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The Speech Event of Complimenting in Chinese
  Liu Zhanrong, CCRTVU
Introduction Literature review Compliment topics
Compliment formulas Compliment responses The present study
Methodology Results and discussion Conclusion
Bibliography Appendix  

1. Almost got fired today for complimenting a woman from out of town on how she looked. Try to do something nice and she can't handle it. I had to explain to my boss my true intentions (purely benign) and then promise to apologise to this person. She must have a low esteem or something.

2. An Indian woman was shocked by her newly-married American daughter-in-law, who praised her beautiful saris. She commented, "What kind of girl did he marry? She wants everything."

3. An American Chinese student was puzzled at her neighbour (in China), a girl who she honestly thought was very pretty but who always returned her compliment with "no, no, you look better." "What's the matter with her? Did she like my compliment or not?" the American Chinese student wondered.
___Kasper and Zhang 1995:5

1. Introduction
Complimenting as a speech event has been one of the major areas on which linguists have focused their attention and drawn insights into the phenomenon of linguistic politeness in the last two decades (Pomerantz 1978, Manes and Wolfson 1981, Wolfson 1983, Holmes 1988, Holmes and Brown 1987, Wierzbickz 1991, Nelson, et al 1996, Herbert 1989, Herbert 1990). Among the large body of research are a few studies on Chinese compliments (Chen 1993, Ye 1995, Young 1987). These studies have contributed greatly to our understanding of the speech event of complimenting in Chinese, especially for those who are engaged in cross-cultural studies and cross-cultural communications in Chinese.

The present paper has two purposes. The first part of the paper reviews some of the major findings in the area of complimenting in different cultures, especially in American and New Zealand English. The second part compares the results of a small-scaled study in Chinese with those of the previous ones, and analyses the Chinese data in the culture and language specific context.

2. Literature review

Compliments are positive expression or evaluation, which are directed either explicitly or implicitly to someone for something valued positively by the speaker and the hearer, and even the whole speech community (Holmes, 1986; Ye, 1995). It seems that the major function of compliments is to establish and maintain social “rapport” (Manes and Wolfson, 1981:124) and smoothness between participants. In analysing their American data, Manes and Wolfson (1981:124) point out that the primary function of compliments is “the reinforcement and / or creation of solidarity” between the speaker and addressee. Meanwhile, Holmes (1986) holds the similar view that compliments function as “social lubricates” which “increase or consolidate the solidarity” (p.486) between interlocutors. However, as shown in the three cases in the very beginning, the speech act of complimenting can be very complicated and confusing, not only cross-culturally (shown in 2 and 3), but even within the same cultural group (shown in 1). Hence, how to pay appropriate compliments, identify them and give appropriate responses is an important aspect of communicative competence everyone in a given society needs to develop in order to avoid pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic failure (Holmes and Brown, 1987).

The previous studies of compliments have focused on the following areas: compliment topics, formulas, responses, gender differences and function. This section reviews some of these areas.

2.1 Compliment topics

Studies of the speech act of complimenting in different languages reveal that most of compliments fall into "only a few general topics" (Ye, 1995:212). These topics are appearance / possessions and performance / ability / skills, etc. Wolfson (1983:90) points out that in American English, there are generally two topics, "those having to do with appearance and those which comment on ability". Generally, Manes' (1983) findings replicate Wolfson's study. He also indicates that Americans are more likely to comment on personal appearance as a result of "deliberate efforts" (p. 99), such as new "clothes and hair-dos" (p.98). She further defines Wolfson's "ability" as "the quality of something produced through the addressee's skill or effort, a well-done job, a skilfully-played game, a good meal" (p.101). Holmes’ (1986) and Holmes and Brown’s (1987) New Zealand data show that the general topics in New Zealand English are similar to those in American English. Nelson, et al, (1996:415) find that Egyptians also compliment the “attributes of physical appearance, personality traits, and skills / work”. Although different researchers may prefer to use different terms such as appearance, possessions, performance, skill, ability, work, personality and friendship, whatever, basically all these aspects can be roughly grouped into two broad categories: appearance and performance.

