A Contrastive Analysis of Compliments in American English and Vietnamese

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When a student gets a high score, his teacher usually says: “Good job!”. When a child automatically cleans up the room after playing, her parents are likely to say: “You are very good”. When you go to school wearing a new shirt, you probably hear from your friends: “That shirt looks nice on you”. Those utterances are called compliments which are used to show that someone likes someone else’s appearance, belongings, or work etc. Due to different cultural background and social values, English and Vietnamese native speakers have different norms of complimenting as well as responding to compliments. In this essay, I will discuss the notion of compliment made in American English and Vietnamese in terms of topics, formulas, and responses. First thing first, let have a look at the definition.

Definition of compliment
Cambridge dictionary defines a compliment as “a remark that expresses approval, admiration or respect”. In linguistics, Holmes (1986, p.446) wrote “A compliment is a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, for some ‘good’ (possession, characteristic, skill, etc.), which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer.” So, through compliments, people can build up solidarity by providing positive evaluation, appreciation for good deeds, praise for achievement, or worsen relationship by intentionally or unintentionally abusing compliments, which make the complimenters somewhat too flattering. Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” No matter what language is used, a good compliment helps to express speakers’ good will towards the hearers. We may say complimenting is an art and complimenters are artists who should know what can be the subject for a compliment. Topics for compliment

Previous researchers have found out that some common topics that people worldwide would like to comment on include appearance / possession, and ability / accomplishment. Appearance and possession
Both English and Vietnamese speakers tend to start a friendly conversation by giving compliments on how the other looks, especially when that person has something different such as a new haircut. Belongings such as cars, dresses, bags, or houses, etc. are also a suitable subject for compliment. Example:

Gee. You really look good today. (Bruder & Tillitt, 1985, p.68) That dress looks good on you.
What a lovely home you have! (Bruder & Tillitt, 1985, p.67)
Hey. I really like your new car (Bruder & Tillitt, 1985, p.68) What a cute baby! (Bruder & Tillitt, 1985, p.68)
Vietnamese also give compliments similarly. Below are some Vietnamese equivalents to the above examples Example:
a’) Hôm nay nhìn tươi tắn quá nha!
b’) Áo mới đẹp đó !
c’) Nhà bạn rất đẹp!
d’) Xe mới hả? Đã nha!
e’) Con chị nhìn thấy ghét quá!
However, compliments on appearance of babies or small children should be treated with care in Vietnam. Traditionally, Vietnamese people, especially the elderly, regard compliments using positive adjectives on a good quality of a young child may bring bad luck to him/her. So, when American can comfortably say “Oh, your baby is so cute”, Vietnamese commonly say “Con chị nhìn thấy ghét quá” (literally means Your baby is not cute at all) or typically of Northerners, “Nói trộm vía cháu, độ này nó mập lắm” (means My child has gained a lot of weight). Ability and accomplishment

While compliments on appearance and possession can be given almost to everyone with little attention to their age or social position, those on ability and accomplishment have to be used more strictly. In both American and Vietnamese culture, it is usually the older and higher in rank that can evaluate and comment on the performance of the younger and lower position. Possible complimenters are employers, teachers, parents, or friends. In this case, these positive remarks act as an encouragement, a praise, or appreciation to the complimentees’...
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