Complimenting Functions by Native English Speakers and Iranian EFL Learners: A Divergence or Convergence


University of Tabriz, Department of English, Faculty of Persian Literature and Foreign Languages, Tabriz, Iran


The study of compliment speech act has been under investigation on many occasions in recent years. In this study, an attempt is made to explore appraisals performed by native English speakers and Iranian EFL learners to find out how these two groups diverge or converge from each other with regard to complimenting patterns and norms. The participants of the study were 60 advanced Iranian EFL learners who were speaking Persian as their first language and 60 native English speakers. Through a written Discourse Completion Task comprised of eight different scenarios, compliments were analyzed with regard to topics (performance, personality, possession, and skill), functions (explicit, implicit, and opt-out), gender differences and the common positive adjectives used by two groups of native and nonnative participants. The findings suggested that native English speakers praised individuals more implicitly in comparison with Iranian EFL learners and native speakers provided opt-outs more frequently than Iranian EFL learners did. The analysis of data by Chi-square showed that gender and macro functions are independent of each other among Iranian EFL learners’ compliments while for native speakers, gender played a significant role in the distribution of appraisals. Iranian EFL learners’ complimenting patterns converge more towards those of native English speakers. Moreover, both groups favored explicit compliments. However, Iranian EFL learners were more inclined to provide explicit compliments. It can be concluded that there were more similarities rather than differences between Iranian EFL learners and native English speakers regarding compliment speech act. The results of this study can benefit researchers, teachers, material developers, and EFL learners.


Main Subjects


1. Introduction
Complimenting  is  considered  a  complex  sociolinguistic  skill  (Holmes,  1988).  Compliment
speech act is argued to be “worthy of study because it is ubiquitous, valued, and problematic”
(Knapp, Hopper, & Bell, 1984, p. 12). Holmes defined the compliment imperfectly—Holmes
did not take into considerations the ‘negative aspects’ (such as insults) of complimenting in
her definition and also she mentioned that compliments are ‘positively valued’ which is not
generalizable  to  some  cultures  such  as  Polish—  as  “a  speech  act  which  explicitly  or
implicitly  attributes  credit  to  someone  other  than  the  speaker,  usually  the  person  addressed,
for some ‘good’ … which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer” ignoring  the
negative  aspects  of  compliments  (Holmes,  1988,  p.  446).  Likewise,  Nkwain  (2011)  defined
compliments,  much  more  inclusively,  as  “a  positive  politeness  strategy  that  expresses
goodwill  and  solidarity  between  interlocutors,  although  compliments  tend  to  serve  other
functions, depending on the interpretation they  are  coded” (p. 61). The perplexing issues
surrounding  the  compliment  speech  act  are  not  as  easy  and  clear-cut  as  the  definitions  put
forward by Holmes and Nkwain. Compliments function differently vis-à-vis individuals and
cultures  throughout  the  world.  Many  Arab  people,  for  instance,  believe  that  compliments
would invoke the evil eye (Nelson, El Bakary, & Al Batal, 1993). For New Zealanders, it is
considered  inappropriate  and  rude  to  compliment  a  man  on  his  wife  since  the  illocutionary
force  of  the  compliment  view  the  wife  as  a  possession  (Holmes  &  Brown,  1987).  In
American culture, compliments act as a social lubricant, albeit formulaic, and are performed
to  create  rapport  among  individuals  (Manes  &  Wolfson,  1981).  For  Polish  speakers,  as
Jaworski  (1995)  argued,  compliments  are  considered  to  be  insincere  and  are  interpreted  as
“purely social act[s]” (p. 70). In other words, Polish speakers reject the complimentary force
of sentences.  In Poland,  therefore,  compliments are interpreted as both a  positive politeness
device as well as a threat to the addressee’s negative face since they may imply a desire for
the addressee’s possession or trait.  
Previous  works  on  compliments  illustrates  that  context  plays  an  essential  role  in
figuring  out  the  true  interpretation  of  compliments.  The  influence  of  compliments  on  social
success is compared with the role of oxygen in breathing (Knapp et al., 1984). Compliments
are  largely  subconscious  (Wolfson,  1981)  and  it  is  necessary  to  collect  and  analyze
compliment  patterns  across  cultures  to  avoid  cross-cultural  misunderstanding.  Compliment
can also be direct or indirect and requires interpretation beyond linguistic norms.
The purpose of this study is to compare complimenting patterns between native English
speakers  and  Iranian  EFL  learners  with  regard  to  topics,  functions,  gender  differences  and
adjective types used in utterances. To this end, the following detailed research questions are
(1)What  are  the  differences  between  compliment  functions  produced  by  native  English
speakers and Iranian EFL learners with regard to gender?
(2)  What  are  the  differences  between  compliment  functions  produced  by  native  English
speakers and Iranian EFL learners with regard to topics?
(3) What are the differences between native English speakers and Iranian EFL learners with
regard to the common positive adjectives used in compliments?
A  general  question  of  this  paper  would  be  to  address  whether  the  language  system  of
Iranian  EFL  learners  approximates  more  to  L1  or  L2  norms.  TESOL  programs  are  now
widely  practiced  in  Iran.  In  this  multicultural  country,  members  of  speech  communities
interact  with  each  other  using  various  sociocultural  and  linguistics  norms.  Therefore,  it  is
more  likely  that  Iranian  EFL  learners  would  follow  specific  conventions  of  their  L1  to
produce sentences in L2. On the other hand, there might be some divergence from the first-language  norms.  The  learner  language  may  be  more  inclined  towards  the  L2  culture  being
influenced  by  media  or  textbooks  that  are  produced  by  English  speaking  countries.    In  this
way, Iranian EFL learners’ utterances may be more similar to L2 norms, and speech acts used
by  learners  are  among  the  first  manifestation  of  this  influence.  Therefore,  a  comparison
between  the  complimenting  patterns  performed  by  Iranian  EFL  learners  and  native  English
speakers  would  be  fruitful  in  determining  the  learners’  preference  for  convergence  or
2. Literature Review
As  mentioned  by  Boyle  (2000,  p.  26),  “of  all  the  speech  acts  studied  by  researchers  in
sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and discourse analysis, few can have received more widespread
attention in the past 20 years than compliments”. The vast literature reveals that compliments
are studied according to the function(s) they play in interactions (Czopp, 2008; Maíz-Arévalo
&  García-Gómez,  2013;  Mustapha,  2012;  Wolfson  &  Manes,  1980),  gender  differences
(Herbert, 1990; Holmes, 1988; Rees-Miller, 2011; Wolfson, 1984), cross-cultural comparison
(Chen & Rau, 2011; Maíz-Arévalo, 2012; Sharifian, 2005; Wolfson, 1981), and compliments
at the workplace (Hudak, Gill, Aguinaldo, Clark, & Frankel, 2010).

