Tuesday, June 10, 2008

compliments, nice and lovely

My first out-of-North-America experience was when I moved to South Africa at the age of 27, in order to take up a post at a large, English-medium university there. I'd been teaching for three years at my (AmE) graduate school by that time, and my teaching in South Africa was going fairly well, but a vague anxiety plagued me (as well as the not-so-vague anxieties that went with living in the city that had the highest murder, rape and [orig. AmE] carjacking rates in the world at that time). Although I was teaching my heart out, I had the feeling that my students weren't too impressed by me or my teaching. But after the term, when I read their teaching evaluation forms, I found that they rated me very highly. It was then that I worked out what had made me anxious: I missed receiving nearly constant compliments from my students.

Now, when I was teaching in the US, I was barely aware of the fact that I was being complimented. It would have been things like a student saying that he liked the course more than he thought he would, or another noticing that I'd had a haircut and saying something positive about it, or another expressing an enthusiastic appreciation of my kindness in lending her a book. In South Africa, my (mostly white, English-background--this was right after the downfall of apartheid) students were, for the most part, polite and committed to their course, but they showed little interest in me as a person. Of course, that wasn't a problem. The problem was that as an American, I was used to near-constant positive reinforcement from students, colleagues, friends, strangers...just about everyone. Once I reali{s/z}ed that the problem wasn't my teaching or my relationship with my students, but my expectations about them, that particular anxiety abated.

That aspect of living in South Africa was good general training for being an American abroad, as if you're outside the US, you'll probably have to get used to a less compliment-driven culture--and to outsiders' estimations of American compliment behavio(u)r.

One frequently comes across the notion that Americans are insincere--after all, they couldn't possibly be that enthusiastic about everything, could they? But the problem with such reasoning is that it comes from a different starting place than the behavio(u)r it judges. OK, sure, the waiter who is depending on you for a tip may be insincere in his compliments, but the friend-of-a-friend you've just been introduced to or the business contact you're meeting probably isn't. It is in Americans' nature to subconsciously look for points of connection with anyone they meet because mainstream American culture is solidarity-based (see Brown & Levinson 1987). This is to say that communication is based on the goal of creating a sense of equality and belonging. This, in turn, is due--paradoxically--to the facts that American culture rests on a belief in the primacy of the individual (rather than the group) and that it is achievement-oriented, rather than ascription-oriented--i.e. it's about what one does rather than what one is (we saw this recently in the discussion of social class). The individualism means that we can't just rely on the knowledge that we belong, we have to be reassured of it fairly regularly. In the words of Stewart and Bennett (1991: 139):
By defining people according to achievement, Americans can fragment their own personalities or those of other people. They do not have to accept others in their totality [...]; they may disapprove of the politics, hobbies, or personal life of associates and yet still work with them effectively. It is this trait of seeing others as fragmented, combined with the desire to achieve, that provides Americans with the motivation to cooperate.
In other words, 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.

If compliments are positive things that bring people together, why isn't everyone in the world complimenting so much? One reason is that they might not need to. If your social position is more stable, if you don't start new relationships all that often, then you might be able to take for granted the good things and commonalities in your relationships. Another reason could be that compliments are more costly in the interactional economy of other cultures. For example, in some cultures (I can never remember which ones!), if you compliment someone on their hat, they will insist that you have it. In that kind of culture, you'd not be appreciated for complimenting people on their things willy-nilly, and so compliments are more scarce. Similarly, in a culture in which praising oneself is taboo, compliments will be given more carefully, since to accept a compliment is to praise yourself. When I told my friend the Blinder that I was going to write about compliments, she said "you must write about the English inability to accept compliments". I'll let Kate Fox (2004: 408) start us off:
The English are no more naturally self-effacing than other nations, but [...] we have strict rules about the appearance of modesty, including prohibitions on boasting and any form of self-importance, and rules actively prescribing self-deprecation and self-mockery. We place a high value on modesty, we aspire to modesty.
If someone compliments you and you accept it by saying thank you, you are implicitly agreeing with the compliment and therefore breaking the 'modesty rule'. Thus, if you compliment an English person on how well she did something, she's likely to claim that anyone could have done it or to point out the bits she could have done better. As Fox notes, the self-deprecation is often ironic and humorous. Still, the fact that the modesty rule is stronger in the UK than in the US makes a compliment more 'costly'. The other reason that compliments aren't quite as free-flowing in the UK is that the culture here is traditionally deference-based (preserving hierarchies and differences between people--viz. the class system; maintaining a sense of personal privacy), although it has been shifting toward solidarity over the past century. Thus, members of the mainstream British culture are not so reliant on the approval of others as Americans are.

Now, the reason I started wanting to write about compliment behavio(u)r was because I had read the following in George Mikes' How to be an Alien (1946:31), the seminal book on being foreign in England:
If you live here long enough you will find out to your greatest amazement that the adjective nice is not the only adjective the language possesses, in spite of the fact that in the first three years you do not need to learn or use any other adjectives. You can say that the weather is nice, a restaurant is nice, Mr Soandso is nice, Mrs Soandso's clothes are nice, you had a nice time, and all this will be very nice.
Reading this, I was a little surprised, because I had got(ten) the impression, somewhere along the line, that nice was a crass American thing to say, so I got myself into the habit of saying the far more English-to-my-ears lovely wherever I would have said nice. I may have got(ten) this impression from people mocking Americans for saying Have a nice day (something that even Americans have been embarrassed to say since about 1980), or it may just be that I've heard general complaints about nice (without reference to America), as discussed by Ben Zimmer recently on his new blog--where you can see that nice already had a bad reputation well before Mikes wrote his book. At any rate, the frequency of nice noted by Mikes has also been noted in American compliments. Nessa Wolfson (1981) studied compliments in a number of cultures. In cultures where compliments are most 'costly', they tend to be rather indirect. For instance, Indonesians identified (the translation of) "You have bought a new sewing machine. How much did it cost?" as a compliment in their culture. But of America, where compliments are (BrE) cheap as chips, Wolfson notes, "The most striking feature of compliments in American English is their total lack of originality”:
22.9% of AmE compliments include nice
19.6% include good
85% of compliments fall into one of three patterns
53.6 % in the pattern: NOUN-PHRASE is/looks (really) ADJECTIVE
16.1% in the pattern: I (really) like/love NOUN-PHRASE
14.9% in the pattern: PRONOUN is (really) (a) ADJECTIVE NOUN-PHRASE
I haven't found an equivalent study of British compliments, but I don't imagine that they're much more creative, given Mikes' assessment of Englishpeople's adjectival vocabulary. (Hey, soon-to-be-final-year students--there's a possible dissertation topic!)

