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Different cultural values

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5646 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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A Contrastive Analysis

As we all know, different cultural values are reflected in speech acts. As a commonly and widely used speech act both in Vietnam and English-speaking countries, the speech act of complimenting is not an exception. In addition, pragmatic transfer does exist in compliments by Vietnamese learners of English. Above all, the fundemental aim of language teachinging is to help learners improve their communicative competence in the target language, researchers pay much attention on the contrastive analysis between students’ native language and the target language. With this idea in mind, in this paper, I focus on English and Vietnamese compliments, and draw out some differences in terms of common topics for complimenting, syntactic and semantic formulas used to give compliments, and compliment response strategies between the two mentioned languages.

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According to Wolfson and Manes, a compliment is defined as “a favourable judgement, or opinion, saying something nice to another individual” (1980, p.339). Also, in Holmes’ view, “a compliment is a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, about their ‘goods’ (possessions, characteristics, skills, etc.)” (Holmes,1986, p.485). It seems that the major function of compliments is to establish and maintain social “rapport” (Manes and Wolfson, 1981, p.124) and smoothness between participants. In analysing their American data, Manes and Wolfson point out that the major function of compliments is “the reinforcement and / or creation of solidarity between the complimenters and complimentee” (1981, p.124). Meanwhile, Holmes (1986) holds the similar view that compliments function as “social lubricates” which “increase or consolidate the solidarity” between interlocutors (p.486). However, the speech act of complimenting can be very complicated and confusing, not only cross-culturally, but even within the same community. Therefore, 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 & Brown, 1987, p. 524).

Previous studies pay an equal attention to compliments and compliment responses as they both take an adjacency pair format and have a close relationship with each other. Accordingly, when studying compliments, many researchers focussed on syntactic patterns and lexical distribution. However, they shift their attention to semantic and functional characteristics when studying compliment responses.

It has been clear that compliments and compliment responses reflect cultural values and norms of behavior (Manes, 1983, p. 115). As the result, how to give and to respond to compliments is quite different in Vietnamese and English owing to the cultural gap between the two cultures. The notion that is deeply rooted in the English-speaking culture is individualism (Samover & Porter, 2000, p. 67). Here are some of the characteristics of individualism: people’s personal goals take priority over their allegiance to groups. That is reason why the loyalty of individuals to a given group is not strong and people feel they belong to many different groups and are ready to change their membership as long as it suits them, leaving one employer for another, for instance. It emphasizes a person’s desire to be free in one’s behaviors. Under this cultural assumption, all people should be entitled with the rights to their own opinions, privacy, feelings, wishes, etc. On the contrary, Vietnam has a long history of feudalism. The theory of Confucianism has influenced and dominated Vietnamese sociopolitical life for thousands of years. The Confucian tradition encourages and maintains the harmony among the society, which results in a conflict-free and group-oriented culture. In other words, Vietnamese culture is, in general, collective one. “Collectivism means greater emphasis on the views, needs, and goals of the in-group rather than oneself, on social norms and duty defined by the in-group rather than beliefs that distinguish self from in-group and on great readiness to cooperate with in-group members” (Samover & Porter, 2000, p. 67). Another difference lies in self-image. To a native speakers of English, self-denigration or modesty, which is close to self-humiliation (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 68), always does damage to his/her own face. Thus, when receiving a compliment, they rarely humble themselves. In Vietnamese culture, on the other hand, modesty is one of the most important components of politeness. Therefore, modesty is highly valued and deeply rooted in the Vietnamese people’s mentality. This does not mean that the Vietnamese do not care about the appreciation of the complimenter; rather, the social norm is that the complimenter does not expect an agreement in such situation. Nor does it mean that the Vietnamese do not think positively of themselves. All they need to do is to appear humble in order to maintain and enhance their face and image. The Vietnamese speaker, consequently, chooses to lower themself when responding to compliments, believing that doing so will by no means damage their self-esteem. If a Vietnamese speaker is elevating himself, he will be thought arrogant or boasting. Hence, as a mean to increase a positive effect on interpersonal relations, both the compliments and compliment responses need to be handled appropriately.