Despite the fact that there are some general topics people from different cultures compliment or comment upon, some studies also find that, different cultures may have different preferential topics for compliments. In American English, appearance and performance are the two most frequently complimented topics, as shown by Wolfson (1983) and Manes (1983). According to Holmes and Brown (1987), New Zealanders comment far more frequently on appearance (45.0%) than on ability / performance (27.5%). They also comment on possessions (10.5%) and personality traits / friendship (13.5%). Herbert’s (1989) data also indicate the cultural variation in Polish compliments. He finds that in Poland, people pay about 50% of compliments on others’ possessions. He contributes this phenomenon, from a sociological point of view, to the fact that there was insufficient goods supply available at the time of study. In Ye’s (1995) Chinese data, 80.9% of the respondents paid compliments, either explicitly or implicitly on performance while only 44% on appearance. This, Ye (1995:233-4) concludes, “suggests that a change in appearance may not be deemed as worthy of complimenting as an achievement in performance_ and reveals a preference of topic for complimenting in Chinese”. All this indicates that more detailed study and analysis of complimenting in different cultures are needed as to “which aspects of appearance and which particular possessions are appropriate for comment. Acceptable topics of compliments certainly vary cross-culturally.” (Holmes 1986:497)

2.2 Compliment formulas

Research studies show that compliments are “remarkably formulaic speech acts” (Holmes and Brown 1987:529). This formulaic nature can be shown by the limited range of lexical items, which are the positive semantic carriers of compliments, and some frequently used syntactic patterns and structures which convey the compliments. Manes and Wolfson (1981:123) find that “the speech act of complimenting is characterised by the formulaic nature of its syntactic and semantic composition”. They study 686 American compliments and find that “the overwhelmingly majority of compliments contain one of a highly restricted set of adjectives and verbs” (p. 116). 80% of the compliments in their data contain an adjectival semantic carrier and 67.6% out of these use one of the following 5 adjectives: nice, good, beautiful, pretty and great. They also indicate that the two most frequently used verbs, like and love, occur in 86% of all the compliments that contain a positive semantic verb. The examination of intensifiers, deictic elements (second person pronouns and demonstratives) of Manes and Wolfson (1981) also demonstrates similar characteristics.
Manes and Wolfson (1981) also analyse the syntactic structure of the compliments in their data and conclude that the following three most commonly occurring syntactic patterns can account for 85% of the compliments in American English:

No.1. NP is /looks (intensifier) ADJ.

e.g. That shirt is so nice.
It looks so comfortable.

No.2. I (intensifier) like/love NP.

e.g. I really like those shoes.
I love your hair.

No.3. PRO is (intensifier) (a) ADJ NP.

e.g. This was really a great meal.
That’s really a nice piece of work.

And No.1, NP is/looks (intensifier) ADJ, can be used to give compliments on 53.6% of occasions. Thus, they conclude, “compliments in American English are formulaic in nature” (p. 115).

Holmes and Brown’s (1987) New Zealand data of 200 compliments also demonstrate the similar syntactic and semantic patterns. The three syntactic structures can account for 78.0% of the 200 compliments while No.1 occurs in 48.0% of the data. On the semantic level, they also find five most frequent adjectives: nice, good, beautiful, lovely and wonderful. Most of the nonadjectival compliments are realised through the use of a few semantically positive verbs, such as like, love, enjoy, admire and impressed by, with like and love accounting for 80% of the New Zealand data compared to 86% of the American ones.

