a compliment and responding to it can be a challenge for non-native speakers whose
social values and norms are different from those in the target language culture.
Using transcriptions from recorded interviews and participant observations, this
study investigated similarities and differences between 74 compliment responses
given by 12 American native speakers (6 males and 6 females) enrolled in graduate
programs at a U.S. university, and 68 responses given by 12 Thai adult students
(6 males and 6 females) enrolled in an intensive English program at the U.S. university.
The results showed that the English learners responded differently from the native
speakers. In particular, the learners used the patterns that were not commonly
recognized by the Americans. The results also showed a significant effect of gender
on compliment responses in both groups.
words: compliment, response, Thai, American, English
socio-cultural rules in the native language (L1) differ from those in the second
language (L2), the learners' transferring of their cultural norms to the target
culture of the L2 often causes misunderstanding or offence, resulting in communication
breakdown (Lewis, 2003; Holmes, 2001; Celce-Murcia, 1991; Wolfson, 1989).
and Compliment Responses
The causes of misunderstanding and communication
breakdown include different norms of complimenting and responding to compliments.
According to Holmes (1987, p. 101), the primary function of a compliment is affective
and social rather than referential or informative. For any culture, a compliment
must express approval of something that both parties, speakers and addressees,
regard positively (Manes, 1983), and it must be valued by the culture indicated
(Holmes, 1987; Manes, 1983). Yet, the ways in which people compliment and respond
to the compliment vary culturally. Therefore, studies of how native and nonnative
speakers of English respond to English compliments would benefit those in the
realm of English pedagogy, and cross-cultural communication.
the past decade, sociolinguistic studies have been increasingly conducted on compliment
responses between English used by native speakers and English used by L2 English
learners with different L1s, for example, Chinese (Yu 2003; Chen, 1993; Chiang
and Pochtrager, 1993), German (Golato, 2002), Indonesian (Ibrahim and Riyanto,
2000), and Japanese (Yoko, 1996). The results of the studies show that cultural
difference has an impact on compliment response types. However, no study on responses
to English compliments between Thais and Americans (or any native speakers of
English) has been administered.
response types in Thai culture differ from those in American culture (Cooper and
Cooper, 2005; Gajaseni, 1994). In the United States, a compliment is often used
for maintaining social harmony and for sustaining social interaction (Celce-Murcia,
1991). It can show gratitude, open or close a conversation (Wolfson, 1983), soften
a criticism or request (Brown and Levinson, 1978), establish and reinforce solidarity
between the speaker and the addressee (Herbert, 1989; Manes, 1983; Wolfson 1983),
and serve as expression of praise and admiration (Herbert, 1990). For this reason,
compliments have become clearly marked features in American English. On the other
hand, Thai culture values humility and modesty, thus complimenting, particularly
on the appearances of strangers, occurs less frequently in the Thai community
than in the United States. That is to say, a compliment in Thai is a carefully
controlled speech act with a much more restricted purpose than a compliment in
the values of compliments in Thai and American-English differ, so do compliment
responses. No matter how delighted a Thai feels about a compliment s/he receives,
s/he is careful to be modest and refrains from showing any outward sign of pleasure.
Responding to a compliment includes verbal and nonverbal behavior (body language)
such as smiles (Holmes, 1987). Like verbal expressions, smiles in different cultures
carry different meanings. For instance, Americans smile mainly to show friendliness.
Thais smile for pleasure, acceptance, friendliness, and situation-soothing (e.g.
when there is an emotional pressure between two people). Thus, an American, who
does not understand standard Thai norms of responding to compliments, may be confused
when he sees a Thai person's smile in response to his English compliment. Consequently,
the goal of this study is to reveal differences between Thai and American cultures,
in terms of responding to English compliments, for the sake of English pedagogy
and intercultural communication.
addition to differences between cultures, it is important to take the difference
between sexes (or gender) in these cultures into account. Many researchers (e.g.
Tannen, 1996; Holmes, 1995; Herring, 1994; Herbert, 1990) have been writing about
the effect of gender on language, and inter-sex communication in a single culture.
Indeed, gender differences are parallel to cross-cultural differences (Tannen,
1990). Specifically, men and women rely on different sub-cultural norms (hierarchical
vs. equal relationships) when interpreting the cultural information encoded by
language. Consequently, it is worthwhile to study the interactions between men
and women, men and men, or women and women of different cultures exchanging verbal
and non-verbal compliments and responses.
the goal of this study is to reveal cultural differences between Thai and American
cultures in terms of responding to English compliments. Specifically, this paper
investigates the sociocultural knowledge of Thai-speaking learners of English
in an English speaking country (the United States of America) regarding compliment
responses. The major research questions are as follows:
What are the differences between compliment responses of Thai-speaking learners
of English and those of native speakers of American English?