When it comes to the speech act of complimenting, compliment topics are one of the major elements to study. To be seen as a compliment, an utterance must refer to something valued by the speakers and attributed to the addressee. One may think that there would be an infinite range of possible topic for compliments. Nevertheless, previous studies of complimenting in different languages draw out that most of compliments fall into “only a few general topics” (Ye, 1995, p. 212) and acceptable topics of compliments certainly vary cross-culturally.” (Holmes, 1986, p. 497). In Manes and Wolfson’s (1981) and Wolfson and Manes’ (1980) studies involving over twelve hundred examples collected in a great variety of everyday speech situations, for example, most of the compliments focus either on appearance and/or possessions or abilities and/or accomplishments. “Appearance”, in this sense, refers to one’s looks, including clothing, haircuts, ornaments, and so on. “Possessions” refers to material possessions such as furniture, automobiles. “Ability” refers to the “quality of something produced through the addressee’s skill or effort: a well-done job, a skillfully played game, a good meal (Manes, 1983, p. 101)”. “Accomplishments” refers to one’s acquired skill.

In addition, systematic studies conclude that compliments are “remarkably formulaic speech acts” (Holmes & Brown, 1987, p. 529). As Manes and Wolfson (1981, p. 123) pointed out, “the speech act of complimenting is characterised by the formulaic nature of its syntactic and semantic composition”. This formulaic nature can be traced 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.

It is true that knowing what and how to pay compliments is necessary in pragmatics studies. However, mastering how to respond to compliments appropriately in a particular situation is even more complicated and needs more detailed researchs. As to Pomerantz (1978) finds out, responding to compliments is restricted by two contradictory conditions: “Agreeing with the complimenter to be polite and disagrreing with the complimenter to avoid self-praise” (p. 81-2). To her, these two conditions have to be met at the same time, thus creating difficulties to the complimentee because trying to meet either of the conditions will inevitably conflict with the other. According to Herbert (1986), there are twelve response strategies: (1) appreciation token; (2) praise up-grade; (3) comment acceptance; (4) comment history; (5) reassignment; (6) return; (7) questioning; (8) non-acknowledgement; (9) qualification; (10) disagreement; (11) scale down; (12) request for interpretation (p. 33).

Initially, it is widely accepted that native speakers of English give and receive more compliments than the Vietnamese. The latter tend to be thrifty on giving compliments to other people, even their friends. May be mainly because Vietnamese people appreciate modesty. Additionally, they sometimes are shy and they feel if they give a compliment, they are flattering.

Regarding compliment topics, the most frequently occurring topics in American English were compliments on personal appearance such as clothings and hair-dos, and ability or accomplishment which involve great efforts.

Vietnamese speakers, similarly, tend to compliment their addressees on their appearance or ability rather than on their personalities and their belongings. In particular, the vast majority of compliments focus on personal appearance (e.g., hair, skin, clothing and figure). Especially, Vietnamese people like to compliment one another on any change in their appearance, such as a thinner appearance, loss of weight or a new hairstyle. This provides more support to Wolfson’s (1989, p.114) argument that when the quality of newness is highly valued in a society, then a compliment is appropriate whenever an acquaintance is seen with something new. A compliment indicates that the addresser has noticed a change, thereby proving that he/she considers the addressee worthy of attention. As a result, the compliment receiver might be pleased by the compliment on his/her appearance.

Topics for compliments reflect culture-specificity and also degree of relationship. In English-speaking culture, most of the compliments are highly motivated from politeness. Yet in Vietnamese culture, they express something emotional. In general, native speakers of English give more compliments than those of Vietnamese. This is because giving compliments too regularly can be seen as an act of flattering. Apart from some safe topics for both males and females, some others are sensitive, or even taboos. Age, especially, is not expected as a topic for compliments in English-speaking culture whereas it is high appreciated by the elderly in Vietnamese culture. The compliment receivers are very pleased although you are talking about their age. In fact, the the older people is highly regarded in Vietnamese society. Obviously, the difference between the two cultures affects the complimenting behaviour.

