A contrastive study of compliment responses among Persians and Australians: The effects of exposure to a new speech community


The University of Sydney, Australia


In  this  paper,  the  authors  investigate  whether  Persians  who  have  been  exposed  to  Australian
culture are still affected by their cultural norms—in particular by the politeness system taarof—in
responding to compliments in an intercultural interaction.  Compliment responses  were elicited—
through  a  Discourse  Completion  Task—from  thirty  participants  (five  males  and  five  females  in
each  of  three  groups):  Persians  in  Iran,  Persians  in  Australia,  and  Anglo-Australians.  These
responses  were  categorised  according  to  Herbert's  (1986)  taxonomy  and  the  results  show  that
although  there  are  similarities  in  the  choice  of  compliment  response  types  by  Australians  and
Persians  living  in  Australia,  there  are  still  some  differences.  This  paper  aims  to  contribute  to
knowledge of potential areas for miscommunications in intercultural interactions, and also to find
ways to improve language teaching and learning.


Main Subjects

Below  is  a  made  up  example  of  the  type  of
awkward  situation  that  can  happen  when
Persians interact with non-Persians:
A  (non-Persian):  What  a  nice
B  (Persian):    Oh,  Thank  you.  It
isn't  worthy  in  front  of  someone
as great as you. For you! Take it
A: Really?! Oh, um…thanks. I
love it.  
Persians  commonly  make  formulaic  offers
such as these, but they can be misunderstood
as  real  offers  and  be  accepted  by  people
from  other  cultures.  The  English  speaker
might also feel awkward for being offered a

gift  for  no  reason  and  feeling  obliged  to
accept to be polite.  
This  is  an  example  of  the  use  of  a  culture-specific  compliment  response  in  another
culture–something  often  experienced  by
Persians,  or  anyone  in  a  cross-cultural
situation–that  can  lead  to  an  unsuccessful
communication  experience.  The  Persian
speaker has transferred her/his L1 pragmatic
conventions  in  responding  to  the
compliment  given  by  a  native  English
speaker,  and  the  English  speaker  has
responded  in  the  way  appropriate  to  their
cultural  background,  both  being  unaware  of
each other’s cultural norms and conventions.  
Communicative  interactions  are  highly
influenced  by  cultural  values.  As  observed
by  Samovar,  Porter,  and  McDaniel  (2010),
looking at cultural values is important in all
human  interaction,  but  it  is  even  more
crucial in intercultural communication. In an
intercultural  communicative  exchange,
people  of  different  ethnic,  cultural  and
linguistic  backgrounds  usually  do  not  have
sufficient  linguistic  and  socio-cultural
knowledge  of  the  language  of  their
interlocutor,  and  this  may  lead  to  conflicts,
uncomfortable  interactions  and/or
The  first  author,  Motaghi-Tabari,  has  been
residing  in  Australia  for  several  years,  but
originally  comes  from  Iran,  where
complimenting  is  a  common  speech  act  in
people’s daily interactions. She has observed
that  Australians  seem  not  to  be  as
comfortable  with  compliments.  The  second
author, an Anglo-Australian, feels that it can
be  due  to  uncertainty  over  how  to  react  to
compliments. Although taught to say “thank
you”, since rejecting the compliment might
be seen as discourteous, this conflicts with a
desire not to seem immodest. Herbert (1986)
and  Pomerantz  (1978)  also  observed  this
Persians  are  accustomed  to  respond
formulaically to compliments, and are taught
such behaviour when very young, and so do
not  feel  this  discomfort.  A  parent  will,  for
example,  exhort  a  child  who  is  not
responding  to  respond  and  will  at  times  say
the  words  with  the  intonation  of  the  child,
for example “say ‘thank you Auntie! Your
eyes see everything as beautiful!’”
The  patterns  of  giving  and  receiving
compliments—like  any  speech  act—vary
among  different  languages  and  cultures.
Lack  of  awareness  of  them  can  cause
problematic  intercultural  communication,
even  for  advanced  learners  of  a  second
language.  Despite  this,  second  or  foreign
language  classes  usually  focus  on
differences  at  the  lexical  or  morpho-syntactic  level  (A.  Eslami-Rasekh  &
Mardani,  2010;  Z.  Eslami-Rasekh,  2005;
Rose  &  Kasper,  2001),  placing  much  less
focus  on  pragmatic  competencies.  This  is
despite the fact that knowledge of pragmatic
and  sociolinguistic  rules  of  a  language  is
equally  or  more  important  for  successful
intercultural  communication,  as  these
pragmatic  rules  are  closely  tied  to  cultural
conceptualisations  (Sharifian,  2001,  2003,
2004,  2005,  2008a,  2008b,  2009a  2009b,
2011; Sharifian & Palmer, 2007).  
In  this  paper,  we  discuss  the  culturally
specific  Persian  politeness  system  and
investigate whether Persians who have been
exposed  to  Australian  culture  for  a  certain
amount  of  time  are  still  affected  by  their
cultural norms in responding to compliments
in  an  intercultural  interaction.  By  exploring
similarities and differences between Persians

