Responding to compliments in German and American English

Term Paper, 2013

16 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical background
2.1.What is politeness?
2.2.What is a compliment?
2.3.Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness
2.4.Leech’s politeness principle

3. Methodology

4. Findings
4.1.The American English results
4.2.The German results

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

8. Appendix

1. Introduction:

If you are in a foreign country, you try to be polite. But what exactly is politeness? Maybe you have already noticed that not in every country respectively culture you find the same understanding of politeness, which can lead to misunderstandings between people from different cultures. Hence many linguists try to compare the understanding of politeness of different cultures and countries with the aid of some researches and some politeness theories. The most important and popular politeness theories are those of Brown and Levinson, Leech and Grice, which will help to understand and group the findings into categories. Later on, some of them will be defined.

This term paper refers to Rong Chen’s research on responding to compliments in American English and Chinese, but only involves the data from the American English responses. In the following chapters the research of responding to compliments in German will be compared with the American English ones from Chen’s research. The data taken from his study shows ten politeness strategies which most of them are “governed by Leech’s Agreement Maxim, and are characterized by compliment acceptance (Chen 1993: 50).” The German responses can be divided into nine strategies which unlike the American English strategies are ruled by Leech’s Modesty Maxim. Most of the compliments are marked by acceptance comparable to the American English responses.

The comparison between American English and German is quite vague, because the questionnaires were given to only 50 students from the same region in each research. This imprecision leads to more questions according to the study: Do we have regional politeness varieties in a country or even social politeness varieties? So that a new question arises, whether a small study of 50 students for each country can show politeness understanding in general for each country? These questions will not be answered in this term paper, because of the large amount of data and the lacking possibilities to collect it.

This term paper has two aims: At first, to find out whether the German responses respectively results differ from Chen’s American English ones or whether there are similarities. Secondly to interpret the results according to the two cultures and to show that there are more similarities than differences between the two cultures.

In the next section the theoretical background of this term paper will be explained with a definition of politeness as well as a definition of a compliment. As already mentioned, there will be a description of Leech’s Politeness Principle and Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness which will be linked to the comparison of the two cultures. To make a comparison possible between American English speakers and German speakers, the same methodology as Chen’s will be presented, which will be the next section. The step after the methodology will be the illustration of the findings. The comparison of the data with an interpretation according to both cultures will be included in the discussion section. At the end will be a short conclusion of the whole study.

2. Theoretical background:

2.1. What is politeness?

Politeness can be attached to socio-psychology and is an everyday part of human behaviour (House 2005: 13). In every culture you can see norms for being polite, which means that you are responsible for keeping the expectations of the people around you and also keeping the politeness norms. To do so, some aspects have to be kept in mind. One of them is being polite in the right degree, i.e. being “overpolite[...] or “impolite[...] tend to be noticed” (House 2005: 14) and therefore seen outside of the politeness norms. Another aspect is ‘context’, which influences the interaction between two or more people as well as “the relationship between them” (House 2005: 15). In a relationship of friends, there are less face-threatening acts than in a relationship of acquaintances, because friends have a closer understanding to each other than acquaintances. Therefore people have to be aware of what they can say and what they should not say in a particular relationship. That means to be aware of the addressee’s face.

2.2. What is a compliment?

A compliment is a part of politeness. Making a compliment to an addressee means to praise him or her positively for his/her look, possession or achievement. That shows that the complimenter remarks “the complimentee’s interests and needs” (Chen 1993: 57), which means that the complimentee feels good. So it functions as stabilization of the relationship between the complimenter and complimentee (Chen 1993: 56). But it can also be a face-threatening act, because the complimentee is committed to return the compliment somehow (Chen 1993: 58). Another face-threatening act while making a compliment can be expressing jealousy, so that the complimentee has either to offer the object or to refuse the indirect question for that object (Chen 1993: 58). In Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness, a compliment can be assigned to the positive politeness strategy.

2.3. Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness contains positive and negative politeness. Positive politeness means to save the addressee’s positive face “by treating him as a member of an in-group, a friend, a person whose wants and personality traits are known and liked” (Chen 1993: 57).[1] [2] Negative politeness which you cannot compare with impoliteness is the partial satisfaction of the addressee’s negative face (Chen 1993: 57). It is determined by “self-effacement, formality and restraint” (Chen 1993: 57). The interest of the interlocutors is to keep up each other’s face and to reduce the face-threatening acts. The face-threatening acts are divided into five strategies. The first strategy is not a face- threatening act, because of not doing the act at all. The second strategy is called ‘off record’ and is an indirect speech act with a function of “face-redress” (Ogiermann 2009: 191), which is mostly understood, but can be accepted, refused or ignored. In the case of ignoring, there is no loss of the addresser’s face. ‘Bald-on- record’ is the third strategy, which is a direct speech act, so that the addressee has no option to refuse the request, which can be a face-threatening act (Ogiermann 2009: 191). The next to last strategy is the ‘on record with negative politeness’. It is characterized by distance among the interlocutors and by avoidance of getting into the addressee’s privacy. The addressee has the option to refuse the request. The last strategy, the so called ‘on record with positive politeness’, is marked by closeness among the interlocutors and shows that the addresser pays attention to the addressee’s needs and interests.

In addition to these strategies, Brown and Levinson divided their theory of politeness in four super strategies and ten sub strategies, which refer to compliments. Super strategy one contains four sub strategies: Thanking, agreeing, expressing gladness and joking. Sub strategy thanking has the function to accept and express thankfulness, while strategy two (agreeing) functions for saving the “complimenter’s positive face” (Chen 1993: 58) with sharing his/her opinion. Sub strategy three (expressing gladness) shows closeness among the interlocutors. Even though strategy four differs from strategies 1-3, it is a part of the positive politeness strategy, because joking breaks strict and stressful situations and indicates closeness among the interlocutors.


[1] An appropriate answer for positive politeness about a presentation in class, where a classmate asks another whether he/she liked her/his presentation may be: “When I presented, I was much more nervous.”

[2] An example for negative politeness can be: “Could you possibly take my car to the garage?”

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Responding to compliments in German and American English
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Compliments, German, American English, Politeness, Comparison, Opinion Poll, Cultural Difference
Quote paper
Bachelor of Arts Kristina Grasmik (Author), 2013, Responding to compliments in German and American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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