Ye’s (1995) data of Chinese compliments, to some extent, replicate the previous findings. Due to the complexities and differences from other languages of the Chinese language, she indicates that the positive semantic carrier in a Chinese compliment can be realised by either an Adjective / Stative Verb, an Adverb, a Noun or a Verb (for a detailed categorisation, see Ye 1995:223). Each of these, in turn, accounts for 54.5%, 27.4%, 15.8% and 2.3% of her data. The most frequently occuring Adjectives / Stative Verbs are Piaoliang漂亮(pretty), Bucuo不错(not bad); Adverbs, Hao好(well), Bucuo不错(quite well); Nouns, Liangxiazi两下子(know-how), Haoshou好手(good-hand); Verbs, Xihuan喜欢(like).

2.3 Compliment responses

Studies of the speech event of complimenting examine not only what and how to pay compliments. They also look at how to respond to compliments appropriately in a given situation. Perhaps the first person who has studied, in great detail, American compliments is Pomerantz (1978). She points out that responding to compliments is constrained by two seemingly contradictory conditions:
“1. Agree with the complimenter
2. Avoid self-praise” (p. 81-2)

To her, these two conditions have to be met at the same time, thus presenting difficulties to the complimentee because trying to meet either of the conditions will inevitably conflict with the other. She divides American compliment responses into acceptances, agreements, rejections and disagreements.

It seems that different cultures have different ways to comply with Pomerantz’s two constraints. In Herbert’s (1989) data, 66% of the American compliment responses are Agreements, out of which 29% are Acceptance Tokens and 7% are comment Acceptances; while in his South African data, 88% of the responses are categorised as Agreements, out of which 43% are Comment Acceptances. Similarly, Holmes (1986) finds that 61% of the New Zealand compliment responses are Acceptances. People seem to accept compliments more readily in these cultures. Lee’s (1990, cited in Ye’s study, 1995), on the other hand, shows that in Hawaii Creole English, people tend to deny a compliment more often than accept it. It is interesting to note that Ye (1995), in analysing her Chinese data, also divides compliment responses into three categories, but she uses some different labels: Acceptance, Acceptance with Amendment and Non-acceptance. A careful examination of her categorisation under each label reveals that her three compliment response strategies are in fact similar to what Holmes (1986) refers as Acceptances, Deflections / Evasions and Rejections and what Chen (1993) calls Acceptances and Returns, Deflections and Rejections. Ye (1995) finds that only 24.3% of the Chinese compliment responses fall into the category of Acceptances. Obviously, there is a marked difference between Chinese compliment strategies and those mentioned previously. Are there some cultural reasons behind the differences in these linguistic phenomena?

Chen’s (1993) comparison and analysis of American and Chinese compliment responses can help provide some explanation, His findings of the American compliment responses are comparable to Holmes’ (1986) findings of the New Zealand English speakers’ compliment responses. His Strategy 1 Accepting and 2 Returning together (58%) roughly equals to Holmes’ Acceptance Type, which makes up 61% of the responses. At the same time, Chen finds that most of the Chinese compliment responses belong to the category Rejecting (96%), which includes sub-categories of Disagreeing and denigrating (51%), Expressing embarrassment (26%) and Explaining (19%). He further suggests that the primary consideration (p.65) for American English speakers when they respond to compliments is Leech’s (1983) Agreement Maxim: minimise disagreements between self and others and maximise agreements between self and others. The ‘overriding motivation’ (p.65) of the Chinese compliment responses, on the other hand, can be explained by Leech’s (1983) Modesty Maxim: minimise praise of self and maximise dispraise of self. Chen (1993) also analyses the Chinese data in terms of Gu’s (1990) Politeness Principle. He finds that Gu’s “self-denigration maxim: denigrate self and elevate other” can be used to account for most of the Chinese compliment responses in his data. 96% of the Chinese compliment responses are categorised as Rejecting, with three sub-categories Disagreeing and denigrating 51%, Expressing embarrassment 26%, and Explaining 19%. The motivation of all these strategies can be explained as “I know you are saying something good about me and I can’t show my arrogance, so I say that something about me is not that good, or that I’m embarrassed.”

