It’s difficult to play the game when the rules of engagement are different
Learning to give and respond to compliments is a constant challenge for me in the US. Perfect strangers make comments like ‘I love your accent/eyes/earrings/…’, and more embarrassingly, colleagues say things like ‘Great job!’. Very confusingly, compliments are frequently used as an invitation to begin a conversation here, rather like I might say ‘Nice day today, isn’t it?’ in the UK.
So I have to keep reminding myself that the rules and rituals are different. In the UK (and other negative politeness cultures) compliments are dished out more sparingly. They could be a bit of an imposition because the person receiving them might think ‘What right have you got to make a judgment about me?’ Or they might feel obliged to pay you one back, so it could suggest you were fishing for a compliment yourself. And in the UK, we’re very fond of understatement, so too much earnest and vocal enthusiasm could signal sarcasm.
I’m still a long way from mastering American compliments, but here’s some advice I often give my Asian students:
When an American pays you a compliment, don’t hesitate. Get in quick and say ‘thank you’ in a very positive, upbeat sounding way. For goodness sake don’t show any signs of disagreement or it really screws things up. The American won’t know how to continue or they’ll feel compelled to pile more compliments onto you which you’ll feel compelled to deny, and it will all get horribly embarrassing. So if they say you’re looking good, thank them and say you think you’re looking good too. And perhaps add that you really like their hairstyle/hat/socks/smile/dental work, or whatever seems appropriate. Remember that in American this ritual simply means you’re happy for the conversation to continue.
It’s a handy rule of thumb for the compliment-challenged like me, but it’s an oversimplification. Americans may think that the polite way to respond to compliments is to say ‘thank you’, but conversational research shows that, in practice, they generally don’t. Like the rest of us, they have a variety of ways to avoid accepting them, so they’ll share the praise, downgrade it, ignore it or whatever. They do seem to be less likely to disagree though.
What’s going on here is conflicting politeness rules. There’s a social requirement to be agreeable and disagreeing with a compliment might suggest that we think the other person is stupid to admire something that we don’t. On the other hand, there’s another social requirement to appear modest. So accepting a compliment might make us appear bigheaded. Some cultures (such as the US) tend to emphasise agreement. Others (such as the UK) tend to emphasise modesty.
A lot of Asian cultures favour negative politeness, like the UK. Chen has done some lovely research into the ways the Chinese respond to compliments. My favourite Chinese example (translated) went something like:
A: Wow Zhang! You’re looking good
B: No, I’m very old and wrinkled.
Zhang’s response simply wouldn’t cut it over here.