Just Say “Thank You”: A Study of Compliment Responses

| January 8, 2014

April 2007. Volume 2 Issue 1

Just Say “Thank You”: A Study of Compliment Responses

Hessa Al Falasi,
American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Bio Data:
Hessa Ghanem Al Falasi is in her third year of teaching. She is teaching Grade 6 and 7 in Fujairah School for Basic Education, a government school in Fujairah. She is also completing an MA in TESOL in the American University of Sharjah. She is interested in assessment and evaluation. Ms. Al Falasi is currently working on her thesis, which is a textbook evaluation of the new English national curriculum “UAE English Skills”.

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This study aims at finding out whether Arabic learners of English (Emarati Females in particular) produce target-like compliment responses in English and whether pragmatic transfer can occur. Discourse completion tests (DCTs) and interviews were used to study the strategies employed when responding to compliments by native speakers (NSs) and Arabic non-native speakers (NNSs) of English. Findings suggest that Arabic (L1) expressions and strategies were sometimes transferred to English (L2). This study also indicates that Emarati female learners of English transfer some of their L1 pragmatic norms to L2 because they perceive these norms to be universal among languages rather than being language specific. It also indicates that Arabic NNSs of English have some misconceptions about NSs that affect the way they respond to their compliments. Some important cultural and pedagogical implications are discussed at the end of the paper.

Key words: pragmatic transfer, compliment responses, raising cultural awareness in the EFL/ESL classroom.

Communicating with speakers of other languages is a complex behaviour that requires both linguistic and pragmatic competence. Whether we speak in a first or second language, we are influenced by sociocultural norms and constraints that affect the way we communicate. Rizk (2003) points out that what is considered appropriate in one language might not be so in another. Praising a girl of being fat, for instance in a Western African community is considered a compliment; while in an American context it is perceived as an insult.
Most of the problems that EFL learners face in intercultural communication are mainly pragmatic. Teachers of EFL often choose not to stress pragmatic knowledge in their classrooms, focusing instead on linguistic knowledge. Eslami-Rasekh (2004) warns that this might result in pragmatic failure when EFL learners actually communicate with native speakers (NSs), something that is attributed to some other cause, such as rudeness. The only way to minimize pragmatic failure between NSs and NNSs is by acquiring pragmatic competence, that is, “the ability to use language effectively in order to understand language in context” (El Samaty 2005, p. 341). Emarati EFL students are not exposed to the target community and culture and they find it extremely difficult to produce or sometimes understand a speech act.
Compliment responses are one type of speech acts that differs considerably from Arabic to English. Native speakers of English might consider the way Arabic speakers respond to compliments offending or bizarre, because they understood only the words without the cultural rules that govern them and vice versa. This study aims at finding out whether Arabic learners of English produce target-like compliment responses and whether pragmatic transfer can occur. It examines how compliment responses are used in the UAE culture and the differences between them and the ones used in the American culture. Despite the wealth of empirical studies conducted about speech acts in general, few data-based studies have ever focused on L1 transfer of compliment responses. More research is necessary in this area to better understand the relationship between L1 transfer and compliment responses in L2 use. The present study contributes to the limited collection of research done on compliment responses in Arabic. This will be achieved by: (1) reviewing studies on pragmatic transfer and compliment responses, (2) discussing the methodology and results of the present study, and finally (3) suggesting some classroom implications that could apply to EFL teaching in the UAE context.

Literature Review
Pragmatic Transfer
Intercultural miscommunication is often caused when learners fall back on their L1 sociocultural norms in realizing speech acts in a target language. This is referred to as pragmatic transfer. Rizk (2003) defines pragmatic transfer as “the influence of learners’ pragmatic knowledge of language and culture other than the target language on their comprehension, production, and acquisition of L2 pragmatic information” (p. 404). Pragmatic transfer can be either positive, which is considered an evidence of sociocultural and pragmatic universality among languages, or negative, which indicates inappropriate transfer of L1 sociolinguistic norms into L2. This often results in pragmatic failure, or being unable to understand the meaning of an utterance in the target language. (Liu, 1997). Negative pragmatic transfer, as Rizk (2003) explains, takes the form of translating some “formulaic expressions/ phrases” functioning to express different speech acts in (L1) to express the equivalent speech act in L2. (p.405). El Samaty (2005) mentions one factor that might influence pragmatic transfer and that is learners’ perception of “what constitutes a language specific or a universal issue” (p.342). Learners would not transfer an L1 pragmatic feature to L2 if they know that it is language specific.

