Proceedings of the 2nd Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.   May 10-11, 2003. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Institute of Technology.
Gender variation in explicitness of proffering compliments
by Rieko Matsuoka    National College of Nursing


This paper investigates how gender influences explicitness in proffering compliments, based on the results of a questionnaire. The questionnaire, developed by Burnland and Araki (1985), was administered to thirty male Japanese university students and thirty male Japanese university students. The explicitness ratings for male participants were higher than female participants, which contradicts results from the previous studies on compliments and gender.

Keywords: Compliments, compliment proffering, gender variation, explicitness


Complimenting behavior has been investigated by quite a few researchers (e.g., Farghal and Al-Khatib, 2001; Holmes, 1988a, 1988b, 1994; Herbert, 1990; Pomeranz, 1978) for over two decades. As Holmes points out (1988b), compliments should function as positively affective speech acts and can be considered as phatic communion, a type of speech which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words, termed by Malinowski (Malinowski, 1935, 2000). In our daily lives, we generally exchange compliments as an effort to keep relationships solid. In other words, compliments are supposed to be for rapport instead of report and for cooperation instead of competition in Tannen's terms (e.g., 1986, 1993, 1996). However, some compliments are indirect, implicit, or even unexpressed (Boyle, 2000; Rodriguez et al, 1998). Rodriguez et al (1998), for instance, investigate withholding compliments via ethnographic interviews. In addition, compliment proffering can be a face-threatening act (e.g. Holmes, 1988b) Therefore, compliments are sometimes misleading. In our daily lives, utterances intended for solidarity can be interpreted as sarcasm or perfunctory compliments intended for requests. These could be taken as pure praise or diplomatic compliments rather than genuine admiration. Failures of communication in the process of interaction might be caused by differences in cultures, value systems, and/or speech norms that the interlocutors harbor.
Now, what is a compliment? Holmes (1988b) suggests it is "a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually that person addressed, for some 'good' (possession, characteristic, skill, etc.) which is positively valued by the speaker and hearer" (p. 446). Regarding this definition, Kodama (1996) claims that the part of "the person other than the speaker" entails the person not present. Kodama (1996) supports Wierzbcka (1987, cited by Kodama, 1996), who maintains that compliments are an "intricate combination of positive evaluation, displayed good feelings, implicit friendliness, and half-admitted desire to please." Based on these interpretations, it seems feasible to regard "compliments" as interpersonal and interactive speech acts; whereas, "praise" can be considered a statement of absolute value with or without interpersonal and/or interactive functions. Therefore, all the compliments are considered praise; however, some instances of praise are not categorized as compliments.

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Additionally, gender as a social identity has been investigated as an important factor in language usage (e.g., Brown, 1993; Tannen, 1986, 1993; Ehrlich, 1997). The influence of gender identity on compliment exchanges has been studied by many researchers (e.g., Holmes, 1988a, 1988b; Herbert, 1990; Miles, 1994). In this paper, I would like to further examine how gender identity influences the mode of proffering compliments. The data was collected from the results of the questionnaire that Barnland and Araki (1985) developed.



I administered the questionnaire to my students last year. I asked about 200 students to fill in the questionnaire, but some did not respond completely. There was also a disparity in numbers between male and female students. In addition, the delimitation of the nationality and age range forced me to exclude the forms completed by non-Japanese and older students. As a result, thirty-two questionnaires from female students were completed. Randomly excluding two further female candidates, thirty female respondents and an equal number of male respondents were used in this study.
All sixty participants in this study were Japanese from eighteen to twenty-one years in age. Though all were college students, they were from three different universities. Most of the thirty male participants were from average-level private universities majoring economics or law. Most of the female participants were from a top-level national college of nursing.