in Iran and Persians in Australia, and Anglo-Australians,  we  can  recognise  the  potential
areas for miscommunications in intercultural
interactions,  and  also  find  ways  to  improve
second language teaching and learning. This
type  of  research  contributes  to  the  area  of
pragmatics  and  to  finding  ways  to  help  L2
learners  be  aware  of  the  occurrence  of
misunderstanding,  misjudgement  and  even
offence  in  intercultural  communication  and
have  successful  communication  with  the  L2
native  speaking  community  in  a  shorter
Background of the study
Cultural schemas and miscommunication
Cultural  schemas  are  rooted  in  our  past
interactions.  Our  social  and  linguistic
interactions  are  strongly  guided  by  the
communicative  interactions  we  have  as
children,  and  the  cultural  frameworks  we
learn  (Agar,  1994;  Goffman,  1986).  These
frameworks act as  filters and affect the way
people  perceive,  analyse  and  interpret
communicative  intentions.  Sharifian  (2005,
2011)  discusses  how  these  cultural  schemas
are  associated  with  the  pragmatic  aspect  of
language.  He  claims that when interlocutors
do  not  share  the  same  cultural  schemas,
miscommunication  is  likely  to  take  place,
even  if  their  morpho-syntactic  skills  are
When  exposed  to  a  new  culture,  people
encounter  unfamiliar  social  rules  and
interpersonal  communicative  norms.  L2
learners,  unaware  of  the  sociolinguistic
norms of the target language, tend to transfer
their  L1  sociolinguistic  patterns  when
interacting with native speakers of the target
language,  and  this  leads  to
miscommunications  and  social  interaction
breakdowns  (Agar,  1994;  Sharifian,  2005,
2011).  Chick  defines  sociolinguistic  or
pragmatic transfer as “the use of the rules of
speaking of one’s own cultural group  when
interacting with members of another group”
(1996, p. 332).  Because the speakers behave
in  the  ways  natural  to  their  own  cultures,
which may be different in the culture of their
interlocutor,  there  is  the  potential  for
conflict  (Carroll,  1988).  In  this  situation,
individuals  start  realising  the  linguistic
differences,  and  pondering  their  own  social
norms  which  used  to  be  taken  for  granted;
they  may  then  discover  that  these  norms
seem  to  be  inadequate  for  smooth
communication  in  the  new  society  (Agar,
This  process  does  not  happen  overnight.  As
Cohen  states,  “acquisition  of  native-like
production  by  non-natives  speakers  may
take  many  years  because  the  socio-cultural
strategies  and  the  sociolinguistic  forms  are
not  always  ‘picked  up’  easily”  (1996,  p.
409). Indeed, Triandis proposes a four-stage
process  for  this  process  of  acculturation
(2000, p. 149):  
Unconscious Incompetence:
Interlocutors  are  not  aware  of  any
miscommunication as they assume that they
have  relatively  similar  communicative
Conscious Incompetence:
Interlocutors  realise  there  has  been  a
miscommunication, but are not aware of the

Conscious Competence:  
Interlocutors  are  aware  of  the  cultural
differences  that  cause  miscommunication
and  attempt  to  adjust  their  language
Unconscious Competence:
Interlocutors adopt and take the new cultural
concepts for granted and so they use the new
ways of communication effortlessly.  
Until  new  communicative  patterns  are
acquired,  intercultural  miscommunications
may occur, leading to discomfort and people
making  wrong  assumptions  about  their
interlocutors.  Thus,  it  is  important  to
identify  these  problematic  areas  (Carroll,
1988). The choice of language for successful
communication  across  cultures  necessitates
both  linguistic  and  pragmatic  knowledge  of
the target language.  
Politeness – the case of Persians
Whereas  Brown  and  Levinson  (1987)
discuss  the  universality  of  politeness,  many
scholars  acknowledge  the  possibility  of
cross-cultural  variability  (Fraser,  1990;
Leech, 1983; Meier, 1995a; Sifianou, 1992).
Sifianou asserts, “in general, when we talk
about  politeness,  what  we  have  in  mind  is
relative  politeness,  based  on  what  we  think
is  appropriate  behaviour  in  particular
situations. These norms, however, vary from
culture to culture” (1999,  p.  29).  Persian
politeness is a case in point.  
The  Persian  politeness  system  is  intimately
tied to a Persian culture-specific behavioural
phenomenon  called  taarof.  Taarof
encompasses  a  wide  range  of  inescapable
rituals  in  Persians’  interactions.
“Inescapable” in that any violation from the
maxims  defined  within  the  framework  of
taarof  would  be  considered  discourteous,
rude, impolite, disgraceful and disrespectful.
Tyler,  Taylor,  Woolstenhulme,  and  Wilkins
(1978  cited  in  Assadi,  1980)  claim  that
without  using  taarof  in  Iran  for  social  and
business  interactions,  communication  seems
blunt  and  uncivil  to  Iranians.  Many  Persian
and  non-Persian  scholars  have  shown
interest  in  scrutinising  this  complex
politeness phenomena (Crystal, 1987; Davis,
2008;  Hillmann,  1981;  Holmes  &  Brown,
1987;  Moosavi,  1986;  Sharifian,  2005,
2008b,  2011;  Sharifian  &  Palmer,  2007;
Wierzbicka, 1985; Wolfson, 1981).  Beeman
(1986)  defines  taarof  as  the  language  of
politeness and praise in  Persian culture, and
he claims that the notion of taarof goes back
to Persians’ religion in the pre-Islamic  era–
Zoroastrian–of  which  one  of  the  basic
principles is “kind words”. Persian literature
has  many  texts  urging  people  to  care  about
others more than one’s self and not to speak
about  one’s  achievements  (Ahmadi  &
Ahamdi,  1998  cited  in  Sharifian,  2009).
Underlying  this  ritual  are  some  Persian
culture-specific  politeness  features  such  as
adab  (good  manners)
,  ehteram  (courtesy,
respect),  shaxsiat  (character–positive  face),
tavazo  (modesty,  humility),  aberu  (roughly
synonymous  with  credit  or  prestige–
implying  the  concept  of  face  and  how
people  judge  a  person),  and  shekasteh-nafsi
(literally  breaking  self,  meaning  putting
oneself down).  
Sharifian (2005, 2008b, 2009a, 2009b, 2011;
2007)  has  elaborated  extensively  on  the
concept  of  taarof  and  the  cultural  schemas
shekasteh-nafsi  and  aberu.  These  politeness
 The English glosses are not exact translations, but
the first author’s best attempts at matching the
Persian concepts with a similar term in English.  