3. The present study

As mentioned in the Introduction, the present study is hoped to help the writer further understand his own language and culture in the area of complimenting and compliment responses, particularly with the following questions in mind:
1. Are Chinese compliments as formulaic as American ones, semantically and syntactically?
2. How do Chinese people respond to a compliment?

It has to be admitted that the study is very limited in the following senses. (1) Data are collected through a Compliment Situation Task (CST) (in Chinese) done by Chinese people in Brighton. Because, due to practical reasons, it is impossible to use the ethnographic method to get data through natural observation of compliment events as Manes and Wolfson (1981) and Holmes and Brown (1987) did for their studies. (2) Although altogether 30 Compliment Situation Task Forms were distributed, only 20 of them were collected back, and the others simply got lost. Even some of the 20 Forms collected have not been completed carefully. (3) Most of the respondents are either university students or young visiting scholars from China and have been living in the UK for a period of between six months and five years. Their responses in certain situations in the CST form, to some extent, may have been influenced by their language competence in English. Any conclusions of this small study are not expected to be generalised beyond this special group or similar group of Chinese speakers.

3.1 Methodology
3.1.1 Data collection

As mentioned before, due to practical reasons, an ethnographic approach is denied in the process of data collection. A Compliment Situation Task Form (CST) is designed (ideas drawn from Ye, 1995) instead. The CST form consists of 8 situations --- situations 1-4 for giving compliments and situations 5-8 for responding to compliments. These 8 situations were designed around the generally agreed topics of compliments (Manes and Wolfson 1981, Holmes 1986, Herbert 1989, Nelson et al 1996, Ye 1995, Chen 1993): appearance/possessions and performance/skill. Gender, compliment topic and social distance are controlled in each situation. In each situation, respondents are asked to write as many as four (if they think suitable) different ways of complimenting or responding to compliments. They are also given a chance to write whatever their reaction may be if they don’t say anything at all in a certain situation (see Appendix for the Pinyin version of the Chinese CST form of the English translation as well).

3.1.2 Subjects

Originally, 30 native Chinese speakers were given the CST forms. Unfortunately, only 20 of them returned the forms. As mentioned before, 19 of them are either university students or visiting scholars in Brighton, and only one boy is a secondary school pupil. They have been living in Brighton for a period of from six months to five years.

3.1.3 Analysis
Drawing ideas from previous studies (Manes and Wolfson 1981, Ye 1995, Nelson at al 1998, Chen 1993), data were analysed in terms of compliment formulas and compliment response types.

3.2 Results and discussion
This section will present the analysis of the Chinese compliment formulas and compliment response types.

3.2.1 Chinese compliment formulas

This section looks at Chinese compliment formulas in both semantic and syntactic forms. Altogether, 143 verbal plus 20 non-verbal reactions and 103 verbal and 22 non-verbal responses have been collected in this small study. It is interesting to note that, on the semantic level, although it is not so restricted for a Chinese compliment to contain one of a few adjectives or verbs as it is in American and New Zealand English (Manes and Wolfson 1981, Holmes and Brown 1987), a Chinese compliment may, to some extent similarly, be realised through the use of some semantically positive adjectives / stative verbs, adverbs and nouns (following Ye’s ,1995, terminology).

Table 1. Percentage of distribution of positive semantic carriers

Compliment No. Percentage
Verbal Adjs/stative verbs 90 62.93%
Adverbs 16 11.19%
Nouns 5(+8) 3.50(+5.60)%
Others 32 22.38%
Total 143 100%


Table 1 shows that the most frequently-used positive semantic carriers in Chinese compliments are Adjectives / Stative Verbs (62.9%). Due to the complexities of the Chinese language, adjectives can also be used as verbs or adverbs in a different position in a sentence. Take the following sentences for example:

1. Ta chuan zhe yi jian piaoliang de qunzi. 她穿着一件漂亮的裙子。
She is wearing a beautiful skirt.
2. Zhejian yifu hen piaoliang. 这件衣服很漂亮。
This dress (is) very beautiful.
3. Ni de wu tiaode hen piaoliang. 你的舞跳得很漂亮。
You dance beautifully.
It is difficult and perhaps inappropriate to tell the range of adjectives / stative verbs which can be used in compliments. However, some words that are generally applicable to different topics do occur more often than others. These are Hao (good), Piaoliang (beautiful), Bang (great), Bucuo (not bad) and Haokan (nice, beatiful).
e.g. 4. Zhe maoshan zhen haokan. 这毛衫真好看。
This sweater (is) very beautiful.
5. Qiuyi bucuo ma. 球艺不错吗。
(You play) Pingpong not bad.
6. Zhe yifu hen hao, zheng shihe ni. 这衣服很好,真适合你。
The dress (is) very good, just suitable for you.

As a native speaker of Chinese, the writer is sure that there are many other adjectives / stative verbs with topic-specific senses which can be used in compliments. Perhaps one of the reasons why there are not so many occurrences of such words is that there are one sweater situation and one hair-do situation in the CST form and the fact that most of the subjects are female may also adds to the more frequent occurrences of adjectives that describe appearance.

Adverbs are used less frequently in these data, making up 11.2% compared to 27.4% of Ye’s (1995) data, but much more often than Manes and Wolfson’s data (only one word well in their corpus). Similar to Ye’s (1995) finding, the two most often used ones are Hao (well) and Bucuo (not bad).
7. Ni qiu da de zhen hao. 你球打得真好。
You (play) Pingpong very well.
8. Ni cai zuo de zhen bucuo. 你菜做得真不错。
You cook very well.

Nouns occur in 3.5% of the samples as the single positive semantic carriers and they also appear 5.6% more together with other forms. Again, similar to Ye’s (1995) findings, Liangxiazi 两下子and shou手(gao shou高手, yi shou一手, and hao shou好手), both meaning “a good hand” or “an expert”, are the most frequently used nouns.
9. Mei xiangdao ni haiyou zhe shou. 没想到你还有这手。
( I ) didn’t expect you to be so good at this.
10. Shenmo shihou xue de zhe yi shou? 什么时候学得这一手?
When did you learn this skill?

Unlike the American and New Zealand English (Manes and Wolfonson 1981; Holmes and Brown 1987) compliments, the present data yield only one occasion of a verb Xiang 想(want) used as a positive semantic carrier, even less than Ye's (1995) percentage.
11. Zai nar zuo de zhemo haokan de faxing? Wo ye xiang qu zuozuo. 在哪儿做得这么好看的发型,我也想去做做。
Where (did you) have such a beautiful hair-do? I want to have mine done, too.

Even in this case, the speaker may really be asking for further information rather than simply giving a compliment.
An outstanding feature of this small set of data is that almost in every case where the semantic carrier is an adjectictive / stative verb, there is always an intensifier like hen很(very), zhen真(really), zhemo这么(so), etc., before it. Such an intensifier makes the compliment sound more sincere and enthusiastic.

12. Zhe maoshanr zhen piaoliang. Shi xin mai de ma? 这毛衫真漂亮,是新买的吗?
This sweater (is) very beautiful. (Did you) buy it recently?
13. Ni zai nar zuo de? Zhen shi hen piaoliang. 你在哪儿做的,真是很漂亮。
Where did you have your hair done? (It looks) so beautiful.

A compliment without an intensifier before the positive semantic carrier may sound too flat or showing a lack of enthusiasm from the speaker. It may also convey a touch of satirical tone or joking manner if that is what is in the speaker's mind.
14. Zhe jian yifu piaoliang. 这件衣服漂亮。
This dress (is) beautiful. (Seldom used. If used at all, it would normally be accompanied with a gesture or a nodding, or with a special tone and a slight pause before Piaoliang, showing agreement, appreciation or a special effect.)