It must have been months ago that I first stated my intention to write about compliments, but I'd passed them up so far, favo(u)ring shorter posts. One of the things I would have liked to have done here is to go back through the comments on the blog in order to see whether I could tell which nationality was more apt to send "Hey, I love your blog"-type comments. The thought of going through thousands of comments, knowing I'd rarely be able to tell where the commenter was from, kept me from writing this for a while. So, I've not done it--and I don't recommend that you try! But feel free to pay a little more attention to your cross-cultural compliment experiences and report your observations in the comments.

Further reading/sources:
  • Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fox, Kate. 2004. Watching the English. Hodder.
  • Mikes, George. 1946. How to be an Alien. Penguin.
  • Stewart, Edward C. and Milton J. Bennett. 1991. American Cultural Patterns (rev. edn.). Intercultural Press.
  • Wolfson, Nessa. 1981. Compliments in cross-cultural perspective. TESOL Quarterly 15:117-24.

69 comments:

John Cowan said...

I've forgotten his name, but there was a Japanese politician whose career was destroyed by the praise his opponents were always heaping on him.

biochemist said...

(British academic) At the end of academic lectures (the sort that are given by external or internal speakers, and are attended by staff) there is usually an opportunity for questions. I find myself getting really irritated when a member of the audience starts with effusive thanks and praise before humbly bringing up a tiny point that leads to a question. S/He's an invited speaker, and the chairman has already thanked him/her, for heaven's sake! But on reflection I think that this is a habit of 'humanities' staff, not scientists, who tend to launch straight into 'what happens if you do this experiment at a different temperature or pH?' - this in turn leads the speaker to say 'We haven't tried that yet' .... so perhaps the irritating compliments are a softer introduction to a question that might cause the speaker to admit that s/he hasn't thought of that angle.

Incidentally, in the UK armed forces the phrase 'paying compliments' refers to the salute given when you meet a more senior officer.

jhm said...

The phrase "that's nice," seems to me (AmE) to exemplify the differences between AmE and BrE. I just can't imagine a situation where I would say "that's nice" and be in earnest or sincerely meaning to compliment.

This makes my interpretation of a lot of UK literature and drama difficult when I have to determine whether the phrase is meant as sarcasm, conversational lubricant, phatic platitude, or something else.

Jennywenny said...

How interesting! I'm finding that I quite like the american way now and can see the positive aspects. At first I thought it was all terribly insincere, but now I see that its often a very positive thing that you can complement someone without any embarrassment.

I always enjoy going back to the uk and seeing the different behaviours of people and how different people in the service industry behave!

I also feel a lot more ambitious in america, that its worth striving for a difficult goal, where in the UK it would be shot down as pointlessly impossible.

nora said...

About the cultures where admiring something results in it being offered to you-my initial cultural experience tells me that might be the case in West Africa. I do know that the right way to compliment someone on something, at least where I work, is to ask for it. So, I often have exchanges in French like this: Me (AmE): "You should give me that shirt." Friend (W.Afr): (laughs) "Oh, it's pretty? Thank you!"

Ginger Yellow said...

"One of the things I would have liked to have done here is to go back through the comments on the blog in order to see whether I could tell which nationality was more apt to send "Hey, I love your blog"-type comments."

Spammers of all nationalities send those comments.

lynneguist said...

I think I'm pretty good at removing the spammy ones, though.

I've already had one message by e-mail from an American reader who wanted to compliment me on this post, but was too embarrassed to do so, as it would just be publicly living up to a stereotype!

Kel said...

When I was an exchange student in Russia, my host mom found out that I like frogs. She then showed me a little statuette of a frog wearing a suit and reading a newspaper, and asked what I thought. I tried to be polite and said it was cute, and voilĂ ! It became a gift, and she wouldn't accept my refusal. Russia is one of those places where you quickly learn not to compliment things, although compliments on personality or talents are acceptable. They're usually denied, but they're appreciated.
As an American living abroad (in Russia a few years ago, and now in France) I do miss compliments! They may seem meaningless, but they're such a part of our culture that frequent meaningless comments become a sort of baseline: hearing them less than we're used to, we feel like we're doing something wrong. Just because not one single person said they liked my haircut (which in AmE would just mean that they noticed I got one) doesn't mean that it looks horrible!
[And by the way-- I love your blog!]

Neil Dolinger said...

Very nice blog. It was good.

Janet said...

As I have had a lot of Middle Eastern students in the training classes I run, I've learned to be careful with compliments.

The first time I learned this was once when I told a female student -- Kuwaiti, as I recall -- that she was wearing a really beautiful piece of jewelry. She quickly responded with something like, "Do you like it? Then I will give it to you!" I blurted out something about how it was so much better suited to HER coloring than mine...or something like that. Similar things happened with others, too, when my American tendency to compliment overwhelmed me.

Do you or any of your readers know whether this is typical?

Janet

String said...

Hey, did I provoke this post with my e-mail yesterday that led off, "Hello from a reader of your lovely blog"?

I think the reason "nice" is so popular with us Americans is that it strikes the right balance, it's a genuine compliment but not too effusive. As you say, "That's a nice hat" does truly mean that I like your headwear, but it's not saying "I'm going to buy one just like it and wear it for the rest of my life." For everyday compliments, that's what you're aiming for.

And I'll have to watch out for how Brits react to compliments. I can't say I've noticed - but that's why I find your blog so interesting.

Robin said...

Very interesting post. I am an American, and I very deliberately and consciously do what you've described. Especially when I encounter someone I don't have a lot in common with, I deliberately seek out SOMETHING about them I like to compliment them on. Hey, let's face it - we're all human and we have something in common with everyone. I didn't realize other cultures might see this as insincere - it's not.

JohnB said...

I was thinking about this at the Bon Jovi concert this evening, and initially I was confused by the whole thing, because when I complement British people they all manage to accept it quite comfortably. Most just smile and say thank you, so I certainly don't recognise the stereotype you blogged about.