Also, there are two differences between the Vietnamese and English language in terms of the compliment topic of ability. Firstly, English compliments focus more on the achievements by a hearer as a result of great effort or hard work, and less on the talent or ability of the hearer. I take the utterances: “You’ve done a great job!” and “You made a great presentation!” as typical examples. In contrast, Vietnamese speakers tend to compliment an addressee’s quality or talent. The utterance: “Ðúng là m?t ngu?i ph? n? d?m dang!” is an example. The second difference is that in English-speaking society, compliments on one’s ability are usually made by the speaker of higher social status because they are serious judgments that have to be made only by capable people. Normally, it would be inappropriate for an addresser with lower social status to make such compliments to an addressee with higher social status. In the Vietnamese context, however, it is not uncommon at all for a junior official to give compliment on his or her superior. For example: “Ki?n th?c c?a giáo su th?t là r?ng. Gi? thì em dã hi?u.” Clearly, this utterance would be very inappropriate in English context. In fact, it could be regarded as a flattery rather than a compliment.

As mentioned before, “compliments in American English are formulaic in nature” (Wolfson & Manes, 1980, p. 115). In the next part of the essay, we examine the two types of compliment formulas, that is syntactic formulas and semantic formulas separately.

The most commonly occurring syntactic patterns in English language are: noun phrase is/looks adjective (e.g.,Your sweater is really nice!), I (intensifier) like/love noun phrase (e.g., I really like your car!), pronoun is (intensifier) (a) adjective noun phrase (e.g., that’s really a good question!). Accordingly, regardless of dialect or sex, the pattern “noun phrase is/look adjetive” appeared to be the most widely used English compliment formula. In addition to these three, only six other patterns are found to occur with any regularity. They are: you verb.(a) (really) adjective noun phrase (e.g. You did a great job.), you verb noun phrase (really) adverb (e.g. You sang that song really well.), you have (a) (really) adjective noun phrase (e.g. You have a beautiful living room.), What (a) adjective noun phrase! (e.g. What a pretty skirt!), adjective noun! (e.g. Good shot!), Isn’t noun phrase adjective! (e.g. Isn’t that ring pretty!)

Syntactic formulas employed to pay comliments in Vietnamese language is quite restricted. The most familiar pattern is “Chúc m?ng noun phrase” (e.g., Chúc m?ng s? thành công c?a anh – Congratulations on your success.). Another patterns used are: noun phrase verb adverb (e.g., Anh làm r?t t?t! – You done very well!), noun phrase verb preposition phrase (e.g., Chú x?ng dáng v?i k?t qu? dó – You deserve that good result.), noun phrase intensifier verb verb (Anh th?t dáng khâm ph?c – You are worthy to be admired.), Th?t là noun adjective (e.g., Th?t là chi?c váy d?p!)

One characteristic difference from compliments in English is a marked infrequency of first person compliments in Vietnamese language. Vietnmamse rarely employ the speaker’s perspective “I” when complimenting. Specifically, for Vietnamese people, the second most commonly used syntactic pattern in English language “I (really) like/love NP” is a rather unusual pattern for the speech act of complimenting. There are several reasons for its low frequency of occurrence. First, “thích” is semantically stronger than English “like”. While “like” can be applied to anything towards which the speaker has a positive feeling or attitude, “thích” is relatively limited to something the speaker evaluates as more than only positive. As a matter of fact, “thích” is often used to show the speaker’s preference and willingness. Because of this connotation, the formula “tôi thích” might be used for an indirect request more often than a compliment. On hearing the utterance “tôi thích”, the hearer might interpret the utterance as a request for what follows “thích”. This kind of expression is conventionalized though it is not always meant by the speaker as a request. As a result, Vietnamese people seldom use the pattern “I love/like noun phrase” especially when complimenting someone on his or her belongings, which might be regarded as an indirect request or an expression of envy. It seems that Vietnamese do not want their complimentee to interpret a compliment as an invasion of personal privacy or as a request for the object complimented.