2.1. Functions of the Compliments  
Among  the  current  studies  done  on  compliment  speech  act,  most  of  them  contributed  to
determine  various  functions  of  compliments.  The  study  conducted  by  Wolfson  and  Manes
(1980) is regarded as the pioneer one, considering the investigation of compliment functions.
Although Wolfson and Manes (1980) believed that compliments can have various functions
within  a  conversation  such  as,  inter  alia,  a  greeting  or  offering  a  topic  for  conversation,
American  compliments  have  the  primary  role  of  reinforcing  solidarity  among  the
interlocutors (Wolfson & Manes, 1980). Knapp et al. (1984) found out that compliments are
categorized  into  four  main  dimensions,  namely,  direct/indirect,  specific/general,
comparison/no comparison, and normal/amplified. It was also revealed that 89 percent of 396
American  compliments  are  categorized  under  the  direct  form.  In  an  interesting  study  on
Polish compliments, Jaworski (1995) proposed that Polish speakers do not maintain solidarity
by  means  of  compliments.  Compliments  are  considered  as  a  purely  social  act  and  are
interpreted  as  insincere  praise.  Polish  speakers  may  even  regard  compliments  as  an  act  of
cheating. Polish compliments have multiple functions such as reinforcing desired behaviour,
congratulating, information seeking, and teasing.
Some researchers, however, were not much satisfied with the quality of studies done on
compliment functions. Boyle (2000) critically mentioned that “a more balanced picture of
complimenting  is  required  and  that  the  neglect  of  the  study  of  implicit  compliments  should
not continue” (p. 26).  
After  these  groundbreaking  works,  many  other  studies  were  conducted  to  find  out  the
functions  of  compliments  in  different  cultures.  Czopp  (2008)  mentioned  that  compliments
might  not  be  welcomed  by  some  speech  communities,  such  as  African  Americans,  because
compliments  include  negative  stereotypes.  Grossi  (2009)  investigated  various  functions  of
compliments  in  Australian  English.  Similar  studies  are  done  on  Cameroon  Pidgin  English
(Nkwain, 2011), Nigerian English (Mustapha, 2012), Iranian EFL students (Sadeghi & Zarei,
2013), and Japanese speakers (Kondo, 2014). In all of these studies, an attempt was made to
find the function(s) of compliments in different situations.
2.2. Gender Differences in Compliments
A large portion of research on complimenting is devoted to the role of gender in giving and
receiving  compliments.  The  first  attempt  to  gather  empirical  data  on  gender  differences  in
compliment  speech  act  was  made  by  Wolfson  (1984).  She  reported  that  women  use
adjectives  such  as  adorable,  charming,  sweet,  lovely,  and  divine  most  often  in  their