However, when I do complement someone on something I do it discreetly, and I do it very simply. It could be a comment as basic as 'I like your shoes' it gets a nod and a thank you and perhaps a response of 'Oh I bought them at Xxxx'. But that is where it stops.

While it is a stereotype, and stereotypes are often wrong, might your American readers be less discreet in their approach and phraseology? Yes I know this is stereotypical, but if someone I hardly knew came up to me very publicly with a "Gee. I really love those shoes you are wearing!" I would tend to cringe a bit. I would see it as exaggerated and therefore insincere.

If that same person came up to me with a similar type of complement next time I met them, I would start to wonder why they were 'buttering me up' and would start to wonder what they were after.

Britons can take complements, but perhaps your American writers (those who live in the UK) need to practice a bit more discretion in their complements :) After all, as the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do".

lynneguist said...

Two issues that I didn't get to in this post, which may contribute a little to mitigating johnb's cognitive dissonance in reading this...

(a) The discomfort level brought on by compliments (in either culture) depends on how 'face-threatening' the compliment is. Compliments on clothing are usually relatively non-threatening--in that they don't invade your personal space much and you can respond to them without seeming to boast. But a compliment like "You look great" or "You're so intelligent" or "You play the guitar so beautifully" or "You're the best employee we have" is different. The most difficult ones to respond to are those that comment on something that you have little control over (e.g. being beautiful or intelligent), because if you agree that you're beautiful or intelligent, you sound really conceited.

2. There are a lot of ways to reply to compliments. "Thank you" is an implicit acceptance of the compliment's truth. You can also more explicitly agree--e.g. "Nice shoes!" "Yes, they are, aren't they?" That's what counts as compliment acceptance. Other types of responses, like 'histories' ('I got them at Primark') or 'redirection of credit' ('My mother picked them out') do the job of avoiding acceptance (if there's no 'thank you' beforehand) or softening the acceptance (if there is a 'thank you') by turning the attention or credit away from yourself.

So, one can accept a compliment while still weaseling out of the acceptance a little. The prediction, based on the anthropological claims in the post, is that Americans would have less of a problem with a straight acceptance and that English folk would be more apt to employ compliment-avoidance strategies--from the mitigation of an acceptance through to a (possibly ironic) disagreement.

The only way to know is for someone to do a proper study! There very well may be one out there, but it's not one of the ones I've read.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading with interest that portion of Kate Fox's book where she discusses compliments and social status. I imagine the idea that America is more or less a classless society leads most of us to judge people on their deeds or merits rather than their social standing. As you have discussed, maybe this is why Americans are more likely to compliment one's appearance or actions: to build a social bond.

The way compliments are received is probably different depending on what region of the U.S. you are in. Family dynamics are also important.

As a person who grew up in the Chicago area in the 1960s and 70s, I heard very few compliments from friends or acquaintances, and none at all that I can remember from my family members. Criticism was rife, but compliments were non-existent. Looking back on it now, it was brutal. I broke through it and became someone who freely offers compliments whenever I feel they are merited. My standards are high so I don't give them out too often.

Now, I bring this up because I've talked about it with other Chicago natives and we wonder if criticism and/or the lack of giving compliments was a regional thing? Back then, there was a strong German/Bohemian-immigrant population in the Chicago area; they had all been through The Great Depression, and I can't help but wonder if that ethnic background coupled with The Depression influenced people's abilities to compliment one another. Have any of your readers experienced this? It was almost as if complimenting someone else would make you appear less strong yourself, or bring you down a notch on some imaginary pride ladder. And you absolutely would never compliment someone in your immediate family because their head might get too big over it. Imagine that! Talk about cognitive dissonance! I often joke with my friends about that strange ethnic/familial legacy.

By the way, Lynn, I heard a fascinating discussion of the original meaning of the word nice on "A Way with Words" (or "Says You!"--I cannot remember) Do a little digging and you will be surprised to learn that the word's original meaning was, truly, anything but nice.

Also--watch the movie Gosford Park if you can; be sure to watch the "extras" on the DVD, too.

JohnB said...

lynneguist said "But a compliment like "You look great" or "You're so intelligent" or "You play the guitar so beautifully" or "You're the best employee we have" is different."

Actually, I think this is more complex than the sociological issues that have been discussed and I suspect you ought to do a post on superlatives and their usage, if you want to explore this properly.

Every one of those phrases is (in my BrE mind) comes across as highly exaggerated and, therefore automatically insincere. I suspect (to some extent) that is where part of the immediate problems lie.

My instinct is to take those superlatives literally, so I do a bit of a double take because in my mind because while I recognise that I am a good employee, I probably don't see myself as the best employee in the company. And if I did I would be looking for a pay rise.

It always takes me a moment or two to realise that my American complementor has a downgraded superlative vocabulary?

lynneguist said...

Anonymous, I'm aware of the history of nice...that's why I pointed out Ben Zimmer's blog entry about it!

I sometimes check the 'outclicks' on Bloglines and think "why do I bother linking to other sites when only about 3-5% of readers click on them?" But I keep it up anyhow...

The extras on Gosford Park are nice because they interview the elderly servants who were consultants on the film, and they talk about changes in British culture since the early 20th c.

Johnb, you're right...another element of complimenting cultural differences is the contrast between American enthusiasm and British understatement.

bill said...

Yes it is true, for the most part an American will compliment you very blatantly and openly, and it is not at all insincere. The compliments can also be very over the top...Google the following phrases:

"you are so cute, I just want to put you in my pocket"

"I just want to eat your face"

Now while these are most certainly extremes...they are also very sincere...I swear. If you were to be on the recieving end of one of these, you can be rest assured that while exaggerated (obviously) there is truly a positive feeling behind it.

And Lynne I love your blog so much that I want to have it's babies.

Anonymous said...

From my earlier comment: sorry about having mentioned the background of the word nice without having first thoroughly read the link you gave to Zimmer's blog. I had indeed skimmed it but had overlooked the paragraph where he talks about its history.

As for outgoing links, you are doing fine. I do look at the majority of them.

JohnB said...

Bill - If someone truely and sincerely wants to eat my face ... I would be most peturbed.

bill said...

It is more the affectionate sentiment behind it Johnb than the literal facial cannibalism...;)

Though I think I may literally want to have this blog's babies.

TootsNYC said...