In terms of semantic formulas, based on the study of 686 English compliments, Manes and Wolfson (1980) have found that “the overwhelmingly majority of compliments contain one of a highly restricted set of adjectives and verbs” (p. 116). Almost all the English compliments contain either an adjectival semantic carrier or a positive semantic verb. The most commonly used adjectives are those with positive semantic load, such as “nice”, “good”, “beautiful”, “pretty” and “great. Akin to English “nice” and “good”, most of the adjectives lack specificity and are usable with almost any compliment subject. Besides, there is a small number of semantically positive verbs appeared in compliments. Such verbs are “like”, love”, “admire”, “enjoy” and “be impressed by”. All in all, the most frequently used are “like” and “love”. These two verbs can be applied to virtually any topic because of their relatively weak semantic load.

It is interesting to note that, on the semantic level, although it is not so restricted for a Vietnamese compliment to contain one of a few adjectives or verbs as it is in English, a Vietnamese compliment may, to some extent similarly, be realised through the use of some semantically positive adjectives or adverbs such as “gi?i”, “hay”, “t?t”, “d?p”, “tuy?t v?i”, “di?u ngh?”, “diêu luy?n”. Due to the complexities of the Vietnamese language, adjectives can also be used as verbs or adverbs in a different position in a sentence. Look at these examples:

  • Anh ta r?t gi?i! (He is good.)
  • Anh ta gi?i ti?ng Anh. (He is good at English.)
  • Anh ta nói ti?ng Anh r?t gi?i. (He speaks English very well)

In these examples, “gi?i” can be classified as an adjective, a verb or a adverb. Whereas there is only one intensifier “really” used in English compliments, intensifiers used in Vietnamese are quite numerous:”r?t” (very), “th?t” (very), “quá” (very), “l?m” (very), “khá”(quite).

Another difference between Vietnamese and English compliment fomulas is that a large proportion of the compliments are 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:

  • D?y tôi choi du?c không? Không ng? anh choi bóng gi?i v?y. (Can (you) teach me? I didn’t know you play football so well.)
  • B?n mua cái gi? này ? dâu v?y? Trông r?t d?p! ( Where did you buy this handbag? (It looks) so nice).

The last part of the essay discuss the compliment responses. According to Herbert (1989), the compliment response strategy is divided into five categories: acceptance with amendment; acceptance; non-acceptance; no response and combination. Under these categories there are sub-categories as in the following:

(1) Acceptance:

  • Appreciation token: utterances that recognize the status of a previous utterance as a compliment by showing gratitude.
  • e.g., Thanks / Thank you

  • Agreement: utterances to agree with the complimenter.
  • e.g., I like it, too

  • Pleasure: utterances to show the complimentee is pleased.
  • e.g., I am very happy to hear that.

  • Smile: recognizing the compliment by smiling.
  • (2) Acceptance with amendment:

  • Return: utterances to scale down the praise of a compliment by offering praise to speaker.
  • e.g.,You are not bad, either

  • Downgrade: utterances to scale down the praise of a compliment of a previous utterance.
  • e.g., Just so so

  • Upgrade: utterances to increase the complimentary force of a previous utterance.
  • e.g., Don’t you see who wrote that? [Of course, my writing is good!]

  • Confirmation: utterance to confirm and reassure the previous utterance.
  • e.g., Is it true? Do you really think it’s not bad?

  • Transfer: utterance, which switches the focus of the compliments.
  • e.g., Have more since you like it.

  • Comment history: utterances to impersonalize the complimentary force by giving impersonal or irrelevant details.
  • e.g., A friend gave it to me.

    (3). Non-Acceptance

  • Denial: utterances to deny the content of the compliment.
  • e.g., No, No.

  • Qualification: utterances to deny the quality complimented.
  • e.g., It’s far from it.

  • Idiom: utterances which are composed of idiomatic expressions to show the complimentee feels embarrassed or abashed.
  • e.g., [I am] embarrassed.

  • Diverge: utterances to deny the complimentary force by directing it to other acts.
  • e.g., No kidding/Don’t make fun of me.

  • Avoidance: utterances that avoid responding to the complimenting content.
  • e.g., You are being too polite.

    (4). No response: It also means “zero realization”

    e.g., F1: That’s a beautiful sweater.

    F2: Did you finish the assignment for today?