features  underlie  much  communicative
behaviour  of  Persians,  for  example,  the
speech  act  of  responding  to  compliments.
The accompanying schemas for compliment
responses  guide  Persians  as  to  whether  they
should  return  back  the  goodwill  of  the
compliment  giver,  or  deflect  the
complimentary  force  and  reassign  it  to  a
third party/object like family members, God
or  luck.  In  this  way,  Persians  are  urged  to
“make use of any compliments or praise that
they  receive  to  enhance  the  aberu  of  their
interlocutors, their family, or whoever might
have  directly  or  indirectly  contributed  to  a
success  or  achievement”  (Sharifian  &
Palmer,  2007,  p.  42).  Based  on  the  cultural
schema  of  shekasteh-nafsi,  there  are  many
formulaic  expressions  used  by  Persian
speakers to show  a high  degree of modesty.
An  example  of  this  kind  as  presented  by
Sharifian  is  the  construction  ghabel  nistim,
which means, “we are not worth  it” (2007,
p.  44).  He  explains,  however,  that  Persians
may  not  necessarily  use  the  literal
translation  in  an  intercultural
communication, but put themselves down by
using other expressions like “I don’t think
my food is cooked well”.    
Compliments and compliment responses
Holmes defines a compliment as “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”  (1988,  p.  486).
Compliments are, by nature, speech acts that
are  usually  welcomed.  As  such  they  are
regarded  by  many  scholars  as  social
lubricants  to  maintain  solidarity  (Holmes,
1988;  Wolfson,  1981).  However,
compliments  can  negatively  affect  social
interactions.  Many  factors  such  as  the
complimenter’s  intention,  complimentee’s
perception and cultural norms will influence
whether  the  compliments  are  perceived  as  a
face-threatening  acts  or  a  face-saving
behaviour (Farghal & Haggan, 2006).  
Golato  argues,  “it  is  the  position  of  a
compliment  turn  within  the  larger
interactional  and  sequential  context  that
determines its function” (2005, p. 203). She
maintains  that  compliments  can  be  used  to
perform actions other than complimenting—
such  as  “reproaching”,  “criticizing”  and
“interrupting—which cannot be described as
appealing to an interlocutor’s positive face.
For example, flattery when used insincerely:
it  is  often  paid  by  the  speaker  for  a  specific
purpose  and  might  be  positively  valued
neither  by  the  speaker  nor  by  the  hearer.
Compliments may also be used sarcastically
to  make  the  hearer  feel  uncomfortable.  For
example,  a  man  might  comment
sarcastically  on  a  newly  bought  car  of  a
friend  who  owes  money  to  him,  saying
‘Gee, you have a nice new car there!’
Further,  compliments  can  sometimes  be
embarrassing due to cultural differences. As
Tang  and  Zhang  exemplify,  “while  ‘you
look lovely today’ may make an English
woman’s day, it may well make a Chinese
woman  uncomfortable  and  even  somewhat
resentful”  (2009,  p.  326).  Further  issues
affecting  whether  a  compliment  might  be
seen  as  face-threatening  are  the  concepts  of
envy or “eyeing” (Brown & Levinson, 1987;
Holmes,  1988).  That  is,  in  some  cultures  a
compliment  may  be  an  expression  of  envy
by the complimenter.    
Yu  also  maintains  that  compliments  can  be
“an act of judgement”, and so, people may
feel “uneasy, defensive, or even cynical with