compliments. More interestingly, it was understood that women receive the great majority of
compliments  both  by  male  and  female  speakers.  The  most  controversial  issue  that  Wolfson
mentioned  and  contradicted  sharply  with  Lakoff’s  (1973)  argument,  is  that  “the  way  a
woman is spoken to is, no matter what her status, a subtle and powerful way of perpetuating
her subordinate role in society” (p. 243). Holmes (1984) endorsed  that  compliments  have
various  functions  in  men  and  women  conversations  and  further  mentioned  that  females  are
more  apt  to  give  and  receive  compliments  (about  51%).  She  associated  this  feature  to  the
“women’s  positive  attitude  to  compliments”  (p.  451).  For  men,  as  Holmes  argued,
compliments do not function to maintain solidarity, as was the case for women. However, in
2002, Mojica’s findings provided counter evidence to Holmes’s findings. Mojica found out
that Filipino males’ compliments have the primary role  of  establishing  solidarity  with  the
females but “females want to assert their power in language” (p. 123). Another contradiction
in the compliment literature was addressed by Rees-Miller (2011). Unlike what was proposed
by  Wolfson  and  Holmes,  Rees-Miller  (2011)  suggested  that  in  goal-oriented  settings,  men
give  and  receive  more  compliments  than  women.  Nevertheless,  women  complimented  on
appearances  more  often.  Women  dominated  men  in  giving  and  receiving  compliments  in
unstructured settings.
2.3. Common Adjectives and Compliments
After extensive literature review, it was understood that there is paucity of research regarding
the  investigation  of  adjectives  among  the  appraisals.  The  most  well-known  are  the  studies
done  by  Wolfson  (1981,  1984).  The  amount  of  seventy-two  adjectives  was  identified  in
compliments  and  five  types  of  adjectives  were  recognized  among  the  appraisals,  viz.,  nice,
good,  beautiful,  pretty,  and  great.  Nice  (22.9%)  and  good  (19.6%)  were  observed  most
frequently in the data.  
Wolfson  (1984)  mentioned  that nice is  the  most  commonly  used  adjective  among
American  English  speakers  (23  per  cent). In  Wolfson’s  (1984) study,  good was  observed
more often after nice (20 per cent). The sequence of common five adjectives in compliments
according to frequency as revealed by Wolfson is nice, good, beautiful, pretty, and great.
2.4. Current Study
Literature  review  showed  that  there  is  paucity  of  research  with  regard  to  the  analysis  of
compliment  utterances  performed  by  native  English  speakers  and  Iranian  EFL  learners
through a written Discourse Completion Test. Most of the studies in the field have employed
different participants or instruments. Sharifian’s (2005) research is  one  of  the  best-known

studies  which  investigated  the  compliment  responses  of  Persian  speakers  of  Australia  and
native Australian speakers. In recent years, compliment speech act has gained the attention of
the  researchers.  Behnam  and  Amizadeh  (2011)  analyzed  compliments  and  compliment
responses  in  TV  interviews  manifested  by  Persian  and  English  interlocutors.  Likewise,
Karimnia  and  Afghari  (2011)  used  TV  interviews  to  study  compliment  responses  of  native
Persian speakers and Native American English speakers. In addition, more recently, Sadeghi
and Zarei (2013) studied compliments produced in Persian and English by a group of Iranian
EFL  learners.  The  current  paper  is  unlike  earlier  studies  done  on  Persian  compliments  with
regard to the variables of this study. Precisely, this study focuses mainly on functions of the
compliments, and topics and gender as two moderating variables.  
3. Method
In  pragmatic  studies,  data  can  be  elicited  empirically  or  can  be  gathered  naturally  through
conversation  analysis.  Each  method  has  advantages  and  disadvantages  (Bardovi-Harlig  &
Hartford, 2005). In this contrastive study, a descriptive research design was used. The type of
research  questions  and  data  analysis  used  in  this  study  pairs  with  some  of  the  underlying
elements of descriptive design.  
3.1. Participants
The  completed  forms  were  received  from  two  groups,  namely,  60  advanced  Iranian  EFL
learners who were speaking Persian as their first language and 60 native English speakers. As
argued by Kasper and Dahl (1991), for studies which employ a Discourse Completion Test as
the  main  instrument,  it  is  considered  appropriate  to  use  a  sample  size  of  at  least  30
participants.  Similar  works  have  included  less  than  60  participants  in  their  study  (Chen  &
Rau,  2011;  Lin,  Woodfield,  &  Ren,  2012;  Sadeghi  &  Zarei,  2013;  Sharifian,  2005).  In  this
study, the participants were equally distributed with regard to gender. Other variables such as
educational level, field of study, and age were also recorded for further analysis.  
Iranian  participants  were  mainly  postgraduate  students  and  a  small  number  of  them
were undergraduates from different universities in Iran, aged between 21 and 50 years. All of
the  Iranian  participants  were  studying  English  Language  Teaching,  Translation  Studies,  or
English Literature as their main field of study. It was preferred to use postgraduate students
to  ensure  that  the  situations  provided  in  surveys  are  understood  completely.  Undergraduate
students who were in the final year of their program were allowed to contribute.  
Native English speakers were mainly university students (26 non-degree participants or
high school level, 33 BA/BS level, 6 MA, 1 PhD). Ten participants out of 66 cases were aged

under 20, thirty two participants between 21 and 30, sixteen participants between 31 and 40,
and  eight  cases  over  40.  They  were  volunteer  participants  from  different  English-speaking
countries.  One  reason  to  choose  participants  from  different  English-speaking  countries  was
lack of native speakers’ availability. It is true that there may be cultural differences among
individuals but with regard to compliment speech act, there might be some universals among
native English speakers.
Moreover, although Iranian EFL learners and native English speakers do not share the
same  characteristics,  comparing  these  two  groups  would  help  the  researchers  to  find  out
whether advanced Iranian EFL learners’ linguistic patterns are similar to or different from
native speakers’ norms. In pragmatic studies, appropriateness is the key factor and native
speakers’ compliments are regarded as  a  norm  to  be  compared  with  Iranian EFL learners’
3.2. Instrument
A written Discourse Completion  Test was used to elicit data from  Iranian EFL learners and
native  English  speakers.  Appendix  A  has  manifested  the  DCT  employed  in  this  study.  The
application of DCTs in  pragmatic  and discourse  studies has not been without controversies.
They have been criticized for their non-interactive nature (Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford, 2005),
excluding  non-verbal  features  of  communication  (Kasper,  2008),  and  inability  to  record
subtle features of face-to-face conversations (Kasper, 2008).
However, despite the criticisms levelled against DCTs, there have been  arguments for
the administrative advantages of them. Golato (2003) discussed that the DCT allows “the
researcher to control for certain variables … and to quickly gather large amounts of data
without  any  need  for  transcription,  thus  making  it  easy  to  statistically  compare  responses
from  native  and  non-native speakers” (p. 92). The decision to gather data through  the  DCT
fits appropriately with the purpose of this study. It allows the researchers to have control over
variables and is time effective.
3.3. Procedure  
The  DCT  was  designed  in  English  and  two  native  English  speakers  and  a  specialist  in  the
field  of  pragmatic  research  proofread  the  content  both  grammatically  and  semantically.
Content validity of the tests was checked by the use of subject matter experts. The DCT was
then  modified  based  on  the  received  feedbacks.  There  were  eight  situations  provided  in  the
DCT  and  the  participants  were  required  to  write  down  suitable  compliments  for  each
situation.  Scenarios  were  developed  in  a  way  to  address  four  different  common  topics  of

compliment, i.e., appearance, possession, skill/ability, and personality. That is to say, for each
topic,  two  scenarios  were  provided.  In  addition,  respondents  were  asked  to  provide
information  about  their  age,  gender,  place  of  birth,  education  level,  field  of  study,  native
language,  and  email  address.  Power  relations  and  the  distance  between  individuals  were
excluded  from  the  study  since  they  were  not  included  in  the  research  questions  and  were
beyond  the  scope  of  this  work.  Respondents  were  also  allowed  to  provide  comments  about
the DCT. A synopsis of comments is provided in Appendix B.
Participants  were  informed  about  the  survey  and  purpose  of  the  study  mainly  through
two  venues:  1)  InterPals  that  is  a  website  for  finding  friends  throughout  the  world,  and  2)
Facebook.  The  questionnaire  was  posted  online  on  Google  Docs  and  the  completed
questionnaires were automatically sent back to our mailbox.  
Participants were required to provide written responses for each of the eight situations.
The  situations  used  in  the  survey  were  neutral  regarding  gender.  In  other  words,  it  was  not
mentioned whether the participants should compliment a man or a woman. They were simply
asked to mention how they would provide a compliment in different situations. It is true that
some  respondents  may  not  have  experienced  the  situations  given  in  the  survey  but  they  all
may  know  the  norms  through  which  they  should  provide  the  most  contextually  appropriate
response. Scenarios required individuals to give compliments to people of equal status. Table
1 reveals a synopsis of the scenarios used in the DCT as well as the related compliment topic.

3.4. Coding System
The  following  coding  system  is  adapted  from  Lin,  Woodfield,  and  Ren  (2012,  pp.  1491-1492) and some minor changes were made with regard to the addition of micro strategies to
make the classification more inclusive. Four micro strategies were added to the original work.
These  micro-strategies  are  no  acknowledgment,  appreciation,  reciprocation,  and  positive
non-verbal comment which were absent in the original coding system. Explicit compliments
are characterized as being generally direct and unambiguous positive statements that contain
at  least  one  positive  semantic  carrier,  for  instance,  pretty,  great,  nice,  good,  etc.  Implicit
compliments  are  those  remarks  that  do  not  possess  a  positive  lexical  item  as  manifested  by
linguistic  form,  thus  need  more  inferences  from  the  interlocutor  to  reconstruct  the  implied
meaning.  In  addition,  in  opt-outs,  individuals  decide  not  to  participate  in  providing  a
complimentary act.  
The  data  were  analyzed  and  the  compliment  sentences  that  were  gathered  through  the
DCT  were  classified  under  the  three  generic  categories  of  Explicit,  Implicit,  and  Opt-out.
Another  rater  who  was  familiar  with  pragmatic  studies  and  was  informed  about  research
questions  and  methodology  coded  the  same  data.  The  Cronbach  Alpha  reliability  statistic
showed the inter-rater reliability of .77, though not perfect yet acceptable. The coding system
that is used in this study is presented in Table 2.
Both  descriptive  and  inferential  statistics  were  used  to  analyze  the  compliment
sentences. At the first phase, the frequency of the macro- and micro-functions as well as the
percentages  was  identified.  Each  compliment  sentence  was  assigned  a  function  (Explicit,
Implicit, or Opt-out) and the number of different functions in each group was considered as
the total frequency of data in that group. For instance, the sentence, ‘That haircut suits you so
much. I love it’, has two  complimentary  sentences  that  should  be  assigned  a  function.  The
first sentence is ‘Explanation’ (That haircut suits  you  so  much)  and  the  second  sentence  is
‘Admiration’ (I love it).  Therefore, there are two implicit compliments. The rest of the data
were coded as such. In the second phase, Pearson Chi-square test was utilized to find out the
significance of differences with regard to the two groups of participants.