Research on Pragmatic Transfer
Pragmatic studies dealing with different speech acts have been conducted since the early 1980s. These studies focused on L1 in most cases, but later, L2 and cross-cultural variations have been introduced. The L2 pragmatic transfer studies have shown that despite being linguistically competent in a second language, learners are likely to transfer L1 pragmatic rules in their L2 production (El Samaty, 2005). Takahashi and Beebe (1987) hypothesized that there is a positive correlation between L2 proficiency and pragmatic transfer. They argued that more proficient learners tend to transfer L1 socio-cultural norms more than less proficient learners because they have enough control over L2 to express L1 sentiments at the pragmatic level. Eslami-Rasekh (2004) supports this claim by stating that linguistically competent learners do not necessarily possess comparable pragmatic competence. “Even grammatically advanced learners may use language inappropriately and show differences from target-language pragmatic norms”.
In 1986, Blum-kulka and Olshtain used discourse completion tests to analyze the utterance length of requesting strategies in Hebrew. They collected the data from non-native speakers of Hebrew at three proficiency level, and they found out that high-intermediate learners produced utterances longer than the utterances of low-intermediate and advanced learners, which was considered by the researchers as pragmatic failure ( Ghawi 1993, p.39).

Compliments and compliment responses
A compliment is one form of speech acts and it can be defined as “an utterance containing a positive evaluation by the speaker to the addressee” (Liu,1997). There is an infinite number of words that could be chosen to compliment, but the set of lexical items and grammatical patterns we use in our daily interaction when complimenting and have high frequency in our daily discourse are very restricted. According to Wolfson (1986), two-thirds of English compliments use the adjectives “nice, good, beautiful, pretty, great”, and 90% make use of just two verbs “like and love” (p.116). The lack of creativity in the form and content of English compliments is related to their function in discourse. Herbert (1986) demonstrates that compliments are used to “negotiate solidarity with the addressee” (p.76). Their aim is to make the addressee feel good and their formulaic nature minimizes the chance that they will be misinterpreted by the addressee.
On the surface level, there is not much difference between Arabic and English cultures in the use of compliments. However, if we look at compliment responses, differences arise. When communicating with native speakers of English, Arabs may sometimes sound bizarre or offending. This is duo to some differences in the way the two cultures use compliment responses. In the Arab society, it is a deeply-rooted religious belief that humility is a virtue. Even when accepting a compliment, Arabs tend to return the compliment (which might sound insincere to NSs), or insist on offering the object of the compliment to the speaker (something that might be embarrassing to the NSs who did not expect this behavior). Therefore, differences may result in serious communicative interference in cross Arabic and English culture communication.

Research on Compliment Responses
The first researcher who discussed compliment responses from a pragmatic perspective was Pomerantz in 1978. She claimed that Americans face two dilemmas when responding to compliments: (A) they have to agree with the speaker, and (B) they have to avoid self-praise. Urano (1998), further explains this dilemma by stating that when a recipient of a compliment responds by agreeing with the speaker (Condition A), it violates Condition B as this response goes against the sociolinguistic expectations of the speaker. On the other hand, if the speaker doesn’t accept the compliment to avoid self-praise, the response will be face-threatening since it violates Condition A. To mediate this conflict, recipients of compliments resolve to a variety of solutions: (1) Acceptance, (2) Rejection, and (3) Self-praise avoidance.

Herbert (1986) revised Pomerantz’s taxonomy by analyzing American English speakers’ compliment responses. He collected more than a thousand samples of compliment responses from American college students in a three-years period project. Surprisingly, only 36.35% compliment responses were accounted for by acceptance. Herbert ended up with a three-category, twelve-type taxonomy of compliment responses.

(Table 1)

Response                                       Type Example
A. Agreement
I. Acceptances

  1. Appreciation Token              Thanks; thank you; (smile)
  2. Comment Acceptance           Thanks; it’s my favourite too.
  3. Praise Upgrade Really brings out the blue in my eyes, doesn’t it?

II. Comment History                      I bought it for the trip to Arizona.
III. Transfers

  1. Reassignment                      My brother gave it to me.
  2. Return                                 So’s yours.

B. Nonagreement
I. Scale Down                                It’s really quite old.
II. Question                                   Do you really think so?
III. Nonacceptances

  1. Disagreement                      I hate it.
  2. Qualification                         It’s alright, but Len’s is nicer.