regard to the  compliments they  receive, and
thus  may  have  trouble  responding  to  such
compliments appropriately” (2003, p. 1687).  
For  all  of  these  reasons,  compliments  are  a
multi-faceted  speech  act  with  various  types
and features, and the acts can be regarded as
either  face-saving  behaviour  or  face-threatening (Brown & Levinson, 1987).  
After a compliment speech act, the next turn
(usually)  responds  to  that  compliment  in
some  way  and  thus  is  called  a  compliment
response.  It  is  this  response  that  may  reveal
the  main  function  of  the  compliment  and  it
is  as  important  as  the  compliment  speech
act,  since  a  proper  response  plays  a  strong
role  in  maintaining  solidarity,  and  an
inappropriate  response  can  lead  to  a
communication breakdown (Yu, 2003).  
The  compliment  responding  behaviour  may
also  differ  depending  on  the  object  being
complimented.  Researchers  have  narrowed
down  compliment  topics  to  a  few  main
categories.  For  example,  Wolfson  (1981),
Holmes (1988), Manes (1983) and Knapp et
al.  (1984)—who  studied  varieties  of
English—found  that  compliment  types
mostly fell into four categories: appearance,
possessions,  ability,  and  performance.  In  a
study  of  English  and  Chinese  compliments,
Yu  suggested  a  category  of  “other”  for
examples  which  did  not  fit  well  into  the
other  four  categories:  such  as
complimenting a person on who they are, as
in “I’d sure hate to lose you” (2005, p. 107).  
Pomerantz (1978) was the first researcher to
conduct  an  extensive  study  on  compliment
responses  from  a  pragmatic  perspective.  In
her  study  of  compliment  responding
behaviours  of  Americans,  she  proposed  that
a recipient of  a compliment faces a difficult
situation in responding to the compliment: to
accept  the  compliment  while  avoiding  self-praise.  In  order  to  cope  with  this  tight  spot,
compliment  recipients  use  different
strategies  to  alleviate  the  situation:
acceptance;  rejection;  and  self-praise
avoidance  (Nelson,  Al-Batal,  &  Echols,
1996).  Building  on  Pomerantz’s  studies,
Herbert  (1986)  proposed  a  more  detailed
categorisation  of  compliment  responses.  He
studied  1062  compliment  responses
collected  from  American  students  of  the
State  University  of  New  York  over  three
years,  and  suggested  that  compliment
responses  fall  into  twelve  types,  as  detailed
in Table1 (Herbert, 1986, p. 79).

Since  the  first  studies,  many  researchers
have  conducted  studies  on  compliment
responses  from  a  cross-cultural  perspective
and  examined  how  different  communities
use  different  strategies  in  responding  to
compliments.  Table  2  lists  some  of  the
major  scholars  and  the  languages  they
focussed on.

The current study
The  current  study  investigates  the
compliment-responding  behaviours  of
Persians  in  Australia  in  their  interactions
with  Australians  and  examines  how
exposure  to  Australian  culture  affects
Persians’  choice  of  compliment  response
strategies.  Specifically,  we  are  interested  in
finding answers to the following questions:
1)  Do  the  English  compliment
responses  of  Persians
residing  in  Iran  and  Persians
residing in Australia differ? If
so, how?
2)  Do  the  English  compliment
responses  of  Persians
residing  in  Australia  and
monolingual  Anglo-Australians  differ?  If  so,
3)  What  does  this  level  of
difference  have  to  say  about
the  effect  of  exposure  to  a
culture  on  pragmatic
In  this  study,  we  build  on  the  methodology
used in Sharifian’s 2005 study, though with
some  modifications.  Firstly,  we  analyse  the
effect  of  exposure  to  the  Australian
community  by  analysing  the  compliment
responses of Persian speakers in Australia as
well as in Iran; and secondly, we control for
an equal amount of compliment types for the
data  elicitation  tool.  Following  Wolfson
(1981),  Holmes  (1988),  Manes  (1983)  and
Yu  (2005),  we  used  five  types  or  topics  of
compliments: appearance, skill/ability/talent,

ings,  and  personality  (which  we  thought
might  inspire  different  compliment
responses). We first discuss the participants,
then the elicitation tool used, and finally the
method of analysis.  
Three parallel data sets need to be compared
for  this  type  of  study:  the  learners'  L1  data;
the  same  learners'  inter-language  data;  and
the  data  by  native  speakers  of  the  target
language (Kasper, 1992). Thus, we gathered
data from the following groups:  
  Persians  in  Iran  speaking  in
  Persians  living  in  Australia  as
they  would  interact  with
Australians in English
  Anglo-Australians  in
For  the  Persians’  L1  data  we  relied  on
previous  studies  in  the  literature  as  well  as
the first author’s native speaker knowledge.
In  total,  there  were  thirty  adult
participants—five males and five females in
each  of  the  three  groups.  All  of  the
participants  had  at  least  a  high  school
diploma  or  equivalent  and  were  more  than
thirty years-of-age. The first group consisted
of ten Persians living in Iran with little or no
experience of living in any English speaking
country,  but  with  sufficient  English
knowledge  to  fill  in  the  questionnaire.
Considering  the  variation  of  cultural
behaviours  among  Persians  based  on
geography,  all  the  participants  in  Iran  were
selected  from  Tehran  or  those  who  have
lived  in  Tehran  for  over  ten  years.  The
second  group–the  main  focus  of  this
research–consisted  of  ten  Persians  who  had
been  living  in  Australia  for  at  least  five  to
ten  years,  and  who  had  at  least  a  medium
level of interactions with Australians; that is,
they  either  worked  or  socialised  with
Australians,  or  did  both.  Finally  we  had  a
control group of ten Anglo-Australians, who
were all born in Australia. Table 3 shows the
spread of participants in this study.

Data  elicitation:  a  discourse  completion
Data  was  collected  via  a  Discourse
Completion  Task  (DCT)  designed  and  used
by  Sharifian,  though  with  some
modifications.  Sharifian’s  methods  were
replicated  in  part  to  enhance  the  ease  of
comparison  of  our  data  set  with  his,  though
also  because  of  the  advantages  of  DCTs.
Namely,  a  DCT  allows  researchers  to
control variables, narrow down the scope of
the research and obtain quantitative data in a
short time frame. Like all research methods,
there  are  weaknesses  to  DCTs—for
example,  DCT  responses  do  not  always
correspond  to  natural  data  (Golato,  2003)—
however,  given  the  constraints  of  this
project,  a  DCT  was  the  most  effective  tool
for data collection.  
The DCT we used was comprised of fifteen
scenarios  involving  the  compliment  speech
act.  These  scenarios  are  listed  in  Appendix.
We  controlled  for  topics  by  ensuring  there
were  3  compliments  to  be  responded  to  for

each  of  the  five  compliment  types  (Yu,
  appearance
  skill/ability/talent  
  performance/achievement  
  possession/belongings
  personality
In order to have an even spread of questions
from  each  topic  area,  two  questions  were
removed from Sharifian’s DCT and seven
were  added.  Table  4  below  shows  the
modifications made to his questionnaire.