4. Results and Discussion
In  this  section,  the  data  are  analysed  according  to  gender  distribution,  topics,  and  the  common
adjectives  observed  in  compliment  sentences.  The  frequency  distribution  of  data  as  well  as  the
percentages  is  provided.  To  find  out  significance  of  differences,  Chi-square  test  is  utilized
wherever applicable.
4.1. Compliment Functions Based on Gender
The classification of compliment functions into three main generic categories (Explicit, Implicit,
Opt-out)  based  on  gender  differences  is  provided  in  Table  3.  Findings  revealed  that  explicit
function is the most common type of compliments by both Iranian learners and English speakers.
The most frequent macro function among Iranian EFL learners is related to  explicit compliments
(f= 333). Iranian female EFL learners, however, provided more compliments than men with regard to
total  frequency  (335  cases  vs.  323  cases).  Male  EFL  learners  are  inclined  to  use  explicit
compliments  more  frequently  (53%)  than  female  learners  (49%).  For  female  learners,  the  most
common macro function is related to explicit compliments (f= 163) and the least used function is
opt-out (f= 25) as was the case with male learners’ use of opt-outs. The analysis of data by Chi-square showed that gender and macro functions are independent of each other among Iranian EFL
learners’ compliments (χ2= 3.256, sig.= .196, p<.05). Therefore, it can be interpreted that gender
does not have an important role in the distribution of compliments among Iranian EFL learners.
Gender  has  not been proved to be a source of  pragmatic variation among  Iranian male and  female
EFL learners.

Female learners provided more ‘positive non-verbal comments’ in their compliments
than male learners. It was expected to observe the reverse trend since women were believed
to have a more conservative role in the Iranian culture. Thus, the results of Holmes’s (1988)
study  are  reinforced  regarding  the  fact  that  women  have  positive  attitude  to  compliments.
Iranian  female learners also provided more opt-outs and fewer acknowledgements in  giving
compliments in comparison to Iranian male learners.
Like  Iranian  learners,  the  most  frequent  compliment  function  produced  by  native
English  speakers  is  related  to  explicit  category.  English  speaking  men  used  explicit
compliments  (51%)  more  than  female  English  speakers  (42%).  Although  explicit
compliments  were  dominantly  used  by  male  English  speakers  (51%),  female  English
speakers used implicit compliments more commonly (52%).  
The  results  of  Chi-square (χ2= 11.469, sig.= .003, p<.05) revealed that gender has a
significant  effect  on  the  differences  observed  in  macro  functions  among  native  English
speakers’  compliments.  Gender  has  a  significant  role  in  the  distribution  of  compliments
among English speakers. Therefore, the second hypothesis of this study is rejected. There is a
significant  difference  between  compliment  functions  produced  by  male  and  female  native
English speakers.  
To answer the first question of this study, as summarized in Table  3 and Figure 1, the
dominant  macro  function  for  both  Iranian  EFL  learners  and  native  English  speakers  is
explicit  compliments,  except  for  female  native  speakers.  That  is  to  say,  just  female  native
speakers  were  more  inclined  to  use  compliments  implicitly  but  other  groups  employed  an
explicit  strategy  dominantly.  Overall,  female  native  English  speakers  also  uttered  more
compliments  than  other  participants  (f=  338).  In  this  case,  the  results  are  in  line  with  the
argument  put  forward  by  Wolfson  (1984)  and  Holmes  (1988).  They  proposed  that  English
speaking  women  give  and  receive  the  compliments  more  than  men.  Moreover,  Holmes
mentioned that “women use compliments to each other significantly more often than they do
to men or men do to each other” (p. 462).

To find out the significant of differences between Iranian EFL learners and English
native speakers with regard to functions and origin (being an Iranian EFL learner or an
English speaker), the Chi-square test revealed a value of .185 which is non-significant (χ2=
3.372, p<.05). Therefore, being Iranian or English (in the case of our data), does not have a
pivotal role in the variances observed between these two groups with regard to compliment
functions. In other words, both groups had similar viewpoints about using different functions
while complimenting.  
In  providing  compliments,  both  native  speakers  and  Iranian  EFL  learners  provided
some  comments  which  described  their  cultural  norms  and  values  and  the  way  these
conventions  would  affect  the  complimenting  patterns.  In  one  situation,  for  instance,  a
participant from New Zealand mentioned the following comment to compliment a driver for
his skillful driving:
(1) I would not compliment. I can’t really answer this one because I feel a cultural obstruction  with
mention such things to servicemen. I’m not too sure why.
An  Iranian  female  learner  provided  the  following  comment  for  complimenting  a  taxi
(2) I would give no compliment. I don’t want to start a conversation with a taxi driver, especially
admiration. I had bad experiences.
In complimenting a fellow in the bus, another Iranian female learner mentioned:
(3) No answer. I think there is no need to admire a person that I don’t know. 

In  Iranian  culture,  women  would  rarely  compliment  a  stranger  because  of  cultural
stereotypes; it may be regarded as ‘inappropriate desires’ in some circumstances. Thus, many
women avoid sharing a compliment with a stranger (a taxi driver can be a stranger). Eight out
of 15 cases in which Iranian female learners avoided to provide a compliment, were related to
complimenting a taxi driver.
4.2. Compliment Functions Based on Topic
Compliment  functions  have  been  analysed  with  regard  to  the  four  main  topics  of
compliments  (Appearance,  Possession,  Performance/Skill,  Personality).  Table  4  shows  the
distribution of functions based on topics performed by Iranian EFL learners.  
As shown in Table 4, Iranian EFL learners favored explicit compliments for every topic
except  for  personality  in  which  the  implicit  compliments  (64%)  overweigh  other  functions.
Compliments about appearance (66%) appeared most frequently among Iranian EFL learners.
Table  4  represents  the  distribution  of  compliments  based  on  topics  provided  by  native
English speakers.

