American civility is having a rough time of it these days. Many self-appointed guardians of civility have responded with hand-wringing alarm at the very idea that those who disagree with the Trump administration should venture to call it out.
In fact, the uncivil behavior of those in power is often met with a muted response, thanks to unwritten civility rules. Is it something unique in American culture, where delicately avoiding any kind of social conflict is preferable to pointing out bad behavior, in case you might end up being uncivil yourself?
The Point of Being Polite
Despite the unfortunate stereotype of the ugly American abroad, American civility isn’t quite an oxymoron, as some may joke. Navigating politeness, with all its weird quirks and hidden pitfalls, can seem so dreadfully important that many Americans are often confused about how to respond in the best case scenario, like how to receive a compliment, much less the worst, such as when societal norms are completely violated. If we unpack the practice of linguistic politeness in American English, despite their oversized reputations overseas, it seems Americans at home might actually be some of the most anxiously polite people on earth, with a deep desire to get along with others.
About this time last year, many looked on in second-hand embarrassment at Trump’s bizarre cabinet of compliments— the sycophantic and apparently mandatory barrage of compliments coming from new cabinet members.
Though the praise was way over the top, it clearly satisfied Trump. The mere linguistic conventions of politeness, even in a cabinet meeting, can be revealing of a culture’s values. Trump has violated many norms, and is not representative of most Americans in terms of how politely he conducts himself, but many of the traits he wants to be complimented for, whether true or not, are also shared by most Americans (and indeed many non-Americans). Individualism, celebrating self-made successes from your skills, talents or hard work, personal appearance, material possessions—the importance of these values, even if we don’t admit it, are strongly reinforced through the use of a particular kind of speech act—the compliment. And it turns out Americans love to use them.
The compliment seems to have an elevated status in American English, so much so that it’s become as indispensable to American life as saying hello or thank you.
Researchers have found that compliments are used in American English far more frequently than in other languages or even other varieties of English. Conditioned from childhood to follow these norms of behavior, Americans enjoy trading compliments practically everywhere, substituting them for other speech acts, such as greeting, thanking, apologizing, or opening up a conversation.
The humble compliment is used so often as social lubrication for good will that it’s become something of a commodity, traded daily through conversational exchanges. In fact, at one time, as John F. Clark notes, there was such a thing as a “trade last.” This slang term referred to a “complex ritual in which two people agree to exchange compliments about each other […] in the spirit of a fair trade.” Interestingly, there was an unwritten understanding that any speaker who declared they had a “trade last” for someone would need to be paid a compliment in exchange first. Kind of like Trump-style cabinet meetings, except eventually reciprocated, fair and square.
The American Compliment
Perhaps it’s not that strange that people like to hear something good about themselves (except, as we shall see, when they don’t), but this idea that it’s a thing that can be overtly traded, rather than being a one-way verbal gift, is uniquely American, and suggests a remarkable value for compliments that might not exist elsewhere. It is in fact one of the most effective ways of being civil in American English.
So why are these big, beautiful compliments beloved past all reason in American English? In most social situations, things run smoother and less conflict arises if everyone feels good about themselves. Compliments are one of the ways in which American English unmistakably shows solidarity, cooperation, friendliness, and good will. When such traits as individualism and hard work are culturally valued, being rewarded for your personal performance through the attention of others can be a very effective motivator. Americans tend to share the belief that compliments will make the hearer feel good about themselves and will want to reciprocate.
Considering the ubiquity of compliments, it can be hard to believe that not everyone uses them the same way. In cultures where the collective is valued over the individual, being singled out from the pack can seem a bit confronting. In some languages, such as Indonesian, compliments are rarely used.
Compliments on attributes like personal appearance or possessions may be considered in bad taste in other cultures. Often, the excessive use of personal remarks can be awkward and embarrassing for those who aren’t used to them. A statement like “wow, you look really nice today” which is blandly complimentary to an American can easily be misinterpreted as a backhanded criticism for ordinarily not looking one’s best. A politician, attempting to be friendly in the normal American way, once almost caused an international incident when he complimented a French government employee on the job he was doing. That seems harmless enough, but the comment was condemned by the French press as inappropriate interference in French internal affairs. Compliments meant to praise are liable to offend in cross-cultural situations if the local culture isn’t taken into account.
According to seminal theories on linguistic politeness (revealing a rather bleak view of human social interaction), one reason Americans are so driven to use compliments is that conversation is viewed essentially as a battlefield. It’s a constant, delicate tug-of-war of social status and power negotiations as we try and control how we want to see ourselves, and how we want others to see us (your “face”).
