Kate Elwood discusses the cultural aspects of giving and receivng compliments in her column Cultural Conundrums:
Mark Twain famously declared, "I can live for two months on a good compliment." But for those with heartier accolade appetites, an "emergency compliment" website was launched last October by Megs Senk, an art director at Weiden+Kennedy, an American advertising agency. When in urgent need of a commendation pick-me-up, praise cravers need only turn to the screen for offbeat random admiration, like "Eight out of 10 coworkers agree your desk is the cleanest" or "You're the best at making cereal." The playful site has already garnered more than 2 million visitors. Of course, the notion of on-the-spot cyber-approbation has attracted its share of derisively eye-rolling detractors as well.
Compliments in usual face-to-face interaction are notoriously fiddly and even more so in cross-cultural contexts. Who can you compliment and what can you say? How should you respond when on the receiving end? Communication researcher Hiroko Matsuura took a survey of Japanese and American students' feelings about complimenting. The responses were similar between the two groups for many items, particularly those related to praise motivation, which both groups agreed was to make the other person happy or as a good way to start a conversation and not in order to get a compliment in return.
There was, however, some noticeable divergence regarding a few questions related to compliment-bestowing as a cultural custom. Americans generally agreed that it was easy for them to make small compliments, but their Japanese counterparts disagreed. Americans also agreed that complimenting was an important part of their culture but the Japanese respondents somewhat disagreed. When questioned about the likelihood of complimenting in specific situations, Matsuura also found that the American students were more likely to compliment family members than the Japanese students.
Perhaps the true beauty of the online compliment generator is that it eliminates the need to respond. The online user can simply bask in the nutty glory of the moment. On the other hand, being on the receiving end of a face-to-face friendly comment often requires the recipient to struggle to find the right tone--not too boastful, not too dismissive--and in cross-cultural situations frequently failing.
Applied linguist Takafumi Shimizu made a study of compliment responses of Japanese people speaking in Japanese, Americans speaking in English, Americans studying Japanese in Japan, and Americans studying Japanese in America. Shimizu broke down the responses into three basic categories: 1) positive, such as thanking, agreeing, or expressing gladness; 2) avoidance, like changing the subject or making some explanation; or 3) negative, for example, disagreeing or expressing embarrassment.
Forty-eight percent of the native Japanese speakers made positive responses compared with 81 percent of the Americans speaking English, with the two groups of learners of Japanese falling midway between these two groups. However, when it came to frequency of avoidance strategies, the learners of Japanese in Japan actually had higher frequencies than the native Japanese speakers. Thirty-nine percent of the Japanese native speakers avoided responding to compliments, but 45 percent of the Japanese learners in Japan did. Only 15 percent of the Americans speaking English and 18 percent of the Japanese learners in the United States made use of this strategy.
When making negative responses to compliments, learners of Japanese really outdid themselves, with much higher frequencies than either the native Japanese or native English speakers. Only 13 percent of the native Japanese speakers and 4 percent of the Americans speaking English disagreed with the compliments, expressed embarrassment, and so on, but 34 percent of the Japanese learners in Japan and 58 percent of the Japanese learners in the United States did.
In addition, when the Japanese learners disagreed they did so using stronger language than the Japanese native speakers. The Japanese native speakers only used words of direct negation like iya, iie, or ie ie in six out of a total of 240 responses; but the Japanese learners in Japan used these words 28 out of 192 times; and the Japanese learners in the United States did so in 64 out of 192 times. Moreover, the Japanese learners often used blunt-sounding phrases like chigau ("That's wrong") or so ja nai ("That's not right"), while the Japanese native speakers typically used the softer sonna koto nai ("It's not really like that").
Shimizu's results lend further support to the argument for the importance of eschewing simple but ultimately misleading overgeneralizations in cultural communication patterns. Victor Hugo compared compliments to a "kiss through a veil." When that veil is a cultural shroud, care must be taken lest the kiss be met inadvertently with a kick in the teeth.