As  related  to  native  English  speakers,  the  same  pattern  was  observed  as  Iranian  EFL
learners  though  with  different  frequencies.  According  to  Table  4,  for  compliments  on
appearance,  possession,  and  performance,  the  most  used  function  is  explicit.  However,  for
personality, it was implicit function (75%) which was used most frequently by native English
speakers. For possession and personality, participants provided more compliments than other
topics (f= 172).
To answer the second question of this study, for appearance, both Iranian EFL learners
and  native  English  speakers  provided  explicit  compliments  more  than  other  functions
(although  Iranian  EFL  learners’  compliments  outweigh  English  speakers  ones).  For
possession,  native  English  speakers  used  more  explicit  compliments  than  Iranian  EFL
learners.  Regarding  performance,  Iranian  learners  produced  more  explicit  compliments  than
native  English  speakers.  Finally,  for  personality,  explicit  function  was  the  most  dominant
type  of  compliment.  Iranian  learners  produced  more  explicit  compliment  than  English
speakers.  Figure 2 shows the differences between compliment functions produced by native
English speakers and Iranian EFL learners with regard to topics.

As  manifested  by  Figure  2,  direct  compliments  such  as  the  following  were  observed
more frequently in situations related to appearance:
4 (a) You look great.
(b) You look nice today.  
Likewise, for possession, Iranian EFL learners and native English speakers used mostly
explicit  compliments  but  the  latter  group  showed  a  higher  tendency  to  use  explicit
compliments. Compliments such as the following are among the most common ones:
5 (a) What a nice phone you have got.
(b) That’s an awesome jacket.
For  performance,  most  of  the  English  speakers  and  Iranian  EFL  learners  also  provide
explicit  compliments  but  for  the  former  group  the  observed  frequency  was  higher.  In  this
situation, the following compliments are observed as the stereotype:
6 (a) You have got a pretty handwriting.
(b) You are really good driver.  
For  personality,  however,  both  native  English  speakers  and  Iranian  EFL  learners
provided  the  most  compliments  implicitly  although  native  speakers  used  more  implicit
compliments such as the following:
7 (a) Thanks for your help (Admiration).
(b) If you have a gust, let me know to help you (Reciprocation).
(c) It’s crazy that we can get on so well after only just meeting (Explanation).
(d) Wanna grab dinner on me (Joke).
Opt-out compliments, in which there is no complimentary force, were mostly observed
in scenarios about possession. In this situation, Iranian EFL learners used opt-outs in 24 cases
while native English speakers employed this macro function in 30 cases. Therefore, it is rare
that one could see compliments such as the following among Iranian EFL learners or native
speakers’ compliments:
8 (a) Is it a new brand?
(b) How did you end up being able to write like that?
(c) New style!

4.3. Common Adjectives in Compliments
Compliment sentences were also investigated to find out the common positive adjectives. The
type  of  adjectives  and  the  frequency  of  each  were  analyzed.  In  Table  6,  the  adjectives  are
categorized  according  to  gender  of  the  participants.  The  superscript  figures  manifest  the
sequence  of  the  most  three  frequent  adjectives.  It  should  be  mentioned  that  the  number  of
positive  adjectives  used  in  the  corpus  was  virtually  unlimited  but  Table  6  shows  the  most
common  ones  observed  in  the  data.  Other  adjectives  such  as  sweet,  elegant,  graceful,  fresh,
interesting,  chic,  cute,  modern,  trendy,  fantabulous,  skilled,  dexterous,  smashing,
approachable, fabulous, attractive, wondrous, easy-going, social, super, expert, smooth, clear,
talented,  splendid,  pleasing,  girly,  magnificent,  generous,  fine,  dandy,  radiant,  and  helpful
were used only once or twice and were not included in the table.  
To address the third question of this study, for Iranian EFL learners, the most common
adjective which was observed in females’ compliments was nice (f= 38). Likewise, for male
learners, nice was the most observed adjective (f= 41). English speakers manifested the same
pattern too. For both male and female native English speakers, nice was the adjective with the
most observed frequency.  
According to Table 6,  Iranian EFL learners employ more varied positive  adjectives in
their  compliments  than  native  speakers.  This  knowledge  is  useful  to  recognize  how
compliments in English speaking countries are regarded as formulaic. Most English speakers
used a common set of adjectives in their compliments and nice, good, great, and cool, among
others, are mostly observed in their compliments. Iranian EFL learners, however, used  nice,
good, great, beautiful, and kind more than other adjectives.  
With  respect  to  positive  adjectives,  Figure  3  demonstrates  that  nice  is  the  most  used
adjective  to  show  the  positive  semantic  load.  The  results  endorse  Wolfson  (1984)  who
mentioned that nice is the most commonly used adjective in American English (23 per cent).
Regarding the most five common adjectives, as shown in Figure 3, among Iranian EFL
learners  and  native  English  speakers,  nice  was  used  with  the  most  observed  frequency.
Iranian EFL learners used beautiful with a frequency of 53 but native speakers used good in
their compliments in 34 cases. Great is ranked the third in both groups of participants. Iranian
EFL  learners  used  good  with  a  frequency  of  27  and  native  speakers  used  cool  with  a
frequency  of  30.  Finally,  the  least  observed  adjective  among  Iranian  EFL  learners  was  cool
while native English speakers used beautiful in their compliments in 12 cases

