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
___Kasper and Zhang 1995:5
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.
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,
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.
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)
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,
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
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
3. The present
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
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
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.
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.
This section will present the analysis of the
Chinese compliment formulas and compliment response
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
|Verbal Adjs/stative verbs
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
1. Ta chuan zhe yi jian piaoliang de qunzi.
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
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
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.
Where did you have your hair done? (It looks)
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
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?
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
21 Shenmo xi rizi, chuan de zhemo piaoliang?
What’s the special occassion? (You) dress so
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
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)
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
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
|Compliment response type
|Verbal Accepting Thanking
| Subtotal 23
|Rejecting Idioms (combinations)
| Non-verbal Smiling or
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
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
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
Xiao Wang, you look very beautiful in the skirt.
_ Zhen de ma? Na tian zai baihuo daou mai de.
( I ) bought it in the department store.
_ Duoshao qian mai de? Wo ye xiang mai yijian.
How much was it? I want to buy one, too.
_ Yibai wushi kuai qian.一百五十块钱。
_ 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
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.
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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Contact address: Liu Zhanrong
China Central Radio and TV University, 100031
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