IV. No Acknowledgment (silence)
C. Other                                        Interpretations
I. Request                                     You wanna borrow this one too?

Table 1. Herbert’s Taxonomy of Compliment responses (Herbert 1986, p. 79)

Since then, a number of contrastive studies have been conducted to compare compliment responses in different languages and language varieties. Arabic and South African English speakers were found to prefer accepting compliments rather than reject them. Speakers of Asian languages, on the other hand, were likely to reject compliments (Urano, 1998). In 1989, Wolfson collected observational data on compliments from authentic interaction between native and non-native speakers over a period of two years. She found out that L2 speakers did understand the function of compliments as “a social lubricant” in the American culture. They had difficulty in responding appropriately to compliments (Ghawi 1993, p.40). In another contrastive study of compliment responses between Chinese learners of English and American NSs of English, Chen (1993), found out that the majority of Chinese NNSs of English rejected compliments, compared to the American NSs who accepted and appreciated those compliments.

More recently, Cedar’s (2006) contrastive study of compliment responses used by Thai NNSs of English and American NSs of English revealed significant differences in responses to English compliments between the two groups. While Americans tended to accept compliments and elaborate positively in their responses, Thai NNSs of English refrained from elaborating and used formulaic expressions in their responses. Cedar explained this by stating that “the English conversational competence of Thai subjects was not developed enough to express their feelings of positive elaboration” (p.15).
Despite the above reviewed studies on compliments and compliment responses, the lack of studies on Arabic learners of English in this area is obvious.

Research questions
As mentioned earlier, the purpose of this study is to examine pragmatic transfer in compliment responses by Arabic learners of English. Three related research questions emerged:

  1. What are the similarities and differences in compliment responses between female NSs and Emarati female NNSs of English?
  2. When speaking in English, will Emarati females’ compliment responses be closer to Arabic or English?
  3. Does language proficiency play a role in their use of compliment responses?

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to first examine the patterns of compliment responses by Americans and Emarati females in their L1, and second to observe compliment responses by Emarati females in their L2 (English).

For validity and reliability, I used triangulation by not concentrating on just one source of information. I approached the topic from different points of view by combining quantitative data from discourse completion tasks (DCTs) and qualitative data from interviews. I also used theories and background knowledge from books and journals articles that guided me to approach my topic in the right way.
The subjects of the study were all female participants divided into three main groups:

  1. Group1: American NSs of English = 10 ( HCT teaching staff)
  2. Group2: Emarati NNs + English majors = 10. All of them are English Teachers at the Fujairah Elementary School for Girls.
  3. Group3: Emarati NNs non-English majors = 6. 2 Housewives + 4 Math teachers at the Fujairah Elementary School for Girls.

The reason why females were chosen for this study is because they tend to use politeness strategies more than men do. According to Guodong & Jing (2005), many research studies support this claim. They explain that studies on the relation of gender and language have found out that women are more sensitive than men to being polite. Studies conducted by Liao & Breneham and Brown in1996 and 1998 also found that women are more status sensitive than men. Therefore, it is predictable that women will use more politeness strategies than men do. What is also important to note, as Liu (1997) explains, is that women are traditionally assumed in both cultures to be more concerned than men with personal topics such as physical appearance, clothing, food and diet.


1. Discourse Completion Test :

The Discourse Completion Test (DCT) consists of six scenarios, in which participants are expected to respond to compliments. These scenarios were designed to meet the purpose of this study and to elicit data on compliment responses from both NSs and NNSs of English. The final version in English was translated by the researcher to Arabic. Groups 1 and 2 took the English version, and group 3 took the Arabic version.

2. Interviews :

This tool was used to account for the reasons of the participants’ responses and minimize the researcher’s bias when interpreting the data.

The data collected from the three groups through the discourse completion test will be presently analyzed for the six scenarios. The analysis will be based on Herbert’s taxonomy of compliment responses to examine the similarities and differences between native and non-native speakers of English.