The questionnaire, which Barnlund and Araki named the Complimentary Mode Questionnaire (CMQ), was designed to examine three variables — the attribute prompting the compliment (the content), the status of the communicative partner (the relation), and the specific manner in which admiration was expressed (the mode). To my best knowledge, no other study on compliment and/or compliment response has adopted this procedure. Reliability coefficients were high (around .9) for both Japanese and English versions of Araki's 1982 study.
For the content, sixteen critical incidents were designed based on actual incidents reported in the interviews.
For the relation or communicative partners, Araki (1982) selected eight roles: mother, father, male close friends, female close friends, male acquaintances, female acquaintances, male strangers and female strangers in her interview data. She divided these eight roles into two groups and made two types of questionnaires. The Form A Questionnaire was for mother, father, male acquaintances, and female acquaintances. The Form B Questionnaire was for male close friends, female close friends, male strangers and female strangers. In this study, I used only the Form A Questionnaire.
For the mode, respondents were asked to select one of nine forces choices — from "keep this feeling to myself", which is the most indirect to "praise (compliment) frankly and enthusiastically", which was the most direct. Araki (1982) constructed these nine modes also from her interview data and the response scales were tested on nine American and nine Japanese college students. The order, from the most ambiguous to the most straightforward, was numbered from one to nine for comparison. The nine possible responses are listed below.

	A. Although I admire the person, I would probably keep this feeling to myself.
	B. I would probably express admiration, but to a mutual friend or another person.
	C. I would probably express my admiration directly to that person in some way.
	 C-1.  By responding only nonverbally.
	       ( e.g.  Smile, gesture, touch, etc.)
	 C-2.  By commenting on my own limitations or inadequacies.
	       ( e.g. "I could never give such a good report.")
	 C-3.  By indirectly referring to the quality or act.
	       ( e.g. "Could we talk about your ideas a little more?" )
	 C-4.  By simply noting the quality or act.
	       ( e.g. "You must have done a lot of work." )
	 C-5.  By praising in a kidding, sarcastic way.
	       ( e.g. "Since when did you become so smart?" )
	 C-6.  By praising in a modest or subtle way.
	       ( e.g. "I liked your report.")
	 C-7.  By praising frankly and enthusiastically.
	       ( e.g. "That was excellent!"  "Great!" )

Though I used their questionnaire without any revision, there might be room for improvement in three ways. First, some scenarios were not very familiar. Second, the communicative partners chosen for this study could exhibit only social distance, but could not elicit power relations explicitly or indicate if they were of a higher or lower social status than the respondents.

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Another shortcoming concerned the mode. I suppose that it may be difficult for the students to choose one mode because we might use more than one manner such as praising (complimenting) frankly and enthusiastically after commenting on one's own limitation in real situations. The scaling system for the mode was somewhat artificial, though Araki found great consistency in ordering the nine modes among the American and Japanese respondents in her study.


As the questionnaire attached in the Appendix indicates, the participants were asked to fill in the sixty-four columns with the codes for their preferred mode. The sixty-four columns consisted of sixteen incidents multiplied with four different partners. The codes were thus A, B and C-1 to C-7. I named T1 for the first incident with topical theme and P1 for the first partner. For the coding system for valuing the mode, I converted the codes A to C-7 into the scores 1 to 9. All the data was input into a SPSS spreadsheet for data analysis.


". . . male students reported that they would be more explicit in giving compliments. However, a statistically significant difference between male and female respondents in selecting the mode does not exist . . ."
A Cronbach alpha reliability estimate was used to assess the items in this test, resulting in a score of .9484. This number was even higher than the result found in Araki's original reliability study. Therefore this instrument appears to be appropriate and reliable in the context used.
The main point of this study, however, was to explore cross-gender variation in compliment giving. In the original study by Araki (1982) and Barlund and Araki (1985), the scores of males and females revealed no significant difference in preferred modes of giving compliments. They added that their results confirm other studies that find culture more influential than gender in determining communicative styles (1985, p.19). It may be true that culture has stronger influence on managing communication. However, a lot of studies have been carried out to reveal gender variation sometimes in cross-cultural contexts, in complimenting behaviors (e.g., Lorenzo-Dus, 2001; Maruyama, 1996; Bolton, 1994; Hebert, 1990; Holmes, 1988b; Wolfson, 1984). I therefore expected a significant difference in the preferred mode of giving compliments. My initial hypothesis was that female interlocutors might prefer more explicit modes in giving compliments. The statistical interpretation was based on the null hypothesis that no gender difference exists for this behavior. The tentative conjecture was that female participants would have higher scores than male participants. However, the results were the opposite. The averaged mode score for males was 5.14 and the female score was 4.97. This indicates that male students reported that they would be more explicit in giving compliments. However, a statistically significant difference between male and female respondents in selecting the mode does not exist, as Table 1 below shows.