Syntactically, it is also not likely for Chinese compliments to be so restricted in sentence structures as American and New Zealand ones are as shown by Manes and Wolfson (1981), Holmes (1986) and Holmes and Brown (1987). A Chinese compliment can certainly use unlimited number of syntactic patterns. There is no attempt here to analyse all the possible structures in Chinese compliments. The following will only focus on a few syntactic features with a relatively high frequency. One such feature is that about 1/3 of the compliments in the data take either one of the following syntactic forms (terminology borrowed from Ye, 1995):

I. Object/Action + intensifier + positive semantic carrier (Adj/stative verb or adverb)

15. Ni de qiu da de zhen bang. 你的球打得真棒。
Your play Pingpong very well.
16 Zhe weir zhen xiang a! 这味儿真香啊!
This smell (is) very nice.
II. Agent + intensifier + positive semantic carrier (Adj/stative verb or noun)
17 Ni zhen liaobuqi. 你真了不起。
You (are) great.
18 Ni zhen you liangxiazi. 你真有两下子。
You (are) a real expert.

Ye (1995:224), in analysing her Chinese data, puts compliment focus ("the major focus of the compliment utterances") into two categories: Object/Action and Agent. By Object/Action, she refers to "those utterances which focus either on objects or actions of the complimentee", as shown in example 15, where the action is "(Ni) da qiu你打球" (you playing pingpong), and in example 16, where the object is "Zhe weir这味儿" (this smell). Her Agent refers to the complimentee herself/himself, as shown in examples 17 and 18, where Ni 你(you) is the general focus of the compliment, not explicitly indicating what of yours is referred to. (Of course, both the complimenter and complimentee are clear of what the former is pointing at in this interaction, otherwise, similar awkwardness would happen as the three cases in the very beginning of the paper.)

The second syntactic feature that deserves attention is the joking manner in 25 (17.5%) of the compliments in the Chinese data. These well-intentioned pleasantries are worded either separately or together with the main compliments, serving to create and / or maintain a light, amusing atmosphere. Some of the jokes in Cooking Situation and Sweater Situation are:
19 Jintian taiyang shibushi cong xibian chulai? 今天太阳是不是从西边出来。
Does the sun rise from the west today?
20 Hao xiang a! Shi teyi wei wo zuo de ma? 好香啊!是特意为我做的吗?
How delicious! Is (this) specially cooked for me?
21 Shenmo xi rizi, chuan de zhemo piaoliang? 什么喜日子,穿得这么漂亮?
What’s the special occassion? (You) dress so beautifully.
22. Jintian you shenmo tebian jiemu, daban de zhemo piaoliang? 今天有什么特别节目,
Is there any special program today? (You) look so beautiful.

Another characteristic of the present Chinese data is that a large proportion of the compliments (33.6%) are actually worded in the form of questions, requesting information about the Object/Action or the Agent of the compliment focus. By doing so, the complimenter shows his identification of the common interest or taste with the complimentee, hence creating common ground for both of them and shortening the distance between them. These compliments are more implicit if standing alone, without any other comments made. More frequently, the requests for further information will either precede or follow a more explicit compliment, as shown below:
23 Zhe jian maoshanr zhen piaoliang. Shenmo shihou mai de? Zai nar mai de?
This sweater (is) very beautiful. When (did you) buy (it)? Where (did you) buy (it)?
24 Wo bu zhidao ni pingpong qiu da de zhemo hao. Neng jiao wo ma? 我不知道你乒乓球打
I didn’t know you play pingpong so well. Can (you) teach me?
25 Nar zuo de touxing, zhemo haokan? 哪儿做的头型,这么好看?
Where (did you) have (your) hair done? (It looks) so nice.

Finally, it is interesting to note that 20 (12.27%) of the respondents also react to the four compliment situations non-verbally. For example, in the Cooking Situation, some respondents “take a deep breath and nod appreciation”, whereas in the Pingpong Situation, some respondents “concentrate their attention on her/his performance” and nod “admiration”. Since these actions can be either observable or unobservable in real life, they may or may not necessarily be interpreted as compliments.