I'm not sure I agree that Americans can accept compliments.

Thousands of self-help articles and chapters in books coach people on how to accept a compliment.

I personally remember a time when I had to consciously learn how to accept a compliment, and I'm still sometimes awkward about receiving them.

JohnB said...

Bill - that though is part of the the problem. Affectionate sentiment from a complete stranger that is sincere?

Maybe we need to examine how the two cultures interpret sincere.

Still, it is interesting that none of the Americans on here have questioned the implications that they need to push out so many over-enthusiastic (from a BrE perspective) because of their own social insecurity.

lynneguist said...

Toots, I don't think I said that 'Americans can accept compliments', just that my English friend said that English folk can't...which of course is an overstatement. As in the reply to johnb above, it depends on the compliment, and also on the people involved in it, their relationship, etc. In any culture, compliments are a bit of an intrusion, and in the US it's taboo to blow one's own horn too--but not to the same level as it's taboo in the UK.

I'd expect that if we studied it carefully, we'd find Americans more apt to accept compliments regarding their achievements than British folk. This is not to say that every compliment in every context would be accepted by every person, but that there would be a general tendency, due to the different cultural mores.

lynneguist said...

Johnb, you seem to be interpreting 'sincere' as 'literal', while Bill clearly isn't, and I wouldn't either in this context. Rather, we could define it as 'without hypocrisy'.

Now, if you're going to use a loaded term like 'insecurity', I'm sure some Americans will protest. But they might come back with other loaded terms for the English way of doing things, like 'socially awkward'!

bill said...

Exactly Lynne,
Clearly not literal...

But yes JohnB...something affectionate/complimentary from a complete stranger that has no hidden meaning, or other agenda outside of telling you that something you have/do/are is pleasing to them...and that they are being completely sincere while doing it. (Using the "non hypocritical/honest" definition of sincere.) And by doing that, they create some sort of a connection with the other person.

Just as if I said to you that I really like the Boar's Head avatar that you use in the blogs...in this setting, it is no different than complimenting your shoes.

Ellen K. said...

JohnB, I find it curious that you find those compliments ("But a compliment like "You look great" or "You're so intelligent" or "You play the guitar so beautifully" or "You're the best employee we have") highly exaggerated. I don't see any of them as exaggerated.

Now, regarding superlatives, I do agree those are often and generally exaggerated rather than literally true. (Though sometimes the opposite of exaggerated, as when I tell my husband: You're the best husband I've ever had.)

However, the particular superlative compliment in that list of compliments, "You're the best employee we have", I really can't see being said unless it were true. Or at least arguably true. Not a context where one would use an exaggeration.

The other 3 though, I can't see at all how they look like exaggerations. Are there no people who actually are intelligent, actually do play guitar beautifully, or actually do look great?


Another thought I've hard on the general topic. I wonder if the Irish influence on American culture has had an effect on this.

Sili said...

Unfortunately, I can't find an good example on Youtube, but all this talk of "nice" makes me think of Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances: "Noice".

JohnB said...

Ellen - You are in the US - and I think we all agree that to AmE ears - those don't appear to be exaggerated.

To my BrE E ears they do.

For example, in my vocabulary - great is not synonymous with good, although I suspect in an AmE vocabulary it is.

I went to see a Bon Jovi concert this week. My descriptions put it down as an OK concert. I enjoyed it, I thought his voice was fairly good but not exceptional, the lead guitarist was good, perhaps very good (it was difficult to tell whether he could sustain the performance against the heavy background beat that they used) and I think it unlikely that he is one of the 'great' guitarists - but I may be wrong.

Beautiful, again, in my vocabulary, is a superlative. there are very few things that are truly beautiful. There are a few, very few, people who really do play the guitar in a way that I would describe as beautiful.

To me wonderful and awesome are things that invoke wonder or awe .... Not something that is a slightly pleasing.

Perhaps I am slightly conservative in the way I use my vocabulary (even for BrE speakers), however, that is how I (as an BrE speaker in my 50's) learned how to use language.

JohnB said...

Lynneguist - To some extent I am interpreting sincere as 'without an ulterior motive' and we have already agreed that many Americans are searching out compliments they can pay people to establish a bond or relationship between them. Which is an ulterior motive behind the complement. A BrE compliment should is expected to be more or less spontaneous.

I accept that the complimenting is done in good faith and is well intentioned - and is sincere in that respect.

However, if another Briton started to use compliments to build a relationship with me, I would be very wary of their intentions, especially if they were using (IMO)exagerated or enthusiastic complements. I would automatically suspect their motives and their sincerity, I would wonder what they were after and quite what they wanted of me - because it is odds on they would want something from me.

Now, Americans coming to me with the same pattern of unexpected and exagerated compliments automatically evoke the same sort of response in me, as you would expect it to. However, it doesn't take very long for me to realise it is 'just that strange American way of doing things' and I adjust. However, I suspect that my initial reaction is to give the complementor a sharp look.

When I am in the US, I expect different behaviour and tend to adjust very quickly. When I am in 'my own back yard' I am adjusted to British behaviour patterns.

Ellen K. said...

John, is seems to me that if, out of context, "great" is considered exaggerated, then that word, for you, has no meaning at all, since nothing at all can ever achieve greatness. Am I missing something? It's not a simple matter of difference of meaning, since there's no context.

Unless, it's a matter of assumed context. Perhaps you are assuming a context? Reading your post, it looks like you are assuming it's not one of those, for you rare, cases were "great" applies. I see no reason to assume that.

JohnB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lynneguist said...

Even though BrE speakers may compliment less often and less 'superlatively', they'll have a motive when complimenting--to be pleasant and make a connection with someone. After all, even if you liked the shoes of someone you despise, you'd probably not compliment them on them unless you wanted to appear not to despise them (etc.). There'd be no reason to communicate your appreciation for someone or their things unless it was doing something for your relationship with them (or at least passing the time conversationally).

Saying that people have 'motives' when complimenting does NOT however mean that they're aware of them. The feedback that I've had from Americans on the description of their compliments have been along the lines of 'how interesting--I guess I do do that!' They're not going out with motives on their minds; they're just doing what comes naturally.

Judy Wyatt said...

@ellen k: "John, is seems to me that if, out of context, "great" is considered exaggerated, then that word, for you, has no meaning at all, since nothing at all can ever achieve greatness. Am I missing something? It's not a simple matter of difference of meaning, since there's no context."