In addition, we added introductory questions
to  ascertain  some  important  social  and
linguistic  information  about  each
participant:  gender;  length  of  stay  in
Australia;  and  level  of  contact  with
Data analysis
Responses  to  each  question  from  each
participant  were  coded  for  the  following
 Category  of  response,  using
Herbert’s taxonomy (1986).  When
participants  responded  with  more
than  one  type  of  compliment
response, we scored each type they
 Types  of  Compliments  being
responded  to  (of  the  five
 Gender of speaker
Thus,  the  dependent  variable  was  category
of  compliment  response,  using  Herbert’s
taxonomy  (1986).  The  main  independent
variables were:  
  Compliment  type  (appearance,
skill,  performance,  possession,
  Nationality:  Persians  in  Iran,
Persians in Australia, and Anglo-Australians.
  A  secondary  independent
variable  was  Gender  (male,
Results and Discussion
In  this  section,  the  findings  from  the  three
sets of data are analysed based on Herbert’s
taxonomy  (Herbert,  1986).  We  will  first

discuss  the  results  from  a  macro-perspective:  in  terms  of  agreement  versus
non-agreement  of  responses  across  all
compliment  types;  and  then  we  analyse  the
types  of  agreement  used.  Next,  we  look  at
the  results  in  more  detail  according  to  type
of  compliment  being  responded  to.  Finally,
we look at how the participants responded to
the entire compliment topics in more detail.  
Overall,  we  had  670  compliment  responses;
removing  4  problematic  answers  (that  were
ambiguous  for  coding)  we  were  left  with
666  compliment  responses  across  all
participants.  Thus,  the  sample  size  for  this
project  was  small.  Statistical  significance
was not tested for, so as such we offer only
general comments on the data.  
Macro  analysis  of  all  compliment
From  a  macro-pattern  perspective,  we  can
see  that  all  three  groups  strongly  favour
agreement  strategies  when  responding  to

In  Figure  1  we  see  what  percentage  of
responses  were  agreement,  disagreement  or
other  by  each  group  of  participants,  as  a
proportion  of  all  responses  from  that  group.
We  can  see  that  both  groups  residing  in
Australia were more likely to use agreement
than  the  Persians  in  Iran.  Although  the
Persians in Australia responded with slightly
more agreement than the Anglo-Australians,
this is likely due to small sample size. These
findings  thus  give  weight  to  Sharifian’s
claim  that  Persians  have  a  strong  tendency
to  deny  or  downplay  a  compliment  in  line
with  the  cultural  schema  of  shekasteh-nafsi.
Additionally,  the  difference  between
Persians  in  Australia  and  Persians  in  Iran
gives weight to the claim that cultural norms
are negotiated  and re-negotiated across time
and space (Sharifian, 2008b).  
When analysing those responses that were in
the  macro  category  of  agreement,  we  see
that  the  three  groups  differed  in  the
strategies  for  agreement  used.  Between  70-75%  of  all  agreement  responses  were
categorised  as  acceptance  for  all  three
groups.  Further,  when  using  agreement
methods  apart  from  acceptance,  all  three
groups  are  most  likely  to  transfer  the  credit
of  a  compliment.  Figure  2  illustrates,
however,  that  Persians  in  Iran  do  this  more
often  than  either  group  living  in  Australia.
Additionally, both groups living in Australia
responded  with  a  comment  history  more
frequently  than  the  Persians  in  Iran.  The
difference  between  the  two  groups  of
Persians  can  likely  be  attributed  to  two
reasons: the Persians’ assimilation into the
new communicative norms in Australia; and
their increased English language efficiency.  

Interestingly,  when  looking  at  the
compliment  responses  using  a  transfer
strategy,  the  two  groups  of  Persians  more
commonly returned the compliment force to
their  interlocutor,  whereas  the  Anglo-Australians more often re-assigned the credit
to  someone  not  present.  Although  only
speculation, this may be due to Australian’s
discomfort with compliments because of the
conflict  of  not  disagreeing  while
maintaining  modesty  (Herbert,  1986;
Pomerantz, 1978).  
We  now  consider  the  findings  with  respect
to  each  of  the  five  compliment  types,
presenting  both  quantitative  and  qualitative
Micro-analysis by compliment type
Responses for compliments on appearance
Approximately half of the respondents from
all  three  groups  responded  with  an
appreciation token to start their response for
compliments  on  appearance.  Of  responses
that were not appreciation tokens, there were
some  similarities  and  some  differences
between the groups. The findings are shown
in Figure 3.