    (5) Combination: The respondents may use two or more sub-categories mentioned above to respond to compliments. For example:

  • Confirmation + Appreciation token.
  • e.g., Is it true? Thank you.

  • Appreciation token + scale down

e.g., Thanks. Actually my skill is just so so.

Regarding English compliment responses, Herbert (1989) noticed that 66% of the American responded to compliments with agreement, out of which 29% are “Acceptance Tokens”, and only 0.4% responded with disagreement. Similarly, Holmes (1986) finds that 61% of the New Zealand compliment responses are also “acceptances”.

Virtually all speakers of English, when questioned on this matter in general (e.g. “What does one say after being complimented?”) or particular (e.g. “What would you say if someone admired your shirt?”) terms, agree that the correct response is thank you (Herbert, 1989, p. 35).

In Vietnamese culture, however, when someone receives a compliment from others, he/she may feel a little embarrassed; he/she is likely to reject the compliment with an expression of self-praise avoidance. From a closer observation of the forms of compliment responses uttered Vietnamese native speakers indicate that the modesty shown by the compliment responses may not really mean that the compliment receivers dislike the compliments. Furthermore, examining the speakers’ tone of voice, we conclude that most of the disagreement responses do not actually accuse the complimenter of doing something wrong, but rather simply negate the proposition. 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 Vietnamese speakers seldom reject a compliment simply with a formula meaning a flat “no”. This is different from what people from outside the Vietnamese language and culture generally believe that Vietnamese would simply say “no” to every compliment. In addition, question-type responses are the second most frequently used type. This is the type most frequently combined with other response stategies, as illustrated in the following example:

  1. F1: Hôm nay trông b?n th?t d?p d?y! (You look so beatiful today.)
  2. F2: V?y à? Th?y b?n còn d?p hon mình n?a. (Really? You look even more beatiful.) (Confirmation + Return)

  3. F1: B?n m?c chi?c áo r?t d?p! (Your shirt is very nice.)

F2: Th?t không? Th?y cung du?c du?c thôi mà. (Really? Just so so.) (Confirmation + Downgrade)

In the two examples above, the compliment receiver reacts to a compliment with a question in a neutral manner, which may leads to a confirmation uttered by the compliment giver. We find that compliment responses of this type exhibit some agreement and some disagreement, similar to the category identified as the “inbetween-ness” by Pomerantz (1978). The frequently used phrases:”v?y à”, “v?y h?”, “th?t không”(really) might be interpreted as a request for confirmation, which reveals that the speaker has received the information and is soliciting further information. These phrases may not be the same as the question type for English, typically realized in “Do you really think so?”. Although their semantic meanings seem to be similar, their pragmatic meanings may not be. This compliment response type give the complimetee an opportunity to attend to their interlocutor’s positive face wants, i.e., fulfilling the desire of a person to be appreciated, liked and approved by others, rather than an invasion of his/her negative face needs. Such a circular exchange of compliments might contribute to enhancing a rapport between the complimenter and the complimentee.

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Communication breakdown between English and Vietnamese speakers can easily occurred due to the big difference in compliment response. In Vietnamese culture, people often respond to compliments negatively or reject the compliments to show modesty. (Tran, 2007, p.170). In English, a simple compliment response is “thank you”. In other word, English speakers tend to accept the compliments while the Vietnamese speakers prefer to reject them. To many Vietnamese speakers, responding to a compliment with ‘thank you’ implies either arrogance or formality, and this should be avoided. Further, to a Vienamese complimenter, saying “cám on” (thank you) can interrupt further conversation. When receiving a compliment, Vietnamese people tend to response with a combination of different strategies and saying “cám on” is not necessary. As to the same compliments: “Nhà anh th?t d?p!” – “Your house is very beautiful!”/”Ti?ng Anh c?a b?n gi?i quá!” – “Your English is very good!”. English response will be: “Thank you.” While Vietnamese responses will be: “Ðâu có. Nhà anh còn d?p hon! – No. Your house is even more beatiful.”/”Chua gi?i dâu, tôi còn ph?i c? g?ng nhi?u – Not very good, I have to practise more”. The differences between the English speakers’ and the Vietnamese speakers’ compliment responding, obviously, reflect the differences of social values between the two cultures. In English-speaking society, the norm seems to be to receive the compliment ‘gracefully’, that is, to accept it to satisfy the conplimenter’s positive face. The norm of Vietnamese society, on the contrary, is to deny it in a delicate way to be modest.