The words, "great", as well as beautiful, wonderful, awesome as listed by johnb, do have meaning, and they are not out of context. The context is that these are superlative descriptions. As an American living in Germany, and thus with 13 years of distance from my immersion in my own culture, I can now see that these words are, in themselves, descriptors of the nouns (or persons) to which they are ascribed. Americans attach additional emotional baggage to the words, so that the emotion attached to them overpowers the literal meaning. The literal meaning is that, in comparison with other things/persons in the same category, this thing/person is much more (great, beautiful, wonderful, awesome) than every other thing/person. The emotional meaning of "whoa! I really like that/you!" is culturally added. If you don't come from the culture where all that emotional baggage is attached to the words, then you'll wonder why everything is declared to be "great, beautiful, wonderful, awesome". It makes someone who uses the language with attention to the actual meanings of words, such as johnb, wonder how one would actually describe something that was actually great, beautiful, wonderful, awesome, if everything is already great, beautiful, wonderful, awesome.

As Lynne says, an American is used to the social lubrication of constant compliments. It permeates every interaction. We are so used to it, that we crave it even from strangers. I live in Northern Germany, where people mind their own business, and interact with strangers only to give help where it is needed, such as giving directions when someone has their map out, or helping mothers with baby carriages and old people on or off the bus. Then they go on their way. They do not engage in small talk with strangers. They do not give comliments to create some sort of social connection. They've interacted in a sufficiently friendly manner so as to help someone in need, and then they go on about their lives. It makes most Americans frantic. I can't count the number of Americans who bluster furiously about how cold and unfriendly the Germans are. Germans are not unfriendly. They just recognize that the person they just helped is not their friend.

James said...

Interesting debate.

I must admit to hearing an insincere note in most of the AmE compliments I've received or overheard. It never occurred to my British brain that the motive behind the compliment was something as simple as finding and maintaining a connection.

Having said that, though, there are specific situations in my life were compliments (often exaggerated and insincere) are par for the course.

As a guitarist who has been gigging up and down this green and pleasant land for the last ten years, I've come into contact with a lot of other musicians. There are certain social protocols that we, as musos, uphold pretty much across the board. Giving a compliment like 'great set' or 'I really enjoyed that' is almost expected from other musicians, whether there is any truth to the words or not. What we're really saying is that we appreciate how difficult it is to get up there and perform in front of an audience, that we understand the amount of work and effort involved to get to that stage... I guess we're making a connection by using an insincere compliment. (Sometimes, the band is actually really good, in which case the compliments are true. Jealousy-tinged, but still true).

Ellen K - "Are there no people who actually are intelligent, actually do play guitar beautifully, or actually do look great?"

My ego wouldn't let this one slide. In answer to your rhetorical question: Yes. Me! :-)

Also, to answer the question about Bon Jovi's guitarist being good (or otherwise). Yes, Richie Sambora is pretty talented (my BH has just suggested I end that sentence at 'pretty'!).
Not the best in the world, but still quite gifted.

Finally, 'willy-nilly' was used the the post and I remember reading somewhere that it originally meant something other than 'in a random manner'. I think it is a contraction of 'whether you like it or not'. Is there any truth to this and, if so, when did the semantic drift occur? (Guess I should apologise for getting off topic... sorry!)

Apologies for my rambling on.

Love the blog!

James

Ellen K. said...

Judy, you've completely missed my point. I won't try to make it again.

I will note, you and John seem to be using some strange (to me) meaning of superlative, rather than the standard grammatical meaning of the word.

lynneguist said...

Ellen, I couldn't understand your point either, but you're right that folks are using 'superlative' to mean something other than it means in linguistics. Technically, 'great' is not superlative, but 'greatest' is.

But John and Judy are right that words like 'great' and 'beautiful' are strongly positive, and would be used more exclusively in other cultures. Such terms, like 'awesome', have become semantically bleached, having a less exclusive meaning.

James--here's the OED etymology for 'willy-nilly':

[= will I, nill I (he, ye) ‘be I (he, ye) willing, be I (he, ye) unwilling’: see WILL v.1 VI, NILL v.]

lynneguist said...

Oh, and I meant to say...Americans are not the only ones guilty of semantic bleaching...see the previous post on 'British overstatement'.

Ellen K. said...

Basically, no matter how exclusive your understanding of great, you can't conclude it's an exaggeration if you don't know who said it about what.

Though, one could observe that most of the time the sentence if an exaggeration. But that's not what was said. Maybe it's what was meant? (Not being a mind reader, I take things at face value.)

Anonymous said...

Fascinating blog, although as I’m BrE I wouldn’t want to get too effusive.J

I was crewing a yacht last year with an American colleague who overused ‘awesome’ to an annoying extent. A bit of consideration triggered by this blog made me realise that I overuse ‘great’. Further thought a glass of red wine later and I’d like to add in my own support that my ‘great’ is said in a perfunctory and unemphasized way. Has anybody else any comment on the way such words are actually stressed in AmE and BrE? I’m afraid I don’t have enough recent experience to really comment.

Individual differences are obviously important, but has anyone considered gender differences in their generality? As someone who has crossed the gender divide (another semantic minefield!) I find that my perception of both the receipt and of the acceptance of compliments has changed markedly. Probably another research subject there, I would have thought!

Anonymous said...

Another supplementary post. Has anybody considered recognition applause during a concert at the start of a song as a form of compliment and are there any differences between Br & Am attitudes? It's something I find intensely annoying.

Perhaps JohnB can comment on his trip to St Marys to see Bon Jovi?

Richard said...

If someone compliments you, there's a middle ground between saying "thank you" (which implicitly agrees with the compliment) and actively disagreeing with it. Simply reply, "You're very kind," which can be interpreted either way. I think this works on both sides of the Atlantic.

lynneguist said...

I'd only use 'you're very kind' with someone I don't know well and don't want to know better. It sounds very 'distant' and formal (and old) to me. On the other hand "It's nice/kind of you to say that" has a less 'distant feel to me, and accomplishes the same thing--though with a focus on the person's actions, rather than their essence. That may be an American preference. What do others think?

Such responses are essentially compliment-returns: you said something nice about me, now I'm saying something nice about you.

bill said...