Scenario 1:
You have just finished presenting your research paper. At the end of the class (when you were just leaving the classroom), one of your classmates say: “You did an excellent job! I really enjoyed your presentation”. You answer: _____
Almost all of the NSs responses to this scenario were agreement. Their responses varied between appreciation token “oh, thank you!”, to comment acceptance “thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it”, and praise upgrade “you have no idea how hard I worked for that!”. Only one NS responded by disagreeing and questioning “Really? I thought it was just ok”. On the other hand, almost all of the native speakers of Arabic (NSAs), have responded by either transfer (returning the compliment) “oh, your presentation was much better”, or interpreting it as a request “do you want me to help you with your presentation?” Only one of the NSAs responded with a simple “thank you”. The responses of NNSs who took the English version of the DCT showed more use of the agreement responses like “thanks!” and “It’s nice of you to say so”. However, they also showed literal translation of Arabic formulaic expressions used as compliment responses. These translations included “I’m your pupil”, which is a scale down expression that means the speaker is much better than the addressee, and “I’m ashamed” which might strike a NS as extremely out of place, but is literally translated from the widely used Arabic formulaic expression (أخجلتم تواضعنا ) akhjaltom tawaado’na.

Scenario 2:
You have some friends and relatives over for coffee and cake that you baked. Someone says: “Tastes Yummy!”. You answer:_____
Eight of the ten NSs responded with “thanks” and then offering to give the speaker the recipe “would you like the recipe?”. The other two responded by giving information or history, “it’s a family recipe”. NNSs who answered in Arabic used questions “really? Did you really like it?”, disagreement “no it’s not, you’re just complimenting me!”, and reassignment “my mom gave me the recipe”. NSAs who answered in English did not use those two strategies in their responses. Instead, they resolved again to literally translating Arabic formulaic expressions like “Your taste is yummy”, and “I added my magic to it / that’s because I dipped my sweet finger in it”. Only one person responded with “thank you”.

Scenario 3:
You were shopping for a skirt and a stranger (male) approaches you and says: “This would look amazing on you!” You answer:____
NSs all responded with either no acknowledgment, or by not accepting the compliment “what’s it got to do with you?”. NNSs who answered in Arabic and English also responded with no acknowledgment, or by offending the man.

Scenario 4:
You were shopping for a skirt and a stranger (female) approaches you and says: “This would look amazing on you!” You answer:___
NSs responded with either a question “really?/ oh, so do you think I should buy it?” or an appreciation token “thanks / thank you”. NNSs who responded in Arabic used formulaic expressions like “May Allah bliss you” jazaaki allah khair, “May Allah make all your days beautiful” Allah yhalli ayyamek. NNSs who answered in English used tokens of appreciation “thanks/ how sweet of you to say so”, or returned the compliment by translating Arabic formulaic expressions “Your eyes are beautiful” oyoonech el helwa.

Scenario 5:
Some friends are over at your house. One of them looks at a clock hanging on the wall and says: “I love your clock. It looks great in your living room!”. You answer: _____
NSs responded with comment history “It was a present from my daughter/ I bought it in Harrods”, or acceptance “yes, I loved it when I bought it”. NNSs who answered in Arabic interpreted this compliment as a request and responded with offering the clock to the speaker and insisting that they take it. NNSs answering in English also insisted that the speaker take the watch “you must take it! I swear, you must!”. Only one NNS answered with an appreciation token “you like it! Thank you!”.

Scenario 6:
You’re wearing a new shirt and a colleague looks at you and says: “This shirt looks great on you! Blue is a great color for you.” You answer: _____
NSs responded with appreciation tokens “thanks/ you made my day!”, questions “is it really?/ do you think so?”, disagreement “I dunno, I prefer pink”, and comment acceptance “oh, it’s my favorite color. Thanks”. NNSs who answered in Arabic responded with returning the compliment “you’re more beautiful/ this is because you have a good taste”, disagreement “thanks, but I know this is only a compliment”, and questions “really? Swear!!”. NNSs who answered in English returned the compliment by translating Arabic formulaic expressions “your eyes are beautiful and they see everything beautiful”, disagreement “please don’t say that, you’re embarrassing me!”, scale down “oh, it’s so cheap! I bought it in the sales”, and comment acceptance “thanks, I like it too”.

It was clear from the above analysis that in most cases, female Emarati learners of English did not produce target-like compliment responses. They unconsciously brought about some L1 expressions and strategies which might result in communicative breakdown. For instance, they literally translated Arabic formulaic expressions used in compliment responses and these expressions were not always suitable for the compliment given in English. They intended their responses to be polite but they were not appropriate. For example, the expression “I’m ashamed” would be more appropriate when an offence is committed, rather than to show gratitude and appreciation. These strategies were used both by English and non-English majors, which means that communicating with NSs might slightly affect their use of compliment responses, but does not have changed it completely to a target-like response.

