

the following factors are carefully considered when the questionnaire is

designed: (1) age, profession and educational background of the subjects; (2)

languages used in the experiment; (3) subjects in different groups; (4) form of

the questionnaire; (5) topics of compliments; (6) method to analyze the data.

3.2 Subjects

100 subjects are requested to do the questionnaire and are classified into 5

sample groups.

Group 1: 20 native speakers of English, coming from America, Canada,

and Australia. They are teaching English or learning Chinese in

Qingdao University, Yantai University and Laiyang Agricultural


Group 2: 20 teachers of English from the English Department of Yantai

University and Laiyang Agricultural College.

Group 3: 20 junior students from the English Department of Laiyang

Agricultural College.

Group 4: 20 freshmen from the Food Science Department of

Laiyang Agricultural College.

Group 5: 20 staff members from Laiyang City government

Subjects in Group 1 are all English native speakers whose answers can

represent how the English communities usually respond to compliments.

Subjects in Group 2 and Group 3 are teachers and students in the English

Department. The aim to choose these subjects is to find out whether their

answers are quite similar to those of Group 1 due to many years’ English

teaching and studying. Subjects in Group 4 are students of science who have

studied English for several years in middle schools and one year in college. It is

certain that they are influenced culturally by the English language to some

degree. Their answers will serve as good information for the analysis of

responses to compliments of the young Chinese people. Subjects in Group 5 are

carefully selected. They are workers, drivers, secretaries or officials in different

departments in Laiyang government. Most of them were graduated from middle

school. They know little English.

3.3 Data Collection

Since compliments may have numerous and complex alternative responses,

one major challenge for this study is how to collect the obtained data so that

quantitative analysis can become feasible. For the sheer contrastive purposes, it

seems workable to classify responses into two categories:1) acceptance/

agreement; 2) rejection/ disagreement. In the experiments, some subjects give

their own responses in D. So the first step is to assign these responses to one of

the three choices according to the degree of their similarity to A, B, or C. When

this is done, all the responses under A, B, or C in each group are categorized

under X and Y, with X representing acceptances/agreements, and Y standing for

rejections/disagreements. The entire process of assigning and regrouping can be

illustrated by the following example:

[Item 5] (The headmaster attends a class run by Miss Hopkins. After class)

Headmaster: You did very well, Miss Hopkins. Very lively—very

impressive. No wonder the pupils enjoy your teaching so


Miss Hopkins: A: Oh no, I was awful. Quite nervous. I really was.

B: It’s very nice of you to say so. I love these children.

C: Not at all. I’m never happy with my class performance.


For this item, Group 1 ( English native speakers, n=20 ) comes out with a

frequency distribution of A/2, B/16, C/0, D/2. The two responses under D are: (a)

“That’s Okey. I really enjoy it”. (b) “ Thank you for your kind remarks ”. As the

above responses are similar in nature to B, they naturally go to the same slot. It

is clear that B should belong to the acceptance/agreement category and therefore

come under X, the remaining A and C are regrouped under the other category Y

because they both can be regarded as disagreement with the compliment

assertion. Thus the resulting frequency distribution for statistical analysis

becomes: X/18; Y/2.

3.4 Data Analysis

To guarantee the reliability and validity of the experimental analysis, a

statistical method is used to analyze the results of the experiment. First,

experimental papers are collected. Second, answers to each dialogue from

different groups are classified into X or Y. Third, a statistical formula is used to

calculate the significance differences. Finally, an analysis and discussion are

made based on the results of statistical analysis to show the different cultural

phenomena reflected in various languages.

The distribution of responses across the 8 items for each group is presented

in Table 1. The results after regrouping on the X/Y basis are listed in Table 2.

Table 1 Responses of the 8 Items for Each Group

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Group 1 2 15 1 2 5 14 0 1 1 2 17 0 19 1 0 0 2 16 0 2 4592 2 15 3 0 12 341
Group 2 2 17 0 1 9 10 0 1 0 5 15 0 10 1 6 3 2 18 0 0 2 0 18 0 2 15 2 1 16 121
Group 3 0 15 1 4 3 11 6 0 0 4 14 2 10 1 5 4 2 17 0 1 0 2 14 4 0 16 3 1 16 112
Group 4 4 6 10 0 3 10 7 0 2 8 10 0 8642 2 14 4 0 6680 6950 5 780
Group 5 7940 2 11 7 0 1 11 8 0 3 4 13 0 4 11 5 0 10 6 3 1 8570 5 780

Table 2 Results after Regrouping under X/Y

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4 Group 5

Question 1 17 3 17 3 19 1 6 14 9 11
Question 2 20 0 20 0 20 0 13 7 13 7
Question 3 17 3 17 3 16 4 10 10 8 12
Question 4 19 1 19 1 19 1 14 6 16 4
Question 5 18 2 18 2 18 2 14 6 16 4
Question 6 11 9 18 2 18 2 8 12 4 16
Question 7 15 5 16 4 17 3 9 11 5 15
Question 8 13 7 17 3 18 2 8 12 5 15

3.5 Results

X =
The following tables show results of the significance level between groups

under comparison by using the statistical formula.