3.2.2 Chinese compliment responses

This study has observed 103 verbal responses plus 22 non-verbal ones. These verbal responses can be roughly categorised into three subcategories: Accepting, Avoiding and Rejecting. This categorisation is similar to Ye’s (1995) Acceptance, Acceptance with Amendment and Non-acceptance, but different terminology is preferred because Ye’s Acceptance with Amendment sounds more like Acceptance. In fact, a careful examination of her sub-categories under Acceptance with Amendment, like Downgrade, Comment, Confirmation, Magnification, Transfer and Return, shows that these strategies are intended to respond to the compliments indirectly, avoiding either accepting the compliments directly or disagreeing with the complimenter substantially. By doing this, these strategies succeed in following Pomenratz’s dual constraints: avoid self-praise and agree with the complimenter (1978). Table 2 shows the Chinese compliment response types in the present set of data.
Table 2. Percentage of Chinese compliment response types

Compliment response type No. Percentage
Verbal Accepting Thanking 14 13.59%
Showing pleased 3 2.91%
Reasoning 3 2.91%
Agreeing 3 2.91%
Subtotal 23 23 22.33%
Avoiding Confirmation 24 23.30%
Comment 14 13.59%
Downgrade 12 11.65%
Joking 5 4.85%
Returning 4 3.88%
Subtotal   57.28%
Rejecting Idioms (combinations)   20.39%
Total   100%
Non-verbal Smiling or nodding acknowledgement 22  

The following table shows that the Chinese compliment response types in the present data are similar to Ye’s (1995) findings. The super-strategy Avoiding makes up to (57.28%) of the whole data, even 10% higher than Ye’s Acceptance with Amendment. The most frequently used strategies under this category are Confirmation, Comment and Downgrade. Look at the following responses.
26 Shi ma? Lifa shi gei wo sheji de. 是吗?理发师给我设计的。
Really? The hairdresser designed the style for me.
27 Zhen de ma? Ni zhen de zhemo renwei ma? 真的吗,你真的这么认为吗?
(Is it) really? Do you really think so?
28 Shi ma? Na tian zai baihuo dalou mai de. You dianr chang ba. 是吗?那天在百货大楼
Really? (I) bought (it) in the department store that day. Isn’t it a little bit too long?
29 Nali, nali. Bi beifang de tongzhi cha yuan le. 哪里,哪里,比北方的同志差远了。
No, no. (My Mandarin is) not really as good as the Northerners.
30 Zhen de ma? Xiexie. 真的吗?谢谢。
Really? Thank you.

It is easy to notice that many of these responses are combinations of different strategies. 26 is a combination of Confirmation and Comment; 28, a combination of Confirmation, Comment and Downgrade; 29, a combination of Rejecting and Downgrade; 30, a combination of Confirmation and Thanking. This indicates that the speech event of complimenting is not simply a compliment-response interaction in real life. It can appear in a multiple-round conversation which may include other speech acts. The comment part in the response may easily lead to some other topics. An extended dialogue of 28 may sound like this:

31 – Xiao Wang, ni chuan shang zhe qunzi zhen piaoliang. 小王,你穿这裙子真漂亮。
Xiao Wang, you look very beautiful in the skirt.
_ Zhen de ma? Na tian zai baihuo daou mai de. 真的吗?那天在百货大楼买的。
( I ) bought it in the department store.
_ Duoshao qian mai de? Wo ye xiang mai yijian. 多少钱买的,我也想买一双。
How much was it? I want to buy one, too.
_ Yibai wushi kuai qian.一百五十块钱。
150 yuan.
_ Zai na jia shangchang mai de? 在哪家商场买的?
In which department store?
_ Zai Yi Bai. 在一百。
In No. 1 Department Store.