Another important issue that rises from the findings is that NNSs had some misconceptions about the way NSs responded to compliments. These misconceptions have affected the way NNSs would deal with NSs considering compliment responses. This was illustrated through scenario 3 (see above). In the UAE culture, compliments from men are generally not accepted unless the man is a member of the family. However, if they happen, the appropriate response from the female would be to simply ignore the man. Responses to other compliments are normally answered based on the real circumstance or position the addressee is in at the moment he/she is greeted.
Scenario 3 illustrates a situation that many females in the UAE are likely to find themselves in while shopping. The responses of the NNSs were analysed above and they ranged from no acknowledgement, to offending the male. After groups 2, and 3 finished their DCTs, I asked them the following question “how do you think a female NS would respond in this situation?” All of the NNSs answered that a NS would be happy to get this compliment, would highly appreciate it, and would thank the man. While, as obvious from the data analysis above, all but one NS answered that they would either ignore the man or tell him to mind his own business. When I asked the NNSs how this idea they have of NSs affected them, half of them stated that it does not affect them in any way; the other half, however, explained that an American male would expect the female to be happy when complimented while a local male would know that this female would be insulted. “If the man who complimented me was a foreigner, I would accept the compliment and thank him, if it was a local guy”, said one of the interviewee, “I would certainly ignore him”.

Another issue is the way NSs and NNSs view compliments. Compliments in the UAE had turned into a routine and they are perceived to be insincere most of the time. There are several factors that affect the use of compliments in the UAE, like social distance, age, gender, and social status. Some of the reasons why people in the UAE use compliments are, as Boyle (2005) explained, “1) to avoid hurting other people’s feelings; 2) to give people some hope and encouragement; 3) to protect one self from more powerful people; 4) because they want other people to compliment them too; 5) it’s encouraging” (p.356). For these reasons, many people use compliments even if they were insincere, as a means of making people feel good. That’s why it was found in NNSs responses expressions like “oh, this is not true, you’re only complimenting me!” and “Really? Or is it just a compliment?”

It was obvious also that language proficiency did not play a role in producing target-like compliment responses. Both English majors and non majors produced the same compliment responses. The only difference is that group 2 translated those responses literally to English.
Other deviations from the native norms are the following: (1) NNSs used longer compliment responses because there is a general understanding that the longer the response to compliments, the more sincere it is, (2) NNSs, sometimes, responded to compliments with a joke that might be misunderstood by speakers of other languages, (3) because of their strong ties with their religion, Emarati NNSs have their faith in (Allah) God deeply embedded within their speech acts. That’s why most of the compliment responses are in the form of a small prayer that the speaker be blessed from Allah, and he/she gets whatever they want with the help of Allah allah eykhaleech, allah ysallemch.

The present study explored pragmatic transfer of compliment responses in Arabic learners of English in comparison with the data from native speakers of American English. The findings of the study show that Arabic learners did not produce target-like responses to compliments. This suggests that it’s not enough to build learners’ linguistic competence and that it might be necessary to also develop their sociocultural, which will in turn develop their understanding of the frames of interaction and rules of politeness within the target culture. It is also important to provide learners with knowledge of the linguistic forms or stylistic strategies appropriate to convey the intended meaning in different contexts or situations.

The study offers two pedagogical implications, one for syllabus designers and the other for instruction. First, when designing textbooks, syllabus designers should examine learners’ needs considering the understanding and production of speech acts in the target language and which of these speech acts they are likely to come across. Learners should be made aware of NSs usage of the variety of expressions to realize a certain function, depending on the situation where they are used. This could be accomplished by eliciting compliment responses from their own culture, and presenting the target culture’s way of responding to compliments to raise their awareness.
Second, Emarati EFL learners have no contact with NSs of English, and that calls for more communication in the classroom, as it contributes to interlanguage development. This could be achieved through: (a) using authentic materials from the target language that will help learners understand as many native and non-native varieties and communicative styles as they can be expected to come across, (b) focusing on learner-centred activities like role plays and real discussions to develop efficient strategies of the target language, (c) team-teaching with NSs to give the students a chance to interact and learn English under the supervision of a NS.

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Category: 2007