Speaker beliefs and practices key to parsing an overblown compliment

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsA couple months ago I received the following email: “Dear Professor Kate, Thank you so much for your great contribution to the matter concerned. I hope and believe that you will be able to finish this hard task that no one except you can do, [someone] who is the most talented bilingual professor I have ever seen and have been most proud of in my life. I respect you.”

I’ll call the person who wrote this email Professor T. I’ve known him for more than 20 years, but I was nevertheless startled by his over-the-top message. To provide some context, the “hard task” was indeed a fairly demanding undertaking of about 50 pages of translation. On the other hand, the deadline was several months ahead and Professor T. offered good remuneration, as always. I wouldn’t say I was delighted to do it since it would take time away from other work commitments, and I probably would have said no if the request had come from someone I hadn’t known so long, but I didn’t mind doing it for him.

A flurry of questions occurred to me simultaneously as I incredulously read the email for the first time. Was Professor T. serious? Surely not. The “no one except you can do” likely indicated “no one except you was willing to do.” Was he being sardonic? Unlikely, since I was good-naturedly helping him out with the requested piece of work, and I hadn’t initially refused or behaved arrogantly. Did he think I would be pleased by the email? Probably, although I mostly felt discomfited. Would Professor T. write a similar message to a Japanese person under comparable circumstances? … Hmm — not sure.

Marketing researchers Xin Wang, Namika Sagara and Lynn Kahle made a study of ingratiation techniques, asking 164 American students and 130 Japanese students to respond to a variety of statements on a scale of 1-9. For some items, there was not much difference between the groups. Regarding the statement, “When an acquaintance flatters me, I feel happy,” the average score for the Americans was 7.5, while the Japanese participants gave it a slightly lower average rating of 6.8.

However, the researchers found significant differences between the groups pertaining to two items. The first concerned assessments of the “paradoxical flattery” statement, “When I put down my friends while they are standing next to me, they understand that I really am showing affection to them.” The mean score for the Americans was 4.1, but it was 6.2 for the Japanese students. And most pertinent to my case perhaps, regarding the statement, “Sometimes I need to make admiring comments even when I do not really believe the person deserves them,” the Americans rather strongly disagreed, with an average score of 2.3. Conversely, the Japanese respondents’ mean score was 7.7.

Taking another tack, sociolinguist Kayo Fujimura-Wilson examined compliments in 12 English book reviews published in The Journal of Sociolinguistics and 12 Japanese book reviews in The Japanese Journal of Language and Society. There were more compliments in the English reviews, which included 154 compared to 110 in the Japanese reviews. Moreover, when the frequency of compliments was compared to the number of sentences, there were twice as many compliments in English.

Positioning of the compliments also differed, with Japanese compliments more frequently appearing throughout the reviews. While 12 percent of the English compliments and 11 percent of the Japanese compliments appeared at the beginning of reviews, a much higher percentage of English compliments occurred at the end of the reviews. Thirty percent of the English compliments were located here, compared to only 14 percent of the Japanese compliments, suggesting that in reviews in English, compliments preformed a discourse function of bringing reviews to a close. On the other hand, instead of employing compliments at the end of their reviews, the Japanese reviewers often made comments on their future expectations for the author or the area of research, like, “It is expected that further studies will make contributions to achieve this objective.”

Fujimura-Wilson further categorized the compliments according to their targets, and found some interesting differences between those in English and those in Japanese. Thirty percent of English compliments concerned the analysis of the book in question, and 25 percent dealt with the contents. Slightly less than 20 percent were directed at the authors or editors.

The most common target of Japanese compliments was also the analysis, but only 20 percent of the compliments were of this type. Slightly more than 15 percent of the Japanese compliments were about the benefits to the reader, and another 15 percent were related to the feelings of the reviewer — for example, their enjoyment in reading the book. However, each of these categories comprised only about 5 percent of the English compliments.

Indeed, Professor T.’s email, with its lavish praise, seemed in large part related to the benefits to him of my acceptance of the task, and his feelings regarding me as the one who agreed to help him out. Undoubtedly, he must have realized I did not deserve all the accolades bestowed but felt the extravagant extolling was appropriate in the circumstances, though it seemed to me to take “laying it on a bit thick” to a whole new level of viscosity.

As in all my cross-cultural interactions, even when the wording is not what I might have expected, I try to focus on the well-meant intentions of the interlocutor. And as an observer of such cultural differences, the next step, of course, is for me to complete the translation, send it off to Professor T., and see what he has to say in reply.

(The next installment will appear on Aug. 4.)

■ Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.Speech

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