Here is a question...
Is the use of "Great" and "Awesome" more rare in the UK becasue they (for the lack of a better phrase)have more "adjectives"?

If I were in a pub and someone told a joke, I would probably laugh and say "That's great!"
But I know that a British person might use something like "Brilliant."

The thing is that AmE just doesn't have "adjectives" like that...the only one I can think of that is outside of the "superlative" genre would be "rockin'" and I think if I ever actually used that I would be laughed out of whatever place I was in...and rightfully so.

So could that theory hold some weight?

bill said...

Oh and in regards to the finding a connection is an ulterior motive thing...
As Lynne said, it is not a conscious thing, and unfortunately, I think that the way it was described in the original post leads one to believe something like Americans are taught at an early age to compliment people becasue it helps them make connections, and that isn't true. One of the biggest ways to emphasize this is the "random compliment" that just about everyone (in the US at least) has gotten at one time or another.

As an example, my girlfriend routienly goes out of her way to compliment someone in public if she likes their hair, shoes, dress, etc. And she will never see that person again...and while not everyone will go out of their way as she does, those kind of things happen all the time.

lynneguist said...

Bill, BrE and AmE both have plenty of adjectives--they just prefer different ones sometimes.

bill said...

Well of course, we have tons of adjectives...;)

But it just seems that AmE never uses more "benign" or non-superlative words like "Brilliant" or words like that to describe things.
"Brilliant" is so nice and vague, it is obviously positive, yet can't fall into that "not good enough" trap that other words can fall into.
In AmE if we call something "good", often that is seen as "Oh, you didn't like it that much?" So you have to default to "Great"
How many times has this exchange happened?
"Did you like dinner?"
"Yes, it was good"
"Just good?"
Yet if you respond with "Great!" everyone is happy...

lynneguist said...

You have a much different perception of 'brilliant' than I do, then. It's completely over the top!

Taraza said...

I really enjoyed your drawing out the meaning behind AmE compliments as the search for a connection. It's to automatic to me that I never thought about it. As an example, yesterday I had to take a pair of shoes back to the store because they didn't fit, and the sales clerk had to take them to be back to be stretched several times. I was uncomfortable being in that situation ( I don't like making a fuss) until I decided to compliment the clerk on her beautiful turquoise top. (really a rather ordinary style, but a nice color.) When she said, "Thank you," and smiled, I felt the tension ease. I'll have to look for more situations where I compliment. I do know that I've given random compliments in public when I did like some very nice jewelry/clothes/shoes. I wear a certain necklace often and am just about guaranteed to get compliments on it. I'd miss it if these didn't happen, so it's fascinating to hear that it's not a common practice in BrE.

Anonymous said...

No one else has mentioned this, but am I the only one who has also been taught to use compliments as good deeds? Since I was little I’ve gotten the impression that giving a (sincere) compliment is one of those little things like holding the door for others. It’s a way of showing a little random kindness. (American female, btw)
Also, for accepting a compliment, I was always taught that it was rude not to say “thank you”. Usually I follow it with some weaseling so that it doesn’t feel immodest. If I take the time to examine it, it probably follows the idea that saying “thank you” is a form of acceptance of the compliment, but the focus on the idea that you don’t want to reject someone else’s attempt to build that solidarity.

Kevin said...

lynneguist said, of "brilliant",
>> it's completely over the top! <<

I'm surprised at that. Do you really think so, Lynne?

"Brilliant" is so widely used in BrE that it ranks only very slightly higher than "great" IMHO.

If someone asks you if you can give them a lift home and you tell them "Yeah: I'll be leaving just after 5.30", they're quite likely to reply "Brilliant!".

The word does fit into a hierarchy of rising enthusiasm:

- It was great, brilliant
- Fine, great, brilliant in fact

but it's far from occupying the top spot:

- They were great, brilliant, bloomin'* marvellous [* or: effin', etc. according to taste]

The American "awesome" is what sounds totally over the top to me, but I suppose it's a question of what you're used to hearing.

The Fast Show had a brilliant series of sketches parodying the enthusiastic use of the word. For example: Aren't mams brilliant?

lynneguist said...

I reali{s/z}e that 'brilliant' doesn't sound over-the-top to those who use it a lot--just as 'great' doesn't. My point was that the reason why it doesn't sound O.T.T. to those who use it is that it's been semantically bleached in those dialects. In my AmE dialect, I'd have to reserve 'brilliant' for something that's a work of genius, practically. But in the UK, it's used much more generally. Likewise, for some AmE speakers 'awesome' means 'good, great', but for others, that sounds O.T.T.

biochemist said...

'Awesome' sounds odd to an educated UK speaker because our word is 'awe-inspiring' which is more awkward to say. We would tend to say 'awesome' ironically or in a fake American accent because we can't believe it's a real word!

During the 20th century, UK usage for 'good' went something like this: ripping, wizard, cool, super, fabulous, great, brilliant (brill) and cool again. Most of these are nonsense usages but the problem with 'great' and 'brilliant' is that they can be used authentically - in an obituary for a brilliant mathematician or a review of a great musician, for example, and there is a sense in which the words have been devalued by their colloquial use. No-one could use 'groovy' in an obituary, however....

Jax L.A. said...

Yes, brilliant sounds OTT to American ears, but it's still much better than "it's the bomb" or, even worse, "it's dope," both of which are heard far too frequently here in L.A. Although to be fair, they're usually said by people young enough not to know better. Don't think I ever heard any equivalently awful adjectives when I lived in the U.K., but there must be some. When I was there, everything was just brilliant.

Andy J said...

As a BrE speaker, I'm surprised that no-one has looked at this subject from the other side: namely those who expect compliments but maybe don't get the level of appreciation they expect. I work as a photographer and come across many "creatives", especially models, for whom the routine (and therefore probably insecure) compliment is de rigeur. That said, I feel entirely at ease using some relatively personal compliments to complete strangers in such circumstances as social lubricants, although possibly "ego-massaging" might be a better description. Much as James remarked above about musicians, this behavio(u)r assumes that the recipient of a compliment has to be treated to some superlative compliment for it to have any value. Picture the scene: a model has come into the studio wearing a designer gown after an hour with a make-up artist. To say "You look nice" would not be excused as understatement; the very least that would be acceptable is something like "Wow, you look absolutely amazing" (note here that a compliment about the dress, jewellery etc is not appropriate!)