Anglo-Australians  used  reassignment  in
response  to  appearance  compliments  more
frequently  than  either  of  the  other  two
groups.  Australian  females  in  particular  had
a  higher  tendency  to  use  reassigning
strategies  wherever  possible,  compared  to
Persian  females  in  both  groups.  Persians  in
Australia  more  often  used  questioning
responses, such as “really?” or “Am I?” In
the case of “new haircut” in which  a  third
party could be imagined by the participants,
this  difference  was  more  conspicuous.  For
this  scenario,  most  of  the  Anglo-Australian
females  tended  to  directly  reassign  the
compliment to the hairdresser by saying, for
example, “my  hairdresser  Ross  does  a  good
job”; however, the Persian women in Iran
and  in  Australia  usually  responded  with  a
question.  The  Anglo-Australian  and  Persian
males,  on  the  other  hand,  had  more  similar
patterns  of  distribution  for  reassignment,
questioning  and  comment  history as in “I
just got it done for 20$”.  
Humour  was  also  used—particularly  by
Anglo-Australian  males—as  a  means  to
implicitly  disagree  with  the  compliment
(disagreement  strategy)  and  mitigate  the
complimentary force, as in “I think you have

drunk  too  much  John!”  This  may  be
indicative  of  a  higher  degree  of  discomfort
with  appearance  compliments  in  Anglo-Australian  males'  compared  to  Persian
The  difference  in  responding  to  appearance
compliments  between  Persians  in  Australia
and  Anglo-Australians  supports  the  claim
that the acquisition of communicative norms
of  the  target  community  may  take  many
years  as  the  socio-cultural  and
sociolinguistic  norms  are  not  always  picked
up  easily  (Cohen,  1996).  Though  it  is
important  to  remember  that  the  sample  size
is  small;  in  addition  when  looking  at  each
type  of  compliment  being  responded  to,  we
are  dealing  with  only  a  fifth  of  all
compliment  responses  elicited.  These
observations are thus preliminary in nature.  
Responses  for  compliments  on  a  skill,
ability, or talent
For  compliments  of  skill,  ability  or  talent,
Australians  tended  to  reassign  the
complimentary force where possible, as they
did  for  compliments  of  appearance.  For
example,  in  responding  to  a  compliment  on
cooking,  many  Anglo-Australians  attributed
the  complimentary  force  to  the  recipe,  and
for  a  compliment  on  handwriting  to  their
mother.  Persians  in  Iran  used  more
disagreements  or  scale  downs  than  Persians
in  Australia.  This  also  can  be  attributed  to
shekasteh-nafsi  which  bans  people  from
speaking  about  one’s “I” and achievements
(Sharifian, 2005, 2008a). Persians who have
not  been  exposed  to  another  culture  are
likely  to  be  highly  affected  by  this  cultural
schema.  Most  Persians  in  Iran  will
insincerely  disagree  with  compliments  to
avoid  self-praise.  Anglo-Australians  also
tend  to  use  disagreement,  but  it  appears  to
happen  mostly  in  situations  where  they
genuinely  mean  to  disagree.  Persians  in
Australia,  on  the  other  hand,  seem  to  use
more  comment  acceptance  and  less
disagreement  strategies.  This  preference
could be a result of assimilation. However, it
seems  that  the  original  norms  of  the  target
community  are  sometimes  overshot.  Some
of  the  Persians  commented  on  their
questionnaire  that  they  attributed
disagreement to being very Persian and thus
avoided  it  to  sound  more  like  a  native
English speaker.  
Responses  for  compliments  on  performance
or achievement
Figure  4  shows  the  responses  used  by  all
three  groups  for  compliments  on
performance  or  achievement.  From  the  data
we  can  see  that  Anglo-Australians  and
Persians  in  Australia  used  slightly  more
comment  acceptances  compared  to  Persians
in Iran. Comment history is another strategy
used the most by Anglo-Australians and the
least  by  Persians  in  Iran.  This,  as  described
above,  is  likely  due  to  the  constraint  of
shekasteh-nafsi  as  well  (Sharifian,  2005,
2008a, 2011).

The  data  in  Figure  4  show  that  there  is  a
difference in using reassignment in response
to  performance  compliments  by  the  three
groups,  based  on  the  power  differential
between  the  complimenter  and  the
responder.  In  the  scenarios  based  on
performance  or  achievement,  the
compliments  were  given  by  a  teacher,  a
mother  and  a  friend.  Although  overall  the
results  look  similar,  when  looking  at  the
individual  scenarios,  we  see  that  the
Persians  in  Iran  did  not  use  comment
acceptance  or  reassignment  in  response  to
compliments on their achievements given by
a  teacher  or  their  mother;  however,  they
would  when  responding  to  a  friend.  This
could  reflect  the  influence  of  social  factors,
such as position, power and solidarity on the
choice of compliment responding strategies.
Anglo-Australians,  on  the  other  hand,
seemed much more comfortable in accepting
the  performance  compliment  given  by  a
 As  for  the  Persians  in  Australia,  although
they  showed  more  inclination  to  accept  the
compliments  given  by  a  teacher  or  their
mother  compared  to  Persians  in  Iran,  they
nevertheless  more  often  accept  the
compliment  from  a  friend  on  their
achievements  rather  than  a  teacher  or
These  differences  illustrate  the  way  that
cultural  conceptualisations  of  social
relations  manifest  themselves  in  language
choices.  Further  research  on  a  larger  pool
and  taking  into  account  social  relations
would illuminate this issue further.  
Responses  for  compliments  about
possessions or belongings
Persians  in  Iran  often  offer  the  physical
object  of  a  compliment  to  a  complimenter.
This is classified as “other interpretations–
Request” by Herbert (1986). Herbert (1986)
asserts  that  the  compliment  recipients  use
this type of response when they perceive the
complimenter’s comment as a request and
not a compliment. We maintain that Persians
offer  the  object  of  compliment  not
necessarily  because  they  perceive  the
compliment  as  a  request,  but  due  to  a
Persian  culture-specific  politeness  system
called  taarof.  In  line  with  taarof,  Persians
use  a  formulaic  expression  ghabeli  nadareh
which means, “it does not have any value in
front of someone as nice as you, so you can
take/have it”. Interestingly, Persians in Iran
tended  to  transfer  this  formulaic  expression
into  their  English  responses,  whereas,
Persians  in  Australia  avoided  offering  the
object,  presumably  because  they  have
realised its culture-specificity.  
Persians  in  Iran  also  tried  to  transfer  the
Persian  formulaic  responses  into  their
English  responses  in  order  to  return  the
compliments.  For  example  they  used
formulaic expressions like “your eyes see it
as beautiful” (in the case of “a new car”) or
“[the] presence of friends makes it much
more beautiful for me” (in the case of a new
house).  Anglo-Australians,  on  the  other
hand,  tended  to  use  disagreement  and
scaling down  as their most common type of
response  to  compliments  about  possessions.
Examples of this type are:
Disagreement  to  “You  have  a
very smart child.”