Table 1: An analysis of variance for the total scores of explicitness in a one-way mode.
Sum of Squares Df Mean Square F Sig.
Between Groups 25.840 1 25.840 2.252 .134
Within Groups 44037.122 3838 11.474
Total 44062.962 3839

As Wolfson (1988) and Holmes (1994) point out, topical focus may function as an important variable. For instance, compliments on appearance are given dominantly by female participants. Some of the individual items in the survey described in this paper showed significant differences between males and females. Four items will be described.
The first one is T7 x P3, which produced a significant alpha of .046 (F = 4.140). T7 involved a discussion of musical talent and P3 was a male acquaintance. As Table 2 shows, male students reported using more explicit modes for giving compliments about this topic than females The hypothesis that female speakers prefer more explicit modes is refuted for this cell.

Table 2: Musical instrument x Male acquaintance.
Gender Mean N Std. Deviation
Female 5.07 30 3.383
Male 6.73 30 2.947
Total 5.90 60 3.256

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A second statistically significant cell was T9 x P2, which produced an alpha of .006 (F = 8.316). T9 involved a discussion of hairstyles in which P2 was the mother. As Table 3 shows, this items supports the hypothesis that the female speakers use a more explicit mode of giving compliments. The data suggests that female respondents are more likely to give explicit compliments about hairstyles to their mothers. This particular topic is about appearance, which some research suggests females frequently proffer and receive compliments about (e.g., Wolfson, 1988; Holmes, 1994; Miles, 1996)

Table 3: Hairstyle x mothers.
Gender Mean N Std. Deviation
Female 7.47 30 2.145
Male 5.33 30 3.437
Total 6.40 60 3.038

A third case involved T14 x P2, which produced a significant alpha of .0019 (F = 5.8). T14 was about ceramic preferences and P2 was the mother. As Table 4 indicates, female respondents are more likely to proffer explicit compliments about this topic than males. This item also refutes the null hypothesis that males and females use the same degree of explicitness in proffering compliments.

Table 4: Ceramic preference x Mothers.
Gender Mean N Std. Deviation
Female 6.40 30 2.978
Male 4.37 30 3.538
Total 5.38 60 3.400

The last item involved T14 x P4, which produced a significant alpha of .035 (F = 4.658). T14 was about ceramic preferences and P4 was a female acquaintance. As Table 5 indicates, female participants reported that they would proffer more explicit compliments about this topic to female acquaintances. This item also refutes the null hypothesis.

Table 5: Ceramic preference x Female acquaintance.
Gender Mean N Std. Deviation
Female 6.17 30 3.041
Male 4.37 30 3.409
Total 5.27 60 3.329

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Among the four items which showed significant gender differences, three involved female communicative partners. The relationship between genders of communicative partners and preferred modes is shown in Fig. 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Comparison of mode among four partners