Furthermore, the combination of “Disagreement” and “Compliment Downgrade” was often found in the Vietnamese compliments, but it was not recorded in the English language (Tran, 2008, p.4). This combination is also commonly found as in the following examples.

  • F1: Ê, có cái áo so mi m?i ph?i không? Tr?i oi áo này d?p ghê nghe.(Hey, got a new shirt? Gosh it looks good).
  • F2: Có dâu anh oi. Áo này cu m?c luôn ?y mà. (It’s not good. It’s just an old shirt”)

    In this example, the “Disagreement” (“It’s not good”) co-occurred with a “Compliment Downgrade” (“It’s just an old shirt”) which downplayed the object of the compliment.

  • F1: Ch?c ch?c. Cái áo c?a b?n thi?t là h?t s?y.(Wow. Your dress is really fancy)
  • F2: Ðâu có. Coi v?y ch? mình hàng d?m l?m. Giá cung r? r? hà. (It’s not. It looks like that but the material is very bad. The price is also very cheap).

The “Disagreement” (“It’s not”) in the example co-occurred with two “Compliment Downgrades” (“It looks like that but the material is very bad. The price is also very cheap”).

  • F1: Xe anh dó h?? Tr?i oi xe d?p quá há. Xe x?n ghê dó nhe. (Oh is it your motorbike? Gosh it’s cool. It’s very good)

F2: Um cung ch?ng x?n gì dâu. Cung bình thu?ng thôi. (Uhm it’s not good. It’s just normal”.

The “Disagreement” (“It’s not good”) preceded the “Compliment Downgrade” (“It’s just normal”) which qualified the praise force.

In brief, due to the differences between English and Vietnamese cultures, the way people compliment and respond to compliments is not similar, which requires our attention when learning the target language.

When it comes to learning a second language, learners have already possessed and usually bring with them the native speaker’s knowledge of their first language(s) and culture. The influence of the first language and culture on the second language use is described in technical terms as pragmatic and discourse transfer. Based on contrastive analysis between English and Vietnamese compliments including compliment topics, compliment formulas and compliment response strategies given above, I discuss some implications of the study for language teaching and learning.

Firstly, it is necessary for a teacher of English to raise students’ awareness of cultural similarities and differences between compliments and compliment response patterns in Vietnamese culture and English culture. The conflicting patterns may require an explanation, as an inappropriate response to a compliment can cause communication breakdown or offence. Learners must be sufficiently cultural awareness to be able to make informed choices, to have a natural conversations with the native speakers of English.

Secondly, English teachers should provide input as much as possible to develop student’s sociopragmatic and pragmalinguistic competence. Together with the advance in technology in language teaching, it is easier for teachers to provide students with a variety of compliment strategies and response strategies. Real situations can be seen on the internet, on television, or through videos. In order to assist students in giving and receiving compliments, teachers in charge of speaking courses compile or design those which sound appropriately sociopragmatically and pragmalinguistically for use in class. Students need more options as input for giving and receiving compliments. These options may be a little bit different from the required textbooks used for speaking courses.

Finally, It is more important, however, that students have many opportunities to practise, to role-play imaginatively in a variety of contexts in which different social factors are taken into account. In other words, teachers try their best to create communicative opportunities for students to practice giving and receiving compliments in English. Through role-play (and simulations), moreover, teachers can have the chance to show their students the appropriateness of utterances, and how speakers negotiate certain situations (accepting/ rejecting compliments). Gradually these activities enable students to engage in successful exchanges of compliments and compliment responses with native speakers of English.


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  • Holmes, J. (1986). Compliments and compliment responses in New Zealand English. Anthropological Linguistics,28, 485-508.
  • Holmes, J. & Brown, D. F. (1987). Teachers and students learning about compliments. TESOL Quarterly, 21, 523-546.
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