2. Does gender
difference affect the compliment response patterns of Thais and Americans?
subjects in this study were divided into two groups: Thais and Americans. The
Thai group included six males and six females in the ESL (English as a Second
Language) program at Boston University, Massachusetts. The residency period of
the subjects in the United States ranged from 6 months to 1.2 years, with an average
of 8.6 months. These ESL learners had a college degree and some English lessons
in their home country. They obtained a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
score in the range of 450 - 501. The subjects' short period of stay in the U.S.
and their previous education in Thailand should reflect how effectively they learned
the English language and culture in their home country. The American group included
six males and six females who were native speakers of English, enrolled in graduate
programs at Boston University.
data was collected from individual interviews. As the researcher was a Thai native
speaker, fluent in the Thai language and culture, the risk was high that she would
influence the Thai subjects in some way. To prevent this, an adult female American
English native speaker was asked to interview all subjects.
the onset of the interview, the interviewer requested permission to use the content
of the interview for research purposes. However, the interviewer did not specifically
identify what aspect of speech would be examined. This was to elicit compliment
responses that were spontaneous and subconscious. When getting the subject's verbal
consent, an interview started.
The interview format was similar for both
Thai and American subjects. That is, each subject was asked questions concerning
his or her biographical background, such as where s/he was from and how long s/he
had been in the U.S. and so forth. The interviewer pursued various topics depending
on the interest the interviewees. When there was a chance, the interviewer would
insert a compliment related to the topic. The interviewer consistently put forth
compliments during an interview, expressing approval of something about the subject,
which would supposedly elicit a positive feeling. The compliments were made on
their appearance (e.g. "I like your facial complexion"), possession
(e.g. "Your shirt looks really nice"), or ability (e.g. "Your English
is very good"). The length of the conversations varied a little, depending
on the situations and the subjects. However, the average time was approximately
thirty minutes per interviewee. The interviews were tape-recorded in their entirety
for later transcription.
addition to the tape-recording, the researcher (a Thai native speaker) took notes
on non-verbal behavior as a response to a compliment during the interviews. The
symbols used to represent non-verbal behavior included 's' for 'smile', 'ts' for
'talk and smile', and 'n' for 'no response and no smile'. The symbols were used
so that the interviewees could not understand them if they noticed them. In practice,
the interviewees simply paid attention to their conversation with the interviewer.
Each compliment response found was placed in one of Chiang and
Pochtrager's (1993) categories of compliment responses: acceptance, positive elaboration,
neutral elaboration, negative elaboration, and denial. However, this study required
two more categories: smiling, and no response. These categories are described
Acceptance: ritual "thank you", i.e., agreement with no further
elaboration, e.g. "Thank you"; "I think so, too"; "I'm
glad you like it."
2. Positive Elaboration: account, history, positive
comment, efforts, return of compliment, e.g. "I bought it at Macy's";
"Red is my favorite color"; "I worked hard on the project";
"I like yours, too."
3. Neutral Elaboration: seeking conformation
or shift of credit, e.g. "Really?"; "Do you think so?"; "My
assistant selected them."
4. Negative Elaboration: downgrading,
duty or responsibility, need for improvement, e.g. "The house is a bit too
small for us"; "I still need a lot of improvement"; "It's
5. Denial: no or negative opinion, e.g. "No,
not all"; "No, my baby is ugly."
6. Smiling (laughing):
non-verbal expression of embarrassment without any overt verbal response
No Response: no indication of having heard of the compliment
cases of compound responses with more than one category, they were assigned according
to the perceived intention of the speaker. "Thank you", with further
positive elaboration, was classified as positive elaboration since acceptance
needs no further elaboration. Similarly, "Thank you", with negative
elaboration, like "Thank you, I still need a lot of improvement", was
categorized as a negative elaboration. "Thank you", in these cases,
was considered a marker of politeness, since no other genuine intention was expressed
verbally by the speaker.
order to determine whether there were response pattern differences between the
Thai and American subjects, and whether gender difference would affect the subjects'
use of different strategies of response, the data was coded and entered onto Microsoft
Excel sheets, and then analyzed statistically, using chi-square, percentage and
reliability values, via the computerized program called SPSS (Statistical Package
for the Social Sciences).
Based on the research questions mentioned earlier, the
results are divided into two sections: 1) the response patterns, and 2) the gender
difference effect, as respectively demonstrated below.
Question 1: What are the differences between compliment responses used by Thai
speakers of English and by native speakers of American English?
response to this research question, compliment responses produced by Thai-speaking
learners of English and those given by native speakers of English are presented
in Table 1 below.
1 Different response strategies used by Thai speakers of English and native speakers
The numerals are the percentages of the total number of responses in each strategy
divided by the total number of all responses in all strategies: 68 responses for
the Thai group and 74 responses for the American group. The reliability coefficient
(alpha) of the data in the table above is 0.8534.
shown in Table 1 above, the statistic result shows that there is a significant
relationship between compliment responses given by Thai learners and English native
speakers (X2 = 24.4388, p<.001), indicating that
the difference is statistically significant. Descriptively, the results stored
in Table 1 above show three interesting patterns. First, four-fifths of the American
responses fall into the categories of acceptance and positive elaboration. Eight
out of ten Americans respond positively to the compliments, whereas only about
half of the Thai subjects do so.
only five percent of the Thai responses are found in the category of positive
elaboration, in contrast to thirty percent of the American responses. This variation
seems to come from the Thai speakers' lack of sociocultural familiarity with the
English expressions involved. In other words, the English conversational competence
of Thai subjects was not developed enough to express their feelings of positive
elaboration, whereas they did have formulaic expressions (certain expressions
used in certain situations) with which to respond to the compliments in the following
categories: acceptance, neutral elaboration, negative elaboration, and denial.
These categories of expression are not surprising, even for beginning L2 learners,
because they can be found in simple day-to-day conversations. The examples below
occur regularly in the interviews with the Thai subjects. An alias is given to
the interviewer and the interviewees to honor their privacy.
E.B is the
E.B: Your shirt is really nice.
E.R: Thank you.
E.B: I like your jacket.
R.W: Oh, really?
E.B: I think you did a good job.
C.G: I hope so.
E.B: What are you studying?
E.B: Physics is especially for smart guys. You must be a very smart Thai guy.
J.K: No, not at all.
third result pattern indicates that two types of compliment response, namely,
"smiling (laughing)" and "no response" were used by the Thai
subjects in this study but they did not exist in American subjects' responses.
The "smiling strategy" as a response to compliments seems to come from
Thai culture, which is less open to expressing compliments. It also allows the
addressees to avoid acceptance of compliments, which can be regarded as self-praise,
i.e. overt acceptance of a compliment refers to admiring oneself, which is not
appropriate in the Thai culture. Moreover, the function of smiling in Thai culture
is to lessen embarrassment and tension between interlocutors. Thai subjects might
have regarded the compliments put forth to them as insincere, or they might have
felt embarrassed, since the interviewer was a stranger to them. Therefore, instead
of saying "no", Thai speakers would simply smile to the complimenter
without any linguistic elaboration. Not surprisingly, the complimenter sometimes
felt that she was the subject of flirtation when she saw a smile from the complimentee.
This made her feel uncomfortable. Supportive examples are as follows:
E.B: So, you brought this from Thailand?
S.J: You like it?
E.B: I like
(smiling with shrugging)
E.B: I like the color.
E.B: You've got a good taste.
smiling (laughing), the other response type used only by Thai subjects is "no
response." The reason why they did not give any indication or response to
compliments might be related to their limited linguistic resources in English.
The following example is typical:
What is your English name?
E.B: I think it's a really beautiful
T.S: (no response)
on the results mentioned above, three interesting observations call for presentation.
The first, as mentioned before, is that smiles have different functions in each
culture. According to the Thai interviewees, the major functions of smiling, without
any verbal elaboration as a compliment response strategy, in Thai culture is to
lessen embarrassment and tension, so as not to threaten the face of the complimenter.
Even though smiling can be understood to play the same role in American culture,
it is less likely to be used as a response to the compliments. In other words,
American subjects in this study did smile and laugh when responding to the compliments,
but they also elaborated their response verbally without exception.
second observation is that the Thai and American subjects interpreted the purpose
of compliments differently. Compliments function as the initiator of a new conversation
in American culture (Wolfson, 1989). In this study, American subjects tended to
continue the conversation by elaborating their responses or asking questions of
the interviewer based on the aspect being complimented, whereas the Thai subjects
did not tend to ask questions after being complimented. Since Thai subjects tended
to wait for the next question after responding to a compliment, the interviewer
usually had to bring up a new topic in order to keep the conversation from breaking
down. Therefore, it seems that the compliment speech act in American society is
treated as an initiator of conversations or a tool for continuing or expanding
them, whereas it is a separated simple unit of interchange in Thai society. Furthermore,
the frequency of compliment behaviors tends to be much lower in Thai culture than
in American culture. Therefore, a compliment cannot function as an initiator of
conversation in Thai society. This study shows that Thai learners of English tend
to transfer the pragmatics of Thai complimenting to their use of English language
last interesting observation in this study is that some American subjects tended
to "return" the compliments right after being complimented, whereas
none of the Thai subjects did. A typical pattern of compliment return by Americans
is as follows:
Do you make up?
T.N: I make up what?
T.N.: Oh, yes,
I wear make-up. Yes, I had my make-up on. This is very
E.B: Not very obvious. A little bit
.I like the way you wear a make-up.
T.N: Oh, thank you.
E.B: Looks so good on you.
T.N: Oh, thank you (laughing)
E.B: Oh, I mean it.
T.N: Ah-hah, you look good, too, with your lipstick.
Question 2: Does gender difference affect the compliment response patterns
of male and female subjects?
In response to the second research question,
the results are shown in Table 2 below.
2 Different response strategies used by different gender of two ethnic groups:
Thai Females vs. Males, and American Females vs. Males
The numerals are the percentages of the total number of responses in each strategy
divided by the total number of all responses in all strategies: 68 responses for
the Thai group (36 given by females and 32 by males) and 74 responses for the
American group (40 given by females and 34 by males). The reliability coefficient
(alpha) of the Thai data is 0.8341 and that of the American data is 0.8998.
the results show that the responses given by American females are well related
to those given by American males (X2 = 21.8925, p < .0005), suggesting that
gender does play a significant role in Americans' responding to English compliments.
Likewise, the results from the Thai group show that females' responses are well
related to males' responses (X2 =
51.0189, p < .0001), indicating that there is a significant difference between
Thai females' and males' responses. In the light of these results, it is concluded
that gender plays a significant role in responding to English compliments among
both native speakers and nonnative speakers. In addition, a significant relationship
is found between responses by Thai females and those by American females (X2
= 43.1063, p < .0001), and between responses by Thai males and those by American
males (X2 = 49.0949, p <.0001).
Hence, the results show the strong effects of both culture and gender on responding
to a compliment.
a better picture, six major differences are descriptively reported as follows.
First, American females use acceptance as a response type far more often than
American males (57:37), but Thai males use acceptance responses slightly more
frequently than Thai females (50:45). In addition, for positive elaboration, Thai
females use many positive elaboration responses, while males use none (10:0).
On the contrary, American males use many more positive elaboration responses than
females do (37:24). Third, Thai males tend to use neutral elaboration and negative
elaboration more often than Thai females do (18:10 and 14:5, respectively). However,
it is American females who use negative elaboration more often than American males
interesting result is that Thai males give no positive elaboration but many denial
responses, while Thai females give no denial but several positive elaboration
responses. These seem to reflect the social status of men and women in the Thai
culture. As the interviewer is a female, it is plausible that Thai males are not
hesitant to show their power over her.
results also show a noticeable difference in denial responses between females
and males. None of the Thai or American females used denial response to the compliments,
while 14% of Thai males' responses and 10% of American males' responses fall into
this category. The generalization seems to be that denial responses are not likely
to be used by female complimentees, whereas they would be used more often by male
complimentees. This can be explained by Brown and Levinson's "face"
- public self-image - in their Politeness Theory. Since the absence of compliment
responses often leads to situations that threaten the positive face (the need
to be approved) of complimenters, it is important for complimentees responding
to the compliments to minimize the sense of threat. Therefore, the female subjects
in both ethnic groups seem to regard the denial response pattern as an inappropriate
interesting finding is that Thai females use the non-verbal response (smile),
while the American females do not. Additionally, only the Thai females give no
response. One-fourth of the total responses by Thai females are classified as
smiling without any verbal elaboration, whereas only four percent of responses
by Thai males fall into this category. This seems to come from the Thai culture,
which requires people to be modest and humble. This might be more strongly imposed
on Thai females than males. Although none of the American females and males smile
to the complimenter as a response to compliments, none of them are quiet and fail
to give any response, either - they always respond in some way.
it should be noted that people may respond differently to a compliment, depending
on a number of factors other than culture and gender. The factors include social
status (high vs. low) of the interlocutors, social distance (friends, acquaintances,
or strangers), age, language proficiency, and situations. Clearly, this is an
area that calls for further study.