Partners 1 and 2 were father and mother and mothers were more likely to receive explicit compliments from their children than fathers were. The averaged scores for fathers and mothers were 4.56 and 5.06 respectively. Female acquaintances also received more explicit compliments than male acquaintances for the four items mentioned earlier. The averaged scores for male and female acquaintances respectively were 5.16 and 5.41. Therefore, even though there is no significant difference in gender when proffering compliments, there is some in terms of receiving compliments. In other words, it is plausible that the participants proffer more explicit compliments towards females than males. Another observation concerns social distance. According to the politeness theory developed by Brown and Levinson (1983), distance is one of the three factors in analyzing a politeness system for the interpersonal relationship. On the other hand, Wolfson (1988) clarifies the mechanism of interrelations, using the framework of bulge theory, which explains the most frequent exchanges of compliments are found between moderately close people. Very close people like family members do not exchange compliment as frequently, nor do those of slight acquaintance. In their data, parents received compliments less than moderate acquaintances. Bulge theory seems to explain this politeness behavior well.
Figure 2 illustrates this more precisely. For instance, fathers are most likely to receive Mode 1 responses, which are no verbal compliments. Female acquaintances, on the other hand, are most likely to receive Mode 9 responses, which are obvious compliments. However, Mode 2 responses which are the expression of admiration to a mutual friend or another person implies a different feature. Male communicative partners and acquaintances receive this mode more frequently. This means that they are more likely to express compliments about male communicative partners than females, even though they are hesitant to proffer compliments face-to-face. The distance also justifies the frequency of this mode, that is, they express their compliments more frequently to acquaintances, who are considered less intimate than their parents.
In the Japanese context, we are less likely to express compliments about our parents to other people because Japanese self-concept and family-concept are more or less interdependent. Many Japanese consider their family members as parts of their own existence (Markus and Kitayama, 1991). Expressing admiration about ones parents may violate the Japanese more prohibiting self-praise (Leech, 1984). This may also be true in western contexts. Pomeranz (1978) has analyzed compliment responses based on various constraints and found that self-praise is avoided in verbal exchanges. Japanese and westerners may differ in the ways that they regard family members – most westerners conceptualize them as being either independent of the self, whereas most Japanese perceive them in terms of an interdependence of the self.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Scores in Mode x Partners.

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Concluding Remarks

". . . As women become stronger, the need for flattery may be decreasing."

The results this study forced me to accept the null hypothesis that males and females from the same culture are equally explicit in giving compliments. Many studies on gender and compliments have evinced this tendency. In fact, Holmes includes this feature in her summary of several relevant studies (1988, 1995). One important variable may have been neglected from this study is age. For example, it is possible that college-aged men in general offer more explicit compliments to female acquaintances in order to produce a favorable impression. Future research should seek to ascertain the extent that age is a decisive factor in determining compliment strategies.
Another possible variable which should be explored in future research is educational background. Whether or not those with extensive formal education use different compliment strategies from those with less education is worth exploring.
Moreover, contexts might also have a big role in determining complement behaviors. At the places of entertainment spots such as a host clubs or cabarets, customers are supposed to get lots of compliments. The speech act of compliments is regarded as phatic communion and functions as solidarity in many cases, though it can be a face-threatening act depending on the situation.
There is a common phrase in Japanese that both women and socks became stronger after the World War II. In addition, based on the reports via mass media, female youngsters in Japan these days seem to enjoy more power than their male counterparts.
Before World War II in Japan, women did not even have the right to vote and it appears that women often had to exercise explicit compliments or flatter males in order to get sufficient attention to survive.
As women become stronger, the need for flattery may be decreasing. In a recent TV dramas such as Fuji Television's Shiroi Kyotou [White huge tower], people of high status seem to enjoy being flattered extensively. Though TV dramas are somewhat artificial and contain a degree of exaggerated melodrama, to some degree they also mirror social realities. If television is in any way a barometer of social trends, then it would appear that many young men in Japan nowadays are better at verbal communication than they were a generation or two ago.
On the contrary, women are more likely to receive compliments, which confirms the results of previous studies (Bolton, 1994; Han, 1992; Herbert, 1990; Holmes, 1988a, 1988b, 1995; Johnson et. al., 1992; Maruyama, 1996; Miles, 1996). Because this study has focused on the way of proffering compliments, the way of responding them have not been explored. The frequency of receiving compliments, as a matter of fact, is a side issue in this study.


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2003 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

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