Table 3 Comparison between Group 1 and Group 2

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Group1 17 3 20 0 17 3 19 1 18 2 11 9 15 5 13 7
Group2 17 3 20 0 17 3 19 1 18 2 18 2 16 4 17 3
No significant difference between the two groups on any item

Table 4 Comparison between Group 2 and Group 3

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Group2 17 3 20 0 17 3 19 1 18 2 18 2 16 4 17 3
Group3 19 1 20 0 16 4 19 1 18 2 18 2 17 3 18 2
No significant difference between the two groups on any item

Table 5 Comparison between Group 3 and Group 4

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Group 3 19 1 20 0 16 4 19 1 17 2 18 2 17 3 18 2
Group 4 6 14 13 7 10 10 14 6 14 6 8 12 9 11 8 12
X2 18.02 8.485 3.956 4.329 2.5 10.99 7.033 10.99
Result ** ** * * ----- ** * **

Table 6 Comparison between Group 4 and Group 5

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Group 5 9 11 13 7 8 12 16 4 16 4 4 16 5 15 6 15
Group 4 6 14 13 7 10 10 14 6 14 6 8 12 9 11 7 12
X2 0.96 0 0.57 0.53 0.53 1.9 1.76 1.026
Result -------- -------- ------- ------- -------- -------- -------- --------

Table 7 Comparison between Group 5 and Group 1

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Group 1 9 11 13 7 8 12 16 4 16 4 4 16 5 15 5 15
Group 2 17 3 20 0 17 3 19 1 18 2 11 9 15 5 13 7
X2 7.03 8.48 7.25 2.06 0.78 5.23 10 6.46
Result * ** * -------- ----- ** ** *

Table 8 Comparison between Group 3 and Group 1

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Group 1 9 11 13 7 8 12 16 4 16 4 4 16 5 15 5 15
Group 2 19 1 20 0 16 4 19 1 18 2 18 2 17 3 18 2
X2 11.99 8.48 7.36 2.06 0.78 19.80 14.55 17.28
Result ** ** * -------- ----- ** ** **

Table 9 Comparison between Group 1 and Group 3

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Group 1 17 3 20 0 17 3 19 1 18 2 11 9 15 5 13 7
Group 3 19 1 20 0 16 4 19 1 18 2 18 2 17 3 18 2
X2 1.111 0 0.17 0 0 6.14 0.62 3.58
Result -------- -------- -------- -------- ------- * ------- *

Pay attention to the following notes:

1. When 〆> 0.05, broken lines are used to indicate that there is no significant


2. When 〆< 0.05, symbol * is used to show that there is significant


3. When〆< 0.01, symbol ** is used to show there are clear significant


4. Discussion

4.1. Different Manifestations of Universal Politeness and Modesty

Some linguists have studied the different ways people show their politeness

in their interactions. For example, Pomerantz has explored the interaction of the

preference for agreement with compliments on the one hand (1978) and

self-denigration on the other (1984a). To agree with a compliment is to run

counter to a constraint against self-praise. To preserve something of both the

preference for agreement and the constraint, various intermediate methods are

often used as follows: agreements with praise-downgrade; agreements with

praise that is shifted to third party; returning compliments.

Usually receivers of compliments are subject to self-praise avoidance. Not

only does praising oneself with strong positive descriptions have a violable

condition, but even acceptance by agreeing with a compliment assertion is liable

to an interpretation of indulging in self-praise. Therefore, subsequent to

compliments which are directly praising a co-participant, agreements are most

unlikely to occur. This phenomenon can be considered to be an overt reflection

of an intention to be polite or modest on the part of the receiver of a


Responses to English compliments form one of the numerous types of

rule-governed linguistic behaviors that are conventional. Simple appreciation

tokens like ‘Thank you’ are always appropriate. American People think it rather

common to offer an appreciative reply without regarding complimenting as a

way to flatter someone. Most compliments are made to establish a harmonious

relation. It is true that Americans are more frequent to make compliments in

daily life compared with people in the eastern countries.

