Responding to Compliments: A Quasi-Experiment
Adv. Interpersonal Comm. Dr. Shafer Summer II 2000
The ability to give compliments and to receive compliments marks a skilled
communicator. (Dow). By better understanding a single speech act, we can
better understand all communication (Searle). The question I chose to pursue for
the purposes of this quasi-experiment is: "Do compliments elicit formulaic
responses?" Knapp et al found that compliments were very formulaic, being
used in specific ways regarding certain topics, phrased in a limited number of
ways, and eliciting very similar types of responses. Another author, Wolfson,
observed that compliments show "an almost total lack of originality". Do
responses to compliments also "lack originality"? After reviewing Knapp's article,
I attempt to answer this question by classifying the responses of stars receiving
the Academy Award.
Knapp et al's procedure
In their article, Knapp et al review the relatively sparse literature on compliments
to "establish a descriptive taxonomy for the content and form of compliments and
replies to them." They also attempt to answer some other basic questions about
compliments: What qualities do compliments have in common with other speech
acts? Are they formulaic? Do the actor and the partner (recipient) tend to be
different status or different gender? Knapp refers to the literature citing certain
cultural, gender, age, and status differences in compliment usage. The authors
consider the perceptions of the recipient as to whether the compliment was
deserved or undeserved, and as to the motives of the complimenter.
Knapp et al conducted three studies. In all three, interviewers ask respondents to
recall the exact wording of a recent compliment. In the most extensive survey,
investigators gathered 768 compliments (half "given" and half "received), and the
replies. Investigators also asked specific questions such as, "What compliment
did you value most?" The authors coded the compliments according to several
criteria; because they were concerned with the accuracy of the coding they
double checked their results. By narrowing their categories, they were able to
achieve better consistency in the form and content of compliments, percentages
in the high 90's in most categories.
Standard content of compliments
Compliments usually reference performance, personal appearance, attire,
possessions, or helping/ service. The most valued compliments tend to be of the
whole person. Compliments usually are acknowledged. Nice and good appear to
have relatively distinct usages. Nice tends to be used more with appearance and
attire, and good used more with performance. For example, "Nice shoes," and
"good work". Of course, these generalizations vary according to culture, status,
age and gender.
Four standard forms of compliments
Compliments generally follow one of four standard syntactic structures. Here
they are with examples:
1. noun phrase/ linking verb/ (intensifier)/ adjective
That shirt looks so nice.
2. I/ (intensifier) / like [or] love/ noun phrase
I really like your shoes.
3. pronoun/verb "to be" / (intensifier)/ ("a")/ adjective/ noun phrase
You are really a lovely woman.
4. (noun phrase) / (linking verb)/(intensifier)/adjective/noun phrase
"That Chinese dinner you cooked was really excellent."
The authors identified the fourth category of compliment to account for
compliments which were otherwise not easily categorizable. Nonstandard forms
of compliments were more likely to be misunderstood.
According to the authors, compliments incorporate four dialectics; directness,
specificity, comparison, and amplification. Compliments vary according to the
degree that they are more direct, or more indirect.
The three other spectra are: specific/ general; comparison/ no comparison; and
normal/ amplified. The authors identify four levels of amplification, from normal,
to amplified with superlative and modifier.
I. cultural differences Complimenting has been found to be more common in
the US than in Indonesia.
Americans compliment more in the context of intimate relationships, while
Japanese compliment more in the context of less intimate relationships.
II status differences Compliments tend to be given by people of higher status to
those of lower status.
III age differences Younger people tend to compliment more frequently on
appearance, and are more likely to respond in kind.
IV gender Women receive more and reciprocate more.
Responding to compliments
The recipient of the compliment will likely respond in one of several formulaic
ways. Several researchers have cited the difficulty people have in receiving
compliments (Knapp p. 14). "Thank you" is considered a ritualistic response
acknowledging the compliment. Other responses may be less receptive; the
recipient may blush or stammer, attempt to diminish the compliment by
deflecting it or sharing the credit; or the recipient may ignore the compliment.
Knapp's categories verbatim: ritualistic acceptance, pleased acceptance,
embarrassed, tempered acceptance, return compliment, magnified acceptance,
not acknowledged, soliciting information, denial. Magnified acceptance is an
interesting case because it deliberately breaks the norm against self-praise. The
norm of tactful, humble acceptance of compliments is perhaps best embodied by
the "aw shucks" of Nashville.
Quasi Experiment: Academy Awards Recipient Speech Types
Frequency of Types of Responses
The 23 samples are recorded in Appendix A, along with the category I chose. Of
the 23 samples, here are my counts by frequency. I counted some acceptance
speeches in more than one category. My results would have been different had I
selected just one "primary" category for each response, or if I had counted all the
sharing in one category. Perhaps because of the nature of my observation, I
wanted to make finer distinctions between sharing and a type of redirect which
Knapp doesn't distinguish.
sharing with family = 6
humor = 6
feeling = 5
sharing with profession = 3
return compliment = 3
sharing with film crew = 2
sharing with nominees = 2
pleased = 2
not acknowledged = 2
magnified = 1
embarassed = 1
I found that most of the celebrities shared the credit for their award, either with
their profession or with their family. Knapp calls this "tempered acceptance."
Turner and Edgley called this "minimizing responsibility," a type of "discounting
or minimizing." I believe that sharing is distinct from tempering. Some celebs
express pleased acceptance. In my opinion, this category is not broad enough to
include other expressions of feeling that I saw at the Academy Awards. Many
use humor, perhaps as a way to deflect the praise. Some employ a combination
of forms. The recipient may share the award with the other nominees, or takes
the opportunity to thank other people, family or colleagues. I found that the same
words "Thank you" may be ritualized to the point of emptiness, or they may be
full of authentic expression of feeling, depending much on the paralinguistics.
Perhaps because we are used to identifying with actors, we are pleased when
the actor is pleased. But this is also true when we compliment someone
personally. Magnified acceptance is used rarely, the award being refused or not
acknowledged is even more rare.
Areas for Future Research
Research on compliments poses certain difficulties, namely the virtual
impossibility of designing lab experiments to garner information on naturally
occurring compliments. Information regarding the frequency of compliment giving
is also sparse, according to the authors. Further data on acceptance of awards
would be relatively easy to obtain.
Dow, M. G., S. Glaser, and A. Biglan. "The Relecvance of Specific
Conversational Behaviors to Ratings of Social Skill: An Experimental Analysis."
Journal of Behavioral Assessment 3, 1981, pp. 233-242. (Cited in Knapp).
Knapp, Mark L. Robert Hopper, and Robert A. Bell (1984). Compliments: A
Descriptive Taxonomy, Journal of Communication 34, Vol. 34 No. 4. pp. 12-31.
Searle, J. R. Speech Acts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969. (Cited
Wolfson, N. and J. Manes. "The Compliment as a Social Strategy," Papers in
Linguistics: International Journal of Human Communication 13, 1980, pp. 391-
410. (Cited in Knapp).