Here the complimenter has turned the complimenting into requesting information. Thus, complimenting may serve to start or change the topic of conversations.

Rejecting and Accepting make up almost a similar percentage in this set of Chinese data, accounting for, respectively, 20.39% and 22.33% of all the response types. One outstanding characteristic of the Rejecting strategy is that most of the responses are combinations of a few rejecting formulas and other strategies. It seems that Chinese speakers seldom reject a compliment simply with a formula meaning a flat “no”. This is different from what people from outside the Chinese language and culture generally believe that Chinese would simply say “no” to every compliment. Some of these rejecting formulas are nali nali哪里,哪里, suan le ba算了吧, cha yuan le差远了, buxing不行, guojiang le过奖了, buhaoyisi不好意思, mama huhu马马虎虎, etc. These terms generally mean “no. I’m not that good. I don’t deserve your praise”. They need to be understood culture-specifically because the English translation can hardly convey what each of them means in specific situations. Take buhaoyisi不好意思and buxing buxing不行,不行 for example. The closest English equivalent of buhaoyisi is “I am embarrassed”. However, buhaoyisi is never so strong in the sense of embarrassment from the speaker’s part. It is simply something like an automatic reaction when complimented. The complimentee’s reaction may be
“I know I am complimented and I should not show that I am arrogant or self-conceited, so I just say buhaoyisi不好意思”。
Buxing不行 is another phrase frequently used when complimented. Similarly, it is much weaker than the English translation “no, no”. Like many of the other formulaic expressions, it is always used with a repetition, thus Buxing buxing不行,不行, like a ritual denial. Interesting enough, all of these phrases can only be used by those who have really achieved the status or quality the compliment comment on, otherwise the complimentee may be in danger of appearing boasting or arrogant, hence violating the social value of modesty.

One distinctive feature of these rejecting formulas is, like in other speech acts such as inviting or offering (Mao 1994, Chen, Ye and Zhang 1995, Gu 1990), what the complimentee denies is only the quality of the object or content of the compliment, but not the illocutionary force of complimenting. As Ye (1995) puts it:
“The formulaic denial is not a real denial in the sense of rejecting the compliment. Rather, it has the function of letting the compliment pass. The speaker denies the proposition but accepts the complimenting force, thus emphasising the value of modesty.” (p. 272)

Unlike the American or New Zealand data (Holmes 1986, Herbert 1989), but similar to Ye’s (1995) findings, 22.33% of the respondents respond to the compliments either with a direct agreement, acceptance or a token of appreciation. This shows, at least in the target group of Chinese speakers (although they may have well been influenced by their English competence), the myth that “no matter how pleased Chinese people may feel upon hearing a compliment, they must withhold any expressions of gratitude or delight” (Young, 1987:26) can be misleading in understanding Chinese behaviours in such situations.

4. Conclusion

As indicated in the introduction, the first part of this paper has tried to give a brief review of some studies on the speech event of complimenting, especially in the areas of compliment formulas, topics and responses. The second part presents some of the results of a small study on Chinese complimenting. As analysed above, Chinese compliments can also be interpreted as formulaic. Those frequently used positive semantic carriers and sentence patterns can help people who are engaged in cross-cultural communications in complimenting situation. Chinese compliment responses, especially the ritual denials need to be understood in the Chinese language and culture context. One must bear in mind that the speech event of complimenting, compliment formulas and responses are
“dependent on shared beliefs and values of the speech community coded into communicative patterns, and thus can not be interpreted apart from social and cultural context”. (Saville-Troike, 1982:44)

As mentioned before, this study is conducted in a highly restricted situation. The conclusions are not expected to be generalised. More ethnographical studies are needed in the Chinese community on compliment topics, responses and functions between males and females, and between people with different age, social status. Also, studies of compliments together with their “framing” (Manes and Wolfson, 1981:128) dialogues in natural conversational flow may help understand the functions of compliments in Chinese society.


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