Tuesday 14 April 2015

Compliments across cultures

On the way home from the IATEFL PronSIG Pre-Conference Event on Friday, someone complimented me on my hair.  I felt pleased and I posted about this on Facebook.  (I have a rather distinctive white streak in my fringe which I've had since I was 18 and people often think I put in; in fact, it's natural ... and it's now the rest which is coloured!)

Anyway, this resulted in various "likes", and a comment from an Indian FB friend of mine whom I met and taught on a workshop for trainers of Indian call centre operators some years ago.  This is what he said:

"I would have complimented you on your looks, your accent and your hair - in that order. :-)"

While this is lovely (thank you, Indian FB friend!), I felt a bit uncomfortable about it, particularly the looks part.  This got me thinking about what it's actually acceptable to compliment someone on in my culture.


I would not feel comfortable complimenting someone I didn't know well on their physical looks - certainly not an adult.  If I was complimenting a child, it would probably actually be directed at their parent(s) - along the lines of "didn't you do well producing such an adorable mini-you?"  I don't think it's unacceptable to do that in my culture, but would be interested to know if anyone disagreed.

Why wouldn't I compliment someone on their looks unless I knew them well?  I'm not sure.  Is it because it's not really a person's choice how their physical features happen to be arranged?  Is it objectifying someone too much?

I've been trying to think if anyone I didn't know well had complimented me directly on my looks other than my Indian FB friend.  Aside from the very odd wolf-whistle whilst passing building sites in my youth, I really couldn't think of any time this had happened.

So, clearly, complimenting someone on their looks if you don't know them really well is just not done in my culture.  Apologies, Indian FB friend, but it feels a bit like being turned into a commodity rather than being valued as a person.

What about my accent?  

In my professional context, I have been complimented on my accent quite a lot, and this is the context in which I place my Indian FB friend.  I've always found it a bit odd - but not entirely, because my area is English pronunciation / phonetics (I edit a pronouncing dictionary) and people invite me to conferences to speak about that.  Some - one assumes - must think I have an RP accent (I haven't).  Although I doubt anyone from UK academia would compliment me on it, occasionally overseas conference organisers and delegates approach me to say how lovely my accent is.  I'm pleased they think so; I worked very hard to speak clearly, and am reminded of my dad picking me up on my accent and grammar when I was a child.  A compliment on my accent horrifies me much less than the idea that someone might approach me and express an opinion about my looks.

I do have experience of other phoneticians commenting on features of my accent in a more objective way.  One mentioned my diphthongal FLEECE vowel, for example, and Prof John Wells noted in a presentation we once gave that I have more glottal stops than he does.  Although I grew up in Kent, I lived in Yorkshire for eight years; occasionally bits of that seep in and people have mentioned it.

Clearly, accents are very important in forming impressions, as various matched-guise experiments have shown, and still a matter of great interest, as recent dating website surveys indicate.  Excellent communication skills are often listed as an employment criterion and accent probably plays a part in some employers' selections, whether it should or not (I'm not going to get into the argument about non-native speaker English teachers here).  But, aside from the odd bit of banter you get about the FOOT/STRUT split or BATH merger between northern and southern English speakers in England, it is only when someone is actively criticised for their accent that it really gets noticed in the UK as an issue.  For example, in an Ofsted report some time ago a teacher in West Berkshire was given as a performance objective trying to sound "less northern".  I find that objectionable, personally, and so did the Independent (and various other newspapers).  Outrageously, the superb Steph McGovern from the BBC Breakfast news, who is from the north east of England, was sent money by a viewer for elocution lessons.

But why do I feel is it unacceptable to comment on someone's accent, when clearly others do not?  One can change one's accent with much less physical intervention / surgery than changing one's looks.  Why should that be necessary if one is clearly spoken with a regional accent?  After all, everyone has one accent or other.

Have you had people compliment you on your accent, if you are a native speaker of a language?  I'd be interested to know.

Finally, my hair.  

I am entirely comfortable about being complimented on my hair. Or my shoes. Or my jewellery.  Or my clothes.  Or my choice of phone or tablet or other consumer item.  Or my handwriting.  Etc..

Is this because it is a conscious fashion/style choice, as opposed to something I can't change so readily?  That may be the case.  It's true that I have the white streak in my hair by an accident of nature, but I choose not to colour it, so it is a statement about me that I am choosing to make public.  Perhaps that could be said about my accent, too.

But - surgery and very clever contouring aside (and I don't do that - not enough hours in the day!) - I can't change my looks, and I don't want to be judged by them.


  1. I understand you perfectly, Jane, and even though I have always thought that you are beautiful and that your way of speaking is so lovely and soothing (owing to the fact, perhaps, that you are beautiful –beauty attracts beauty), I would never dare to say that openly because, although I believe that material beauty can sometimes help sensitive people to catch a fleeting glimpse of Paradise, I also think that it is both useless and insipid to play with your cards on the table, as the wise man said.

  2. Replies
    1. Slightly different angle on that one, John. Hers is about whether people compliment at all and mine is about what sort of thing it's OK to compliment people on. But thanks for directing me to it; a good read, as always.

  3. I too grew up in Kent, with both feet firmly planted in the mudflats of the tidal waters of the Thames Estuary. My accent has usually been scourged, like the enraged commanding officer who commented my future university career "you can't even speak English". I was nearly 70 before I got my first compliment: "You do this new thing awfully well". I had to read Rosewarne to understand it.

  4. "Have you had people compliment you on your accent, if you are a native speaker of a language? I'd be interested to know." I like that bit, and I have never thought about it. If someone come to me and compliment my Canto that would be somehow ridiculous.

    1. Would it? Interesting! Is this just not something Cantonese speakers would do?

    2. No. That would be awkward. Just as in any language you have people who are famous for having a flattering voice, but to boil it down to pronunciation alone would be over the edge imo.