Andy J said...

Correction: "insecure" in the parenthesis in the second sentence should have read "insincere"

malimar said...

The word "beautiful" has been mentioned a number of times in this conversation, and it brings an anecdote to my mind. Though I am an American, I have a reputation among my friends and acquaintances of being very stingy with compliments. That is, I will not give compliments unless I really feel it is deserved. One of the words that I am most stingy about is "beautiful" - there are only a handful of things that I can honestly say I would describe as beautiful, mostly certain kinds of sunsets. I will occasionally use the condescending phrase "conventionally beautiful", but but only to describe the sort of woman that most people would describe as "beautiful" but who I would say barely qualify as "pretty" - supermodels and actresses, for example.
Once, when I was at college (at SUNY Geneseo), several large wall mirrors in my dorm hall acquired a mysterious message: "YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL", scrawled in huge letters in some sort of marker. This may be a good example of the "self-esteem" thing that is such a big deal in American schools, and which is probably related in some way to the American tendency to be freer with their compliments.
Anyway, I actually found that "YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL" message offensive on a deeply personal level. It couldn't be anything other than false and insincere: it was broadcast to everyone who happened to read it, without regard to whether they actually deserved it or not. Used in that manner, it doesn't even seem to be a compliment at all, all it's saying is that whoever wrote it has very low standards in terms of beauty, if they're willing to apply the term without even seeing what they're applying it to.
Could this sort of thing be a contributor to the British perception of American insincerity?

Anne T. said...

Malimar's comment put me in mind of my mother's belief in the importance of telling children that they are beautiful, particularly one's own children. One of her friends whose daughter is one of my friends, did not do this, and my mother had noticed this and disapproved. I did not feel particularly beautiful as a teenager and was annoyed by these statements by my mother and aunt. It seemed to me to be confining or restricting. It seemed to me to be saying, "beauty is highly important", which I resented.

I also have an older sister who I sensed my mother REALLY thought was beautiful - and who I looked up to a great deal and thought was beautiful as well -and so with something of sibling territorialism, concluded that she was the beautiful one and that this left other areas open for me to excell in. I was okay with not being beautiful and my mother and aunt's comments just made it more difficult to accept and ignore. As a typical ungracious teenager - I would have wanted to say, "whatever, keep your opinions to yourself, please." Perhaps this experience has made me wary of most compliments though now I would just accept them quietly, with a thanks and move on. Maybe if my mother had felt strongly about the importance of complimenting children more generally on traits or behavior that deserved it, I would have been less cynical. And I guess this is more of what I am trying to do with my own children or with children in general - to observe traits or behavior that is admirable that you can notice and perhaps bring to their attention. (Or bring your attention to their attention?) These often start as "I like the way you did that" though I have on occasion said something, too, like, "Och, what a beautiful boy" when I am admiring their beauty.

Having said all this, however, I am sure to tell people they look great if I think so. Other women. And I've begun to compliment my husband more - which means that when I notice that I am admiring him or that he looks good to me, I am making more of an effort to tell him so.

One of the best things that I feel was ever said to me about me was while I was traveling and someone I hung out with a fair amount, a South African, as it were, exclaimed, "You're so unpretentious!"

ella said...

I'm a bit late on commenting on this, but had something to add to anne t.'s comment above. I am half English and half Canadian, and grew up on both sides of the pond in both BrE and CanE environments. My father and paternal grandmother are more Canadian, and would tend to be prolific and effusive with compliments, which I found rather meaningless - the overuse cheapened them, and they were very easy for me to dismiss. On the other hand, the grandest praise I ever remember receiving from my maternal grandmother (who was very English) was that I had 'quite a nice face, really' - and it stands as one of the best compliments I've ever had, and continue to hold it dear.

dim-summary said...

This is also a fascinating subject for a (former) U.S. expat in China.

If you've studied or have lived in China, you know that Chinese people are also effusive in compliment giving, but tend to give self-disparaging replies.

The most common traditional answer is "Nali, Nali", which literally means "Where, where?", but which I would translate more like "You're too kind".

However, just as that answer is seen as probably too formal/outdated in many (U.S.) circles, that's old-fashioned to most of my generation (twenty-something) in China. "Thank you" is seen as a bit conceited, though. I tended to solve this problem by doing the "Oh, I bought it at..." deflection.

But none of this told me what to say when the compliment was "Your skin is so white!" (Chinese girls don't like to get a tan.)

BritBloke said...

A (very) delayed comment but having read the entire thread I feel I've earnt it :)


Just to say in reference to Taraza and bill's gf: To a Brit if some random person comes up to you and expresses their 'love' of your shoes we react as follows..

1. Acknowledge compliment politely while moving slighly away to establish visually if they a) drunk, b) not all there, or c) american

2. Feel pleased, but then a splitsecond later ask yourself how much worth I can put on the judgement of some random stranger who might actually have really bad taste.

3. Wonder why they think it's important for me to know that they alone out of all the crowd love my shoes.

4. Most importantly, your compliment is redundant as it's hardly a revelation to me. I mean, I wouldn't have bought the shoes in the first place if I too didn't think they were the dog's bllcks

5. Get over myself, and realise they were just trying to be nice, and in fact said complimenter is quite nice looking and her nice smile and enthusiasm for life might be good for me.

..

104. Marry them.

(True story. I quite like yanks now :)

judy said...

Okay, I realise I am really, really late, but I just wanted to add a quick comment.

I am German, but I have worked with people from the US. Americans sometimes come across as insincere because of the different subtext attached to compliments.

If I meet an American colleague the first time and she is incredibly friendly (complimenting my skirt, my abilities, ...), I feel very flattered and I think something along the lines of "Wow. I must have really impressed her." I also think she wants to be my friend. After all, she was interested to hear how I was, she told me she liked my clothes and that I did a great job. For a German, the subtext here is definitely "I like you as a person". Why else would she care about how I was doing or compliment on my clothes?

The thing is, three days later I realise my colleague is just as enthusiastic about a everything and everyone. I also notice that she is not actually that interested in my personal drama. And I feel let down. I thought she wanted to be my friend, but now I feel she is really insincere when she keeps complimenting me!

So, when Germans say "Americans are insincere" we don't actually mean the compliment itself, but the relationship subtext. I believe a person saying that she likes my skirt that she likes my skirt. The hard part is to separate that from the different relationship subtext.