Anglo-Australian:  I  am  not  sure
about  that,  but  she  has  some
other great strengths.  
Scale  Down  to  the  compliment
“You have a very nice car”.
Anglo-Australian:  Thank  you.
It’s leased!
All  three  groups  also  used  praise  upgrade.
However,  their  intention  for  using  it
appeared  to  differ.  Only  one  Persian  in  Iran
used praise upgrade, but it appeared to be in
a  humorous  way,  in  order  to  redress  the
force  of  the  compliment.  An  Anglo-Australian  and  a  Persian  in  Australia
genuinely  upgraded  the  force  of
compliments  given  to  their  car.  The
examples  below  can  imply  these  different
A: you have a very smart child!  
B: It’s in our genes! (haha)
A: you have a very nice car!
B:  we  should  go  for  a  drive  so
you  could  see  and  feel  the
performance. It is great!
Responses for compliments on personality
Both  Persian  groups—in  Australia  and  in
Iran—are  much  more  likely  than  Anglo-Australians  to  acknowledge  and  return
compliments  on  personality.  Anglo-Australians,  on  the  other  hand,  mostly  tend
to  evade  the  force  of  compliment  by
ignoring  the  main  compliment,  when
possible.  For  example,  in  reply  to  the
compliment, “what am I going to do without
you?!  I’ll  hate  not  having  you  around!
You’re such a good friend!” most of the
Australians  responded  only  to  the  first  part
“what  am  I  going  to  do  without  you?” as if
to  find  a  way  to  solve  this  problem  and  did
not acknowledge the main compliment “you
are  such  a  good  friend”. Some examples of
responses are:
- OK, I’ll email you and anyway,
I’ll be back soon.  
- I’ll be back. Call me while I’m
gone if you want to chat.  
- That’s sweet; I’ll miss you too!  
- Thank  you,  you  were  the  same
for  me,  you  are  such  a  good
friend too.  
Most Persians acknowledged and responded
the  main  compliment  by  an  appreciation
token and return and even with a heightened
return as in “I’ll miss you too; I’ll miss you
so  much”. This difference gives weight to
our  intuitions  that  Persians  are  more
accustomed  to  and  comfortable  with
compliment  speech  act  and  responding  to
compliments than Anglo-Australians.  
Micro-analysis by response category
In  order  to  have  a  better  idea  of  how  the
three groups differed, we carried out a more
in-depth  analysis  on  their  responses  to  all
Table  5  shows  that  overall  there  are  some
differences  between  the  groups.  Most  of
these  differences  seemed  to  occur  when
participants  were  disagreeing  with  the
compliment.  As  no  tests  of  statistical
significance  have  been  carried  out,  we
cannot  know  which  differences  are

significant.  However,  we  have  bolded  the
font  of  the  figures  that  have  a  difference  of
4% or more between the groups.  
For  example,  both  groups  in  Australia  gave
a  comment  history  just  under  7%  of  the
time, whereas the Persians in Iran did so just
under  2%  of  the  time.  In  addition,  4.7%  of
Anglo-Australians  didn’t  acknowledge  a
compliment,  whereas  this  occurred  in  only
2.4%  of  Persians  in  Iran,  and  0.9%  of
Persians in Australia. A plausible reason for
the  latter  difference  is  the  conflict  Anglo-Australians  feel  between  maintaining
modesty,  while  not  rejecting  a  compliment.
More  research  is  needed  in  this  area  to  test
this hypothesis.

According  to  the  figures  shown  in  Table  5,
all three groups tended to say “thank you” or
appreciation  token  of  this  kind  in  response
to  compliments  on  appearance,  ability,
performance, possession, and personality.  
Because  saying  an  appreciation  token  was
by  far  the  highest  response  type,  we
removed this from the data. Table 6 presents
the  participants’  most  preferred  response
type—as  a  proportion  of  all  of  their
remaining  responses  (after  removing  the
appreciation tokens from the data).

