Thai and American Responses to Compliments in English

| January 9, 2014

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June 2006. Volume 2

Thai and American Responses to Compliments in English

Payung Cedar
Naresuan University,

Bio Data
Payung Cedar holds four degrees in English and Linguistics, including a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from Boston University. She has been working in the field for 12 years. Currently, she is teaching in the English Division of the Humanities Faculty at Naresuan University, Phitsanulok, Thailand.

Paying 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.

Key words: compliment, response, Thai, American, English

When 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).

Compliments 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.

In 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.

Compliment 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 American English.

As 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.

In 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.

Consequently, 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:

1. 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?

The 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.

The 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.

At 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.

In 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.

Data Analysis
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 below.

1. 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 my responsibility.”
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
7. No Response: no indication of having heard of the compliment

In 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.

In 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).

Results and Discussions
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.

Research Question 1: What are the differences between compliment responses used by Thai speakers of English and by native speakers of American English?

In 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.

Table 1 Different response strategies used by Thai speakers of English and native speakers of English

Note: 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.

As 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.

Second, 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 interviewer’s alias.
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?
J.K: Physics.

E.B: Physics is especially for smart guys. You must be a very smart Thai guy.
J.K: No, not at all.

The 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 it.
S.J: Um…(smiling with shrugging)
E.B: I like the color.
S.J: (smiling)
E.B: You’ve got a good taste.
A.L: (laughing)

Besides 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:

E.B: What is your English name?
T.S: Teresa.
E.B: I think it’s a really beautiful name.
T.S: (no response)

Based 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.

The 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 interactions.

The 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:

E.B: Do you make up?
T.N: I make up what?
E.B: Well…
T.N.: Oh, yes, I wear make-up. Yes, I had my make-up on. This is very
obvious, yes…
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.

Research 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.

Table 2 Different response strategies used by different gender of two ethnic groups: Thai Females vs. Males, and American Females vs. Males

Note: 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.
Statistically, 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.

For 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 do (14:6).

Another 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.

The 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 option.

The last 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.

Nonetheless, 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?

In 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.

Teaching Implications
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 is essential.

Teaching Activities Recommended
Effective 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Another 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.

The 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.

Finally, 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.

To 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).

In 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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