However, Chinese speakers are accustomed to making complimenting

responses by the use of self-negating or self-deprecation token as follows:

(a) nali, nali.(哪里哪里) ( No, no. It is nothing. )

(b)guojiang, guojiang,(过奖过奖) ( You are praising me too much.)

(c) buxing, buxing.(不行不行) ( No good. No good.)

In China, people often give a reply to compliment in a way of self-praise

avoidance constraint or downgrading the compliments. We should be aware that

although compliment response patterns in American English are rather different

from those of the Chinese ones due to different cultural values and social

constraints, they all show politeness and modesty to some extent.

4.2 Different Cultural Values and Norms

The making of compliments, the responding strategies and their main social

functions are all based on the shared cultural norms and social values. In fact,

specific differences between Chinese and English in the way of expressing

politeness and modesty, as embodied in the variance of compliment response

patterns, can be traced to differences in cultural norms and specific cultural


The tentative findings of this experiment have shown many culturally related

features that mark the differences between Chinese and English in responses to

compliments. One feature is that the Chinese lack the appreciation token like xie

xie (谢谢) and they would usually show self-deprecation by responding to

compliments such as bu xing, bu xing, na li, na li, guo jiang le. (不行不行 哪里

哪里. 过奖啦). From an English speaker’s point of view, these may be seen as

language phenomena reflecting a lack of sincerity or politeness. On the other

hand, from a Chinese speaker’s point of view, the English ways of responding to

compliments may appear to reflect arrogance. Such commonly-heard moral

judgments, though not correct, are not surprising. After all, they are made by

each side against its own cultural standards.

The Chinese culture values highly the notion of humility. In communication,

it is often acceptable for a Chinese to appear respectful and modest through a

manifestation of self humility. This is revealed in the rich system of

self-deprecating Chinese words or characters along with some honorific words.

Here are a few examples of self-deprecating words in Chinese: bi, jian, yu, xiao,

xia (鄙, 贱, 愚, 下, 小), all of which are used to oneself or one’s close

relatives to show one’s humility. There are also some honorific and respectful

Chinese characters such as zun, gui, xian, ya (尊, 贵, 贤, 雅), all of which are

used to show one’s respects to others. China is a country where people view

modesty or humility as virtues. It is a cultural norm for Chinese people to show

respects or even humility to their seniors while deprecating themselves.

Both the Chinese and the English want to be polite, but the way to show

politeness is to a considerable degree determined by the cultural norms specific

to each community. The making of compliments, its social functions and its

response tokens are all based on the shared cultural norms, values and social


4.3 Acculturation through English Language Learning

The discussion of the findings in relation to acculturation can start from a

closer look at the results of the experiment in Group 3. Subjects in Group 3 are

third year students in the English Department. They have taken many courses to

study the English language in class. They have more chances to communicate

with the English teachers both in class and after class. They gain a lot of

information that includes geography, history, current affairs, institutions, the

media and a variety of other topics. It is true that they have the opportunity to

experience the English culture directly. Considering the above factors, it is not

strange to see the deep English cultural influence on them. It is the acculturation

through English learning that has made these learners accept certain formal

characteristic features of English response patterns, which shows that the

English majors do differ in some ways in their preference patterns from

non-English majors coming from the same college simply as a result of their

English language learning experience. One thing is certain: English language

teaching itself is a process of acculturation that does bring some influence on

people who have been learning English.

5. Conclusion

By analyzing the results of the questionnaire, we come to the following


a) Chinese and English have different compliment response strategies and


b) The major differences in structure lie in the preferred seconds. While English

takes appreciation tokens like ‘Thank you’ as preferred seconds, Chinese

self-negating or self-deprecating tokens like 哪里哪里 form the Chinese

preferred seconds.

c) Although the intention of politeness and self-praise avoidance behind most

response patterns is universal, Chinese and English have different strategies

towards the realization of politeness and modesty, which directly reflects the

different social norms and assumptions in each culture.

d) English language teaching in China is acculturating the learners who seem to

transfer the English response strategies to their Chinese compliment response


The present study has demonstrated that foreign language learners are

subject to acculturation in the course of learning. This suggests that it is possible

to teach culture in foreign language teaching. The process of acculturation

through foreign language teaching will be conducive to the learners’

development of communicative competence in the target language and is

therefore to be encouraged and utilized to the full. Meanwhile, however, it is of

equal importance to make the learners fully aware of the fact that the norms of

speaking are always related to culturally specific values, which can only be

interpreted by the standards of that particular culture. They should be taught not

only the specific norms and values in the target culture but more importantly,

they should be taught how to tolerate and respect other cultures as well as their

own. Further investigation based on solid field work is indispensable. The

tentative conclusions above, nevertheless, may serve as new working hypotheses

in future research.


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