In  current  study,  great  outweighed  other  common  adjectives  after  nice.  However,  in
Wolfson’s (1984) study, good was used more often after nice (20 per cent). The sequence of
common  five  adjectives  according  to  frequency  as  revealed  by  Wolfson  is  nice,  good,
beautiful, pretty, and great. However, the results of this study revealed that participants used
cool  in  their  sentences  very  often  which  was  not  included  in  the  list  of  common  adjectives
proposed by Wolfson. Pretty was observed rarely in the adjectives of current study and it was
not  used  commonly  by  Iranian  learners  or  native  speakers.  Cool,  however,  was  largely
utilized by English speakers rather than Iranian EFL learners. In addition, cool was observed
mostly in compliments about possession.

Despite  the  availability  of  a  wide  range  of  vocabulary  to  show  positive  evaluation,  in
majority  of  the  compliments  used  in  this  study,  a  restricted  set  of  adjectives  and  other
semantic  formulas  was  used.  Regularity  was  observed  only  in  some  of  the  adjectives  and
verbs. Therefore, adjectival compliments such as the following were observed numerously in
the data:
9 (a) That’s a nice gadget you have got.
(b) You look beautiful today.
Although  many  of  the  compliments  in  this  study  were  of  adjectival  type,  some  of  the
compliments  were  comprised  of  a  verb  to  manifest  the  positive  semantic  load.  This  type  of
compliments  was  rare  with  comparison  to  adjectival  type.  The  most  common  verbs  used  in
the compliments were like and love:
10 (a) I like your outfit.
 (b) I love what you’re wearing today.
Adverbs,  likewise,  were  applied  to  manifest  the  positive  semantic  load  in  compliment
sentences. For instance, well was observed sporadically in the compliments:
11 (a) Wow! You drive really well!
(b) You are a well-educated man.
Intensifiers  are  semantic  elements  which  are  used  typically  in  compliments.  The  most
common intensifiers are, inter alia, ‘really’, ‘very’, ‘such’, and ‘so’:
12 (a) You are so sympathetic.
(b) I really like your new hair-cut.  

Finally,  deictic  expressions  are  another  common  feature  of  compliment  sentences.  In
effect, ‘demonstratives’ and ‘second person pronouns’ are among the most observed deixis in
this study:
13 (a) This new hairstyle looks so good on you.
(b) That is some nice handwriting you have there.
The  above  analysis  showed  how  Iranian  EFL  learners  and  native  English  speakers
produced  compliments  with  regard  to  positive  adjectives.  Gender  differences  were  also
investigated  and  the  Chi-square  test  showed  that  gender  has  a  significant  role  in  the  native
English  compliments  but  not  among  Iranian  EFL  learners.  Moreover,  there  is  a  significant
difference  between  Iranian  EFL  learners  and  native  English  speakers  in  producing
compliments with regard to gender. Origin, being an Iranian or an English speaker, also plays
an  important  role  in  the  distribution  of  compliment  utterances.  Compliment  functions,
however, do not have a significant effect on the compliment variation.  
5. Conclusion  
The  result  of  this  study  demonstrated  that  there  was  no  significant  difference  between  the
way Iranian EFL learners and native English speakers produced compliments with regard to
functions. In other words, there were more similarities rather than differences between these
two groups of participants as was observed in complimenting functions. It was revealed that
both  male  participants  in  the  two  groups  complimented  explicitly.  Iranian  female  learners
were also more inclined to compliment directly but female native speakers used compliments
more  implicitly.  Generally  speaking,  Iranian  EFL  learners  provided  more  explicit
compliments (f= 333) than native speakers (f= 305). Native speakers  were more inclined to
use compliments implicitly (f= 299) than Iranian EFL learners (f= 286). The results endorse
Brown  and  Levinson’s  (1987,  p.  248)  argument  that  “indirect  speech  acts  are  highly
conventionalized  in  English  means  that  in  most  circumstances  using  an  indirect  speech  act
implicates that S is trying to respect H’s negative face.” Iranian EFL learners used less opt-outs  than  native  English  speakers.  One  justification  for  the  dominance  of  explicit
compliments among Iranian EFL learners with comparison to native speakers is that Persian
culture  highly  respects  the  ‘positive  face’  of  people  (positive  face  is  the  desire  to  be
appreciated  and  liked).  Any  attempt  is  made  by  Iranian  EFL  learners  to  show  that  the
compliment is understood and welcomed perfectly to avoid  positive impoliteness (Culpeper,
1996), as positive impoliteness would breach the roles of an individual’s positive face. One
way  to  ensure  the  recognition  of  individuals’  positive  face,  as  is  the  case  with  giving
compliments,  is  to  resort  to  direct  and  unambiguous  compliments.  Similar  findings  are
provided by  Behnam  and Amizadeh (2011). They  proposed that compliments are made  and
responded to more often in Persian than in English. They further assigned this pervasive use
of compliments to the role of taarof in Persian culture.
Regarding  topics  of  compliments,  a  similar  pattern  was  observed  between  native
speakers  and  Iranian  learners.  Both  of  the  groups,  performed  explicitly  in  all  of  the  topics
except  personality.  Iranian  EFL  learners  and  native  speakers  used  implicit  compliments  in
topics related to personality. Moreover, as related to adjectives, although both groups used a
variety  of  adjectives,  nice  was  observed  with  the  highest  frequency  in  participants’
compliments.  As  a  difference,  Iranian  learners  used  beautiful  and  great  as  the  second  and
third most frequent adjective respectively but for English speakers,  good and great were the
second  and  the  third  adjective  with  the  most  observed  frequency  in  compliment  sentences
(refer  to  Figure  3).  For  native  speakers,  the  results  are  consistent  with  Wolfson  and  Manes
(1980)  which  suggested  that  good,  nice,  and  great  are  most  frequently  used  in  American
Therefore,  to  clarify  the  general  question  of  the  study,  results  suggested  that  the
‘approximative system’ of advanced Iranian EFL learners is more inclined towards  the  L2
norms  rather  than  being  interfered  by  first  language  structure.  One  possibility  may  be  the
influence of media on learners. Thus, it may be possible that Iranian learners have picked up
target language norms (in this case English) and integrated them to their sentences.
This paper suggests that advanced Iranian EFL learners, rather than generating creative
appraisals,  resort  to  a  set  of  precoded  formulas  to  provide  compliments.  Findings  reject
Wolfson  (1981)  argument  that  Iranian  speakers  would  include  ritualized  expressions  and
proverbs in their compliments. Wolfson’s findings may hold true for native Persian speakers
but  for  the  Iranian  EFL  learners  it  did  not  turn  up  to  be  true.  In  other  words,  Iranian  EFL
learners  are  influenced  by  the  appropriateness  phenomenon.  They  try  to  include  themselves
in the inner circle of native English speakers by adhering to the pragmatic norms of the target
language.  One  way  to  reach  this  goal  is  to  provide  formulaic  expressions  in  different
situations.  The  results  of  this  study  also  reinforce  Knapp  et  al.  (1984)  ideas  that  about  89
percent of American English compliments are direct (or explicit). Briefly, complimenting in
Iranian EFL learners’ discourse is influenced by two factors: (a) to maintain a positive face
and (b) to respect a culturally valued norm of being polite. Complimenting in native English
speakers  is  not  affected  by  emotion;  the  following  comments,  which  are  provided  by  some
native speakers, endorse this argument:

14  (a) I know that from a perspective of stereotypes, in general, people from the UK are ‘less
friendly’ to strangers, despite being a more collective society than the USA (Male from the
United Kingdom).
(b) We don’t tend to say things like ‘you were so kind and sympathetic’. Not sure why. I guess
many Americans don’t say ‘emotional’ things like that to most people. We might say ‘That
was so nice of you’ (Female from the United States).
(c) I can say with confidence, my circle of friends in New Zealand use compliments sparingly
among  one  another.  With  the  males  around  me  -  I  suppose  similar  things  are  true  across
other cultures - they show compliments, less with words, than with gestures of brotherhood
(Male from New Zealand).
In this study, an attempt was made to include every possible detail that was related to
compliment  speech  act.  It  is  important  to  say,  however,  that  the  participants  of  this  study
(regarding  Iranian  EFL  learners)  were  university  students.  The  ordinary  people  may  have
different  complimenting  patterns.  Thus,  care  must  be  taken  to  generalize  the  findings  to
overall population of Iran.  
There  are  some  areas  of  compliment  speech  at  which  have  not  been  covered  in  this
study  and  can  be  regarded  as  the  possible  limitations.  Compliment  response  patterns  of
Iranian EFL learners and native English speakers have not been analysed in this study and it
would be a good idea should to investigate whether there is any particular pattern observed in
their  responses.  Moreover,  distance  and  social  status  were  excluded  from  this  study.
Likewise, use of other data collection methods rather than a DCT, would provide important
results  regarding  the  nature  of  compliments.  Therefore,  more  studies  should  be  done  to  fill
the possible gaps and limitations that still exist in the vast literature of compliment speech act.
The implications of the  study are related to four  areas.  Firstly, researchers can benefit
from the results presented in this article  to compare and  contrast compliment speech acts in
other  cultures  to  find  out  whether  there  is  a  universal  pattern  applicable  to  all  cultures  and
languages. The second implication is related to material developers. It is possible to prepare
educational  materials  to  improve  learners’  pragmatic  competence.  Studies  like  this  can
provide  authentic  materials  regarding  the  proper  use  of  sentences  in  context.  Teachers  can
also benefit from the results of this study. Teachers relying on the results of this study, could
opt for providing authentic input and real language use for the learners. Most of the advanced
learners  are  grammatically  competent  and  know  many  vocabularies  but  when  it  comes  to
pragmatic competence, most of them will be challenged. Finally, the results of this study can
be useful for the learners who need to know how they can perform specific speech acts such
as  compliments.  Results  suggested  that  people  with  different  cultures  perform  particular
speech  acts  in  various  ways.  Hence,  being  aware  of  these  differences  can  help  learners  to
communicate more properly.
The  authors  would  like  to  extend  their  gratitude  to  Dr.  Abolaji  Mustapha  (Lagos  State
University), Dr. Parisa Niloofar (Bojnord University), and the two anonymous reviewers for
providing invaluable feedback on the earlier drafts of this paper.


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