Compliments: Useful or Useless?

Responding to Compliments: A Quasi-Experiment

© Dan Shaw

Adv. Interpersonal Comm. Dr. Shafer Summer II 2000

This article I wrote several years ago for a communications class at SOU, I've added a postscript and posted it because the topic seems important to me today...

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 peruse 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 mosted 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.

Four Parameters

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.

Four Variables

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

embarrassed = 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.


Since writing this piece, I have Read Marshall Rosenberg’s Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World. He outlines principles of good compliments, which are basically the same as principles of good critique. That is, say specifically what you liked (or disliked) and what you felt, not just your opinion (e.g., “that was a good poem.”) Rosenberg points out that compliments are the same type of speech as criticism.


Dow, M. G., S. Glaser, and A. Biglan. "The Relevance 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 in Knapp).

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).



"Oscar's Greatest Moments"

Academy Awards recipients and their acceptance speeches

Paul Hogan (who played "Crocodile Dundee", presenting in 1986): "Don't be too humble tonight because we have up here a second envelope. So don't get up on stage and say 'I don't deserve this award.' If you really feel you don't deserve an Academy Award just give us a wave from your seat (waving and shaking head)".

In order to study compliments, I obtained a video tape of selections from the Academy Awards. I recorded 23 responses. At the Academy Awards, the compliment comes from a select group (of "experts") rather than from an individual. The compliment is clearly in Knapp's first category, performance. The giving and receiving are of course highly ritualized. Even though my selection was limited and hardly representative, I expected that the recipients would exhibit similar responses to those observed by Knapp and his cohorts.

My observations: Quotes and categories

Recipients (Film and/or Year): Quote type

Michael Douglas: "I'd like to dedicate this award to [my family]... my parents... in particular my father..."

sharing w/ fam.

Michael Day Lewis: "You've just provided me with the makings of one hell of a weekend in Dublin." humor

William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman): "I am very proud to be an actor. Thank you very much." sharing with profession

Liza Minelli (Cabaret, 1972): "Thank you for giving me this award you've made me very happy." pleased

[Narrator] "Diane Keaton shared the glory of her win... with Annie Hall". "I'm very honored to have been nominated with actresses like Jane Fonda, and Shirley Maclaine and Anne Bancroft and Marsha Mason, this is something." sharing with nominees

Sissy Spacek: "I started working on Coal Miner's Daughter with a bunch of strangers and I finished working with a bunch of friends." sharing

Meryl Streep (Sophie's Choice 1982): "I have a lot of people to thank. And I'm gonna be one of those people who tries to mention a lot of names...because I know two minutes ago my mother and father went completely beserk, and I want to give a lot of other mothers and fathers that opportunity." sharing & feeling

Shirley Maclaine: "I'm gonna cry because this show has been as long as my career." feeling & humor

Sally Field (Places in the Heart): "I haven't had an orthodox career, and I wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn't feel it. Now I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me right now. You like me. Thank you." This is a particularly rich example, including many elements: pleased & feeling & embarrassed & reference to previous not acknowledged award & return compliment.

Cher (Moonstruck): "I would like to thank the women I was nominated along with because I feel really really good because they were so great. And I would also like to thank Marie Louise Streep... I feel really thankful." sharing with nominees

Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy): "I'm on cloud nine." feeling

Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest): "...last but not least my agent who about ten years ago told me I had no business being an actor" This example of magnified self-praise does not seem to fulfill the author's statement that this response tends to be used "probably... in an effort to avoid responding directly to the compliment."

Dustin Hoffman (1979): I'm up here with mixed feelings. I've been critical of the academy and for a reason. I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to work. I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon, that I beat Al Pacino, that I beat Peter Sellers. I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost. We are part of an artistic family. There are 60,000 actors in the Screen Actors Guild and probably 100,000 in equity, and... a few of us are so lucky... None of you have ever lost and I'm proud to share that with you." sharing with profession.

Marlon Brando violated the norm in 1972 by refusing the award through Sacheen Littlefeather: "Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather and I'm Apache. President, National Native American Image Committee... He very regretfully can not accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being the treatment of Native Americans today by the film industry..." [boos].

Vanessa Redgrave: "My dear colleagues I thank you very much for your tribute to my work." ritualized acceptance or rc?

Ann Bates (Misery 1990): "To my mom at home and my dad who I hope is watching somewhere I would like to say thank you very much." sharing w/ fam.

Art Carney (1975): "Last year I got so excited I forgot to thank a few people; this year I'm so nervous I forgot the names of the people who I forgot to thank last year." humor & sharing

Maureen Stapleton: "...my family, my friends, and everybody I ever met in my entire life." humor & sharing

Shirley Maclaine: "I'm not going to thank everybody I've ever met in my entire life. Although with the way my mind has been going lately everybody I've ever met in my entire life and in other lifetimes might have had something to do with this." humor & sharing

Whoopi Goldberg: "I want to thank everybody who makes movies... I'm so proud... thank you very much..." feeling & sharing w/ prof.

John Patrick Shanley: "I'd like to thank everybody who ever punched or kissed me..." humor & sharing

Mickey Rooney (1982): "... tonight you honor me beyond anything a man should be given, you honor me with the greatest and the highest tribute we can receive in our business..." pleased

Charlie Chaplin (1971): "Thank you for the honor of inviting me here, you're wonderful, sweet people. return compliment


My personal experiences with compliments

I have in the past found it difficult to accept compliments. I found the deflecting response useful: "Thank you for saying so." On occasion, a person has restated their original compliment in more emphatic terms, making me even more uncomfortable. I have found it useful to take a moment to 'breath in' the compliment. I may refuse the compliment because I would prefer not to be singled out among my peers and possibly subject to negative attention from my peers for being a "know-it-all" or "show-off" or for "making them look bad."

I gave a compliment to a woman on my paper route, referring to the work on her yard, "Looking very nice." This seems to follow the formula (intensifier)/ (adjective). Interestingly, this compliment (using nice) ambiguously may also refer to the owner of the yard.

I never give false compliments, as a rule. I find that if people give false compliments they lose their credibility.

Typically, receiving the compliment, "I love you," can be difficult. The cliché response is to match, "I love you, too."

When people compliment me on my poetry, I am usually dissatisfied with knowing that they liked the poem in general, I want to know what part they liked in particular. I will often ask for more information ("soliciting information"). If they say, "You're a great poet," I'm pretty satisfied that they liked a lot of parts of my poems.

I feel less than comfortable with people complimenting my possessions. Possibly because I am living on a shoestring, but I have some nice things (car, art) which I may have self-judgment about being "luxurious". When my son's friend said "Wow, you have a nice car," I just said, "Thank you." Had the complimenter been an adult, I might have deflected the compliment even more. When I first got the car, I actually told a few people that I got the car from a relative so as to deflect my projected self-judgment.

I have a friend whom I consider to be "an ingratiator". He is my peer; is particularly complimentary to me, complimenting my performance and also my whole person. I enjoy his company. After he was here last, he called to say he enjoyed my company. I returned the compliment.

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