I also believe that explains the different frequency of compliments. If the American subtext is "being friendly" there are just a lot more opportunities to compliment than in a German context where you are basically saying "I think you are a truly nice person" with every compliment. (And it explains why it seems weird to have virtual strangers complimenting you - after all, they don't know you, so how could they compliment).

lynneguist said...

Thanks for some really good observations, Judy!

JosephK said...

If a Chinese person says to me 'You're so white!', I just say 'It's because I'm a white man' :)

Jan said...

I'm British, with an American family. My own problem in this vein is not the compliments (either given or received), it's the (perceived by me) bragging about children. Americans like to tell people how great their own children are and announce to everyone how proud they are of them. They gush over them and tell little ones they are adorable and older ones they are beautiful and can do anything. All this grates on my English ears. I am sure my daughters feel deprived, but I can't bring myself to say these things. To me, since my children are a reflection of myself, to say anything other than "Sara did really well in her performance" or "Amy looked quite nice in her prom dress" would be boasting. I had often thought this was due only to my upbringing, and that it's not nice to boast, brag or show off (and being that way will soon lose you friends in the British culture), so I avoid it at all costs. I suppose it is a cultural thing after all. I should get my American friends to read this blog!

lynneguist said...

Kate Fox deals with the English tendency to downplay one's child's achievements (etc.) in her book Watching the English. Highly, highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

Very old post, but nevertheless I'm surprised no one's really addressed the fact that American compliments are often veiled questions. By far the most common form of compliments from strangers are on physical things (clothes, handbag, shoes, jewelry, haircut) and it seems that there's usually an unstated second meaning: "I really like your shoes [where did you get them?]"

Responding to a compliment with where you got the item could be a deflection or providing info the speaker wants. I'm a seamstress, and I've found I get a lot more compliments when I'm wearing something I've made that's a bit unusual or retro. I've always assumed some of the increase is attributable to people with similar taste who like the item, and are obliquely asking where they might go to find that style of dress.

I answer compliments on clothes/shoes with "thanks"; I don't feel like it's egotistical to acknowledge a shared taste. If directly asked where I got something I made I feel awkward since it does feel like bragging to say I made it. I hadn't ever really thought about the American style of compliments, but the way you frame it makes sense. I'm completely comfortable with casual compliments that establish something shared between us, but uncomfortable with compliments that speak to a skill or achievement of mine unless I'm on an equal or inferior footing to the speaker with regard to that skill/achievement.

Jeanne said...

I found this blog while trying to figure out an event that occurred this evening. My friend and I went to our favorite Indian restaurant--we've been going there for decades and the "new" owners know me so well I no longer have to mention "mild, no cilantro"--they just know.

I'm a weaver, and textile structures and color fascinate me. After paying the bill, I noticed the beautiful jacquard scarf worn by one of the restaurant's young owners who was on her way out. "Ooooh!" I said, as I reached out to examine it.

Before I had time to finish saying "What a lovely scarf", she'd already removed it and given it to me with a huge smile.

She wouldn't take it back, and said "Oh, we just got back from India, I have many more at home. It's yours!"

Well, I was just plain gobsmacked, and thanked her for it, feeling an odd mixture of having been extremely blessed along with a bit of guilt ("what if she just gave me her favorite scarf?").

On the way home, my friend mentioned it's a cultural thing that if you admire it, they have to give it to you. I'd never heard this before, and it has me so confused I've been online for the past hour researching Indian social customs trying to figure out the appropriate response or exchange or what this all means!

It's true, here in America, "Oh, what a lovely scarf" is usually no more than "I'm reacting pleasantly to your sense of aesthetics" with a bit of "and where can I get one myself" or in my case, being a weaver, "can I examine the weave structure please for inspiration". I will certainly watch myself around this dear girl lest I wind up with half her wardrobe, LOL!

Any further insights into this would be greatly appreciated!

Albert Welch said...

Massachusetts, male, age 25, introvert-

Foreword: I apologize for the novel this comment turned into. The post and the other comments must have hit a nerve.

First I wish to echo the most recent anon in challenging Lynne's assertion that "thank you" implicitly agrees with a compliment.

In my usage "thank you" is less likely to show appreciation or agreement, than to show mere acknowledgement.

As such it is polite to acknowledge a compliment, and far from being modest, deflection which does not acknowledge the person giving the compliment is a rude, unfriendly, condescension, and is more properly false modesty.

Second I consider myself stingy in giving compliments. I temper this by being generous with "thank you" even if I am ambivalent or even irritated by the favor, advice or compliment. Conceptualizing "thank you" as acknowledgement allows this whereas I'd hardly say thank you at all if I reserved the expression for feelings of true gratitude.(I also complement my dearth of compliments with a lack of insults which avoids my being seen as quite so rude.)

(Incidentally, I am faintly amused to see complement used repeatedly here where compliment seems to have been intended.)

Third, the reason I mentioned introversion in my byline is because I believe personality and temperament can have more to do with the use and perception of compliments than culture does.

Of course, individual temperament and culture are interconnected, but there is typically more variance within a culture than cross-culturally.

Fourth, regarding superlatives, comparatives, and other adjectives which connote scale they can suffer the same bleaching from overuse as any interjection or curse. This is one reason why each generation will create or revive numerous words that mean very. They all are used so frequently that they quickly are bleached of their intensity, as well as escape the confines of the in-group which created them.

Of the four examples of over-the top discussed in these comments:

"You look great",
"You're so intelligent",
"You play the guitar so beautifully",
"You're the best employee we have",

The first is the least exuberant. I am biased by my exposure to the American bleaching of great, but there's another reason I find it more acceptable.

The middle pair of compliments contain the intensifier so, and the last the true superlative best.

Words being bleached of their intensity is something I find annoying, since I personally am more prone to understatement.

We do seem adept however at finding or coining replacements, so bleaching isn't the problem for the health of the language it's often portrayed to be, and like soil bereft of nutrients, once a word has gone fallow for a time it's ripe for rediscovery.

Final thought:

I am wary (possibly overly so) of attempting to compliment someone but failing because I have imposed my value systems onto them.

For example,as a self described geek I might use the term with affection towards someone else, but if that person still ascribes a stigma to all thinks geeky, they would not appreciate the association.