In a nutshell, when sociocultural norms from one culture are brought to
bear on another, the result can sometimes be misinterpretation and offence. The
overall findings of this study reveal significant differences in responses to
English compliments by American and Thai subjects. It confirms previous findings
that language and culture are closely related. However, the study brings up three
interesting points. The first is a question of whether non-native speakers should
follow the proverb "When in Rome do as the Romans do", and leave their
traditions or habits behind, or whether they should strongly hold on to their
ethnic identity. The second is a question of whether the majority's awareness
of the cultural differences is awakened. Perhaps just being aware that people
of different backgrounds have different automatic responses to compliments and
other social interactions makes us better communicators. The key is how this can
be accomplished. Besides, who should do the learning - the Roman or the guests?
the pedagogical field, the study suggests that language and culture should not
be taught separately. Compliments and compliment responses have many functions
in English, thus, EFL teachers should show the learners how to appropriately respond
to an English compliment.
The information regarding compliment/response patterns given
above, together with examples taken from printed materials, the Internet and movies,
should provide a useful tool for a teacher of English to raise students' awareness
of cultural similarities and differences between compliment/response patterns
in Thai culture and English culture. The conflicting patterns may require an explanation,
as an inappropriate response to a compliment can cause communication breakdown
or offence. In ordinary situations, students are expected to return a response
to a compliment in English, as silence leads to communication breakdown. By the
same token, students should learn to pay compliments, as it is a simple way to
create friendship, receive help, or reach a business goal. A rule of thumb for
this is that a compliment needs to be sincere, so eye contact between interlocutors
activities of teaching these aspects of language and culture include student research
projects (e.g. movie studies), role-plays, mingling activities, and Internet search.
A teacher may select any activity applicable to his/her classroom.
first teaching activity suggested here involves a student's mini-project, in which
each student has to observe and analyze compliment/response patterns used by English
native speakers and Thai native speakers in either real or realistic situations.
This project can be done via movie observations or interviews, the procedure of
which is explained in the study above. Students may categorize what they observe
into the patterns shown in this article, and then discuss the similarities and
differences found. This way, students learn not only to better comprehend English
but also to capture the culture associated with it.
second activity is role playing, where compliment/response patterns can be integrated
such cultural exchanges as apologies and refusals. Students may work independently
in groups of four, and write a script that tells their own story, and then perform
the play in class. It is obligatory that the story include the cultural exchanges
they have been taught. The teacher can decide how many times s/he wants them to
appear in the story. Supervision and feedback should be available for the students.
This activity helps students learn to think, act, and observe their peers' interactions.
Small rewards for the best actor and the best actress selected by the audience
may be offered in order to encourage all students to work harder and to intentionally
watch the plays.
plausible teaching tool is a "mingling activity". Two groups of an equal
number of students stand in two circles, one inside the other. Students in both
groups should face each other. Each student in the inner circle is required to
honestly compliment his/her interlocutor in the outer group in English and the
interlocutor should respond appropriately. After that, each student in the inner
group steps aside to the left (or right) in order to meet another interlocutor.
Note that the outer group stays put. The same process should be repeated until
a student meets all of the interlocutors. Then, students in both groups switch
roles. This enables students to repetitively practice praising and responding
to a compliment.
last activity suggested here requires Internet access. Students can search for
more information regarding compliment/response patterns in English and other languages
via the Internet. Then they may write a report on English cultural aspects or
intercultural communication that interested them.
at the end of any activity, learners can brainstorm to find out when, where, and
how to use what they have just learned with foreigners in a non-English speaking
country like Thailand.
conclude, students should be taught to feed themselves, instead of being fed at
all the time. Specifically, they should be on the alert to find more information
about the cultural backgrounds of their interlocutors, for those who speak English
do not always have or realize the culture of English native speakers. Here is
some food for thought: "In Japan people smile when they are sad, happy, apologetic,
angry, or confused. In traditional Korean culture, smiling meant that a person
was foolish or thoughtless. On the island of Puerto Rico, a smile can have many
positive meanings: "Please", "Thank you", and "You're
welcome" (Tanka and Baker, 2002, p. 313).
summary, language is a dance to the music of culture. Dance steps and the music
they go with convey more than just rhythm and joy - they also help the dancers
negotiate a relationship. We must teach language relative to culture.
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