Everything we say has the potential to be a conflict inducing “face-threatening act” if they’re taken the wrong way and we’ve allowed no options for saving face. So we’re motivated to use linguistic politeness to strategically avoid conflict, to balance out the “threat” and prevent misinterpretations. And what better way than to pro-actively scatter around as many feel-good compliments as you can?
So the theory goes. If social interactions really are a trap, American English has turned the compliment, if not into an art form, at least into a efficient formula that works to sidestep conversational conflict. And when everyone understands what to do, it works.
How Compliments Work
It’s a curious fact, according to Manes and Wolfson, that compliments in American English are strikingly formulaic and repetitive in their patterns. Syntactically, they mostly fall into one of three forms such as “I like/love something,” “That’s a nice/good/beautiful something,” or “something is nice/good/beautiful/etc.”
Simple adjectives carry the weight of the compliment in most cases, and of those, five appeared most frequently: nice, good, beautiful, pretty, and great. The topics were largely limited to values that Americans share, such as a focus on appearance, possessions, or a person’s performance, such as a job well done.
They’re often used, yet there’s not a rich array of creative ways to convey complimentary information. For example, Wolfson notes some Arabic exchanges where compliments are more indirect:
S: X is a nice girl and beautiful.
A: Where is the soil compared with the star? (i.e. complimenting the speaker S as being more beautiful).
Though Americans use compliments so frequently that they are often accused of being insincere by non-Americans, it doesn’t mean that these more direct ways of complimenting are meaningless or inauthentic.
Americans not only work hard and play hard—they compliment even harder, to the max. Lest there be any misunderstandings, American English really maximizes enthusiasm, where things are bigger and better, turning it up to eleven. More forceful words like “love” vs “like” and “great” vs “good” are used more frequently in American English, where other English dialects may use the maximal versions less often or rarely. Janet Holmes’s study on New Zealand compliment behavior showed many similarities to American English, but the more muted “like” appears twice as often as “love.”
Want more stories like this one?
Compliments in other cultures can appear more understated, minimizing the effect with more indirect ways of praising, which can seem more sincere but can also be easily misread. In a study of French and American dinner party conversation, French participants observed frequent “exaggerated expressions of appreciation” such as “a gasp of amazement or an extended ‘mmmmm’ of appreciation” for the food, which to French speakers, sounded like forced enthusiasm and therefore insincerity. To American English speakers, however, it’s almost second nature to convey clear, maximized signals in compliments, in order to reduce any confusion and possible conflict.
So what’s also important in American compliments is not just what is being said, but also what’s intended, and how it’s being said. If it just sounds like a compliment it’s often enough to get you through the social obligation. This is no different from other kinds of polite speech acts. These formulaic compliment patterns efficiently convey good will, because speakers and hearers have absorbed the same rules.
In greetings and farewells there are set formulae that aren’t intended literally, such as “how are you” or “see you later.” The latter, for example, was misunderstood as a key piece of evidence by the Italian police in the Amanda Knox case to prove she planned a meeting. Countless non-Americans have also waited fruitlessly for a call that never came from their American friends, because in American English phrases like “talk to you later” doesn’t signify any actual intention or plan to do so. Surprisingly, repeated patterns in complimenting speech acts do the same kind of politeness work.
Why “Thank You” Isn’t Enough
It’s all very well to have clear cut, maximal compliments lulling listeners into a gushy sense of goodwill, but there’s one thing researchers like Anita Pomerantz have been noticing for a while: even native American English speakers can get incredibly mixed up and anxious with how to respond appropriately to compliments.
Countless etiquette guides and politeness experts and well-meaning parents have taught people to simply answer “thank you” when offered a compliment. Despite this, a brief “thank you” often seems abrupt and not quite right to many Americans, whether you’re the speaker or the hearer. Many try to reject or deflect and downplay when they receive a compliment instead. Interestingly, a study found that American English speakers only accepted compliments with “thank you” about a third of the time, compared to South African English speakers, who accepted compliments three out of four times and New Zealand English speakers roughly two thirds of the time.
As Pomerantz points out, this is because there are two conditions that have to be met when answering a compliment. In order to reciprocate making the speaker feel good about themselves, the hearer has to agree with them. But the perplexing dilemma is, they also have to avoid praising themselves, in keeping with egalitarian modesty norms. The solution many people take, which frustrates many an etiquette maven, is to deflect the compliment from themselves to an object, or to compliment the complimenter, or scale it down and avoid the subject entirely. Some might panic and choose total silence. Who can blame them?
That so many are confused about how to properly receive compliments shows just how important getting along with each other is, and just how willing American English speakers are to meet their social obligations. Complimenting behavior has become ingrained into the American way of life. Civility matters, but in the face of real, threatening behavior, when politeness conventions are being flouted, the rules of politeness may no longer work the way you’d expect.