The Other I

November 30, 2014

The subtle culture of compliments

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:43 pm

I think it probably goes without saying that all of us, whatever our culture, value compliments from some sources more than others.

Living here in Britain, I’ve come to appreciate that by the same token, some compliments reflect social class.  They may be delivered kindly but they clearly suggest that the person bestowing the compliment considers themselves somewhat superior.  When we were living in the Lake District, a woman whose accent resembled that of Prince Charles complimented me on the quality of the insulation she saw I was installing on one of our outside walls, and encouraged me to continue with “the good work.”

I can tell you without a doubt that I knew far more about insulation than she did.  But she fancied herself as one of the Great and the Good.  She probably handed out turkeys for Christmas dinner to the peasants working on the fields of her estate.  Personally I found her patronizing and pretentious.

This morning, however, after I bought our Sunday paper from our local newsstand, I had a horrible thought.  The newsboy is new, from Sri Lanka, I think, and is simply lovely.  When I make a purchase, I generally thank him and wish him a good day.  This morning I also asked him how much longer he had to work, and when he said he’d almost finished for this Sunday, I mentioned that he had a lovely sunny day in front of him, and said I hoped he’d enjoy it.

Pretty innocuous, you might think. And it was.  But I had the terrible thought, that with my American accent here in England, and speaking to a young immigrant just making his way, I sounded exactly like one of those pretentious, patronizing superior types I so despise.  By and large, the English do not give out compliments the way Americans do, and I’ve been aware recently that I have embarrassed several people simply expressing my appreciation for a job exceptionally well done.

Who know how many times I’ve put my foot in my mouth?.



  1. We are very socially awkward round here (especially me). Learning to say “you’re welcome” was a huge relief.


    Comment by sanstorm — December 1, 2014 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

    • Oh Sanstorm – the “socially awkward” inhabit the entire globe! We are everywhere. I sometimes think, as well, that people who are particularly sensitive to social nuances are sometimes the ones who feel the most awkward because they are aware when they do not understand or actually misread something. The less sensitive simply sail through untroubled by the thought that they have possibly got it wrong.

      And of course, our globalizing world makes the process even more complicated. I remember when we were living in Spain thinking that Spaniards were terrible liars and never kept their promises — until I realized that the translation of “manana” which I had learned in school should not have been “tomorrow,” but more accurately should be understood to mean “later.”

      But along with being a challenge, our differences are fascinating, aren’t they? And sometimes actually downright enlightening. Thank you, btw, for this particular comment. I rather feel I recognize a companion traveller through this social world of ours. Terry

      On Mon, Dec 1, 2014 at 1:55 PM, The Other I wrote:



      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 1, 2014 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

      • I remember very vividly the culture clash when The Disney Store came to Glasgow. They had a person at the door to say Hello as you entered the story. Horrors! Very unscottish. We prefer staff to pretend they can’t see you until you say ‘excuse me’ ask them a question. The threat of eye contact on entry was almost enough to keep me out the Disney Store!!


        Comment by sanstorm — December 4, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

  2. While the effusiveness of the compliment could be adjusted for the contextual nuances, being generous with compliments is so simple that many of us omit to do it. I like the American way of giving bouquets or brickbats straight off.



    Comment by tskraghu — December 2, 2014 @ 2:51 am | Reply

    • Thank you in return for your comment. I’ve been walking around thinking that I am socialized as an American. That’s for better and for worse. I might understand more about other cultures – especially the ones I’ve lived in (and in the case of an English husