Compliments, or saying something good about the person you are speaking to, can be tricky to give for a variety of reasons, especially since complimenting someone appropriately depends largely on the culture of the language. Firstly, complimenting serves a variety of social functions, including:
- expressing admiration or approval
- creating and building solidarity with the listener 12, 18
- replacing greetings, apologies, congratulations, and more 19, 25
- softening apologies, requests, and criticism 6, 24
- maintaining a conversation 3, 8, 24
- reinforcing preferred behavior 18
Try to remember the last time someone gave you a compliment. Who gave you the compliment? What was the situation? Did it serve one of the functions listed above?
In addition to the functions of complimenting, the principal topics for complimenting typically fall under four main categories:
1. Appearance:You look great. / That’s a nice haircut!
2. Skills/Performance:You have a great eye finding those discrepancies. / I appreciate your ability to get things done on time.
3. Possessions: Nice phone! / You have such a nice apartment.
4. Personality: You are so generous. / I like how motivated you are!
Think again about the last compliment you received in English. Did it belong to one of the categories above? If not, why do you think that is?
Finally, knowing the most common phrases used for complimenting is important. Luckily, nearly all compliments in English can be accounted for by the following formulas. In fact, the top three structures account for the majority of compliments in English:18, 21, 22
1. Noun phrase + is/looks (really) + adjective
Example: Your watch is really nice.
2. I (really) like/love + noun phrase
Example: I love your project idea.
3. Pronoun + is (really) a/an + adjective + noun phrase
Example: That was an excellent proposal.
4. You + verb + a/an (really) + adjective + noun phrase
Example: You did a really good job.
5. You + verb + (noun phrase) + (really) + adverb
Example: You write reports really well.
6. You have a/an + (really) + adjective + noun phrase
Example: You have a great sense of humor.
7. What a/an + adjective + noun phrase
Example: What a nice pair of shoes!
8. Adjective + noun phrase
Example: Nice work!
9. Isn’t + noun phrase + adjective
Example: Isn’t that idea cool?
To make matters even easier, nice, good, pretty, great, and beautiful are the most common adjectives used in compliments, while positive verbs are typically like, love, admire, enjoy, and be impressed by.19
Other Considerations When Giving Compliments
One’s gender is a significant consideration when giving and receiving compliments. Below are some general tendencies (not strict rules) that can help assist you in making appropriate compliments:
1. There is research that suggests women give compliments more often than men.14 Women are more likely to compliment women, while men are more likely to compliment other men.17
2. For interaction between women, appearance tends to be the preferred topic in unstructured settings, such as informal gatherings, hanging out, and running into a friend or acquaintance. Compliments on performance between two women are common in goal-oriented settings, such as at the workplace or during competitive activities. 21
3. For men, performance is the preferred topic in unstructured settings, whether the addressee is male or female. Complimenting on women’s appearance is rare, and hardly ever occurs between two men.21
4. It is generally not common to compliment one’s superiors. Although this depends on factors such as the level of familiarity between the individuals and formality of the situation, compliments tend to flow down, not up, the social hierarchy.15
5. In general, women use more adjectives than men when expressing an emotional reaction.11 While this generalization pertains to oral communication as a whole, keep this trend in mind when complimenting.
6. Taboo or sensitive topics should be avoided when giving compliments. In American culture, for example, commenting on one’s weight, income and finances, or references that could be interpreted as unwanted flirtation, are inappropriate. Examples of inappropriate compliments due to the topic include You look skinnier today, You car looks really expensive, and You have nice legs.
Scenarios for Practice
Use the above compliment formulas to create appropriate compliments in the following scenarios:
You see your friend approaching you wearing a new sweater.
Sample responses (note that men rarely make comments on appearance):
What a great sweater!
Your sweater is beautiful.
A coworker just completed his portion of a shared project days before the deadline.
I really like your ability to get things done ahead of time.
That’s a huge help!
A classmate acquaintance finished presenting on a topic you’re interested in.
I love the topic you chose.
That was a great presentation!
What an interesting topic!
A study partner has been helping you a lot with your understanding of the classroom materials.
You’ve really helped me a lot.
You know so much!
You’re really good at teaching!
You’re meeting your friend’s friend and notice she is wearing the same brand of glasses as you.
What a nice pair of glasses!
I love your glasses.
While a polite Thank you or Thanks is sufficient for accepting many compliments, in many situations, a more thorough response may be more appropriate. For example, look at the following exchange between two classmates:
Felicia: Nice sweater! I love the color.
While Jane offers a polite response, Felicia may have desired to know if the sweater was new, or where Jane bought it, or if Jane loved the color, too. In fact, there are many response strategies for responding to a received compliment, divided into three primary categories:13, 20
- Token of appreciation (Thanks/Thank you.)
- Agreeing (I like it, too.)
- History (I got it while living abroad.)
- Shifting credit (My professor taught me how to do it this way.)
- Questioning (You think so?)
- Reciprocating (You do, too!)
- Downgrading (It really wasn’t that challenging.) Note: Use appropriate body language and tone when downgrading, in order to avoid seeming arrogant. You might smile, shake your head, or wave your hand slightly. For more information on how body language affects communication, check out this section on body language.
- Disagree (I don’t think I did so well on the project.)
- Denial (It’s nothing special.)
- Remaining silent or changing the topic.
Scenarios for Practice
Use the above strategies to respond appropriately to the following compliments:
Your friend sees your new sweater and says, Hey, I like your sweater!
Shifting credit: It was a gift from my parents.
Agree: Yeah, pretty nice, huh?
Deny/Downgrade: It was the only clean one I had left to wear.
Your co-worker notices you finished your portion of a shared project days before the deadline and says, You’re such an efficient worker!
Questioning: Really? You think so?
Downgrading: My parts weren’t as complicated as yours.
Changing the topic: How is your section coming along?
You just finished giving a presentation and sit down. Your classmate next to you says, That was a really interesting presentation!
Reciprocating: Yours was also really interesting!
History: I’ve been interested in that topic since I was a kid.
Token of appreciation: Thanks so much!
Your study partner laughs at one of your jokes and says, You’re hilarious!
Shift in credit: My friend told me that joke.
Disagreeing: Most people don’t seem to think so.
A friend’s friend sees that you’re both wearing the same brand of glasses and says, Nice glasses!
Reciprocating: You’ve got style yourself!
Token of appreciation: Thanks!
Questioning: Did you also get yours at Warby Parker?
For a full list of references used cited in the “Appropriate Communication” sections, click here.