It  is  apparent  from  the  data  analysed  here
that  a  higher  exposure  to  the  target  culture
can  have  a  positive  effect  on  assimilation.
However,  as  discussed,  there  is  still  a
potential for miscommunication between the
Anglo-Australians  and  Persians–even  those
with  higher  levels  of  contact  with  Anglo-Australians.  
Returning  to  the  first  of  our  research
question,  the  compliment  responses  of
Persians  residing  in  Iran  and  those  in
Australia did differ; our results revealed that
Persians  in  Iran  are  more  likely  to  use  a
disagreement  strategy  than  those  in
Australia.  However,  both  groups  still
preferred agreement than any other strategy.
Within  agreement  strategy,  Persians  in
Australia  used  comment  acceptance  more
often  than  those  in  Iran,  while  Persians  in
Iran  more  often  returned  the  compliment  to
their  interlocutor  than  Persians  residing  in
Australia.  However,  there  were  ways  in
which the two groups of Persians performed
more similarly to each other than the Anglo-Australians: for example they disagreed with
a  question  more  often  than  Anglo-Australians.  The  results  also  revealed  that
while  Persians  in  Iran  tended  to  use  request
strategy–offering  the  object  of  compliment–
none of the Persians in Australia did so.
We  then  look  at  whether  Persians  in
Australia perform the same as, or differently
to,  monolingual  Anglo-Australians.  Again,
there  were  both  differences  and  similarities.
Patterns of agreement were more similar for
the  groups  residing  in  Australia  than  the
Persians  in  Iran,  commenting  on  the  history
of  the  complimented  object  frequently,  and
returning  a  compliment  less  often.  Both
groups  also  used  comment  history  and

comment acceptance to a greater degree and
disagreed  to  a  lesser  degree.  Some  of  the
differences  were  a  disinclination  to  simply
not acknowledge a compliment and a greater
use  of  questioning  as  a  response  to  a
So,  what  does  this  level  of  difference  have
to  say  about  the  effect  of  exposure  to  a
culture on pragmatic performance? The data
presented  here—while  only  from  a  small
sample—is  consistent  with  the  view  that
Persians  who  have  lived  in  Australia  for  a
considerable  period  of  time  and  had  some
contact with Australians begin to respond to
compliments similarly to Anglo-Australians,
despite  continuing  to  have  some  differences
in  their  frequency  of  compliment  response
type  choices. This suggests that exposure to
a new culture influences the pragmatic skills
of ESL learners which can in turn help with
assimilation;  however,  the  role  of  teachers
and  ESL  classes  in  teaching  also  could  be
vital, as even the Persians with high level of
contact with Australian natives, have shown
differences  in  using  some  compliment
response types. This can be indicative of the
fact  that  being  exposed  to  the  new
community  on  its  own  does  not  necessarily
help  the  non-native  speakers  acquire
pragmatics  of  the  target  language  (Bouton,
1994;  Rose  &  Kasper,  2001).  By  teaching
pragmatic  and  the  sociolinguistic  aspects  of
the  target  language,  ESL/EFL  teachers  can
help  learners  in  the  new  community  use
socially  appropriate  language  in  their
interactions  with  the  native  speakers  in  a
shorter period of time.
As  we  see  from  the  results  of  this  research,
the  interlocutors’  choice  of  language  is
affected by their cultural norms. Research of
this  type,  not  only  help  to  raise  the
awareness of speakers of a language of their
different sociocultural and pragma-linguistic
norms, but also can be used as guidelines for
ESL pedagogical purposes.  
Limitations  and  suggestions  for  further
This  research  project  had  a  very  small
sample  size  research.  The  results  may  not,
therefore,  be  generalised  to  the  whole
population of the speech communities under
study.  Future  research  on  a  larger  scale
would  be  beneficial  so  that  tests  of
significance  could  be  carried  out  and  the
results thus generalised.
Further  research  could  also  include  several
other  independent  factors  in  the  analysis:
gender  of  imagined  interlocutors,  age  of
participants,  length  of  stay  and  level  of
contact  with  Australians,  and  issues  of
power  and solidarity. Although we  gathered
data  from  an  even  number  of  male  and
female  respondents,  we  did  not  specify  the
gender  of  the  person  with  whom  they  were
communicating.  To  do  so,  four  sets  of  data
would  need  to  be  gathered:  female
responding  to  a  female;  female  to  male;
male  to  male;  and  male  to  female.  Age  is
also  an  influential  factor  in  the  choice  of
language.  Due  to  resource  limitations,  the
participants  in  this  study  were  all  chosen
from  the  thirty  years  of  age  and  above.
Further  research  could  elicit  compliment
responses  from  participants  in  different
generations to identify any differences  
Length  of  stay  and  level  of  contact  with
locals  would  need  to  be  taken  into  account
in  a  larger  study.  Because  of  the
confounding  of  these  two  factors,  and  the
small  number  of  participants  in  this  study,
we  simply  chose  only  participants  who  had

been  living  in  Australia  for  at  least  five
years,  and  had  at  least  a  medium  to  high
level  of  interaction  with  Australians.  It
would  be  worthwhile  to  study  groups  who
were  here  for  more  and  less  time.  Finally,
this  study  did  not  include  the  social
variables  of  power  and  solidarity.  However,
the  analyses  of  compliment  responses
revealed that these variables could affect the
participants’  choice  of  language.  Further
studies may demonstrate the effects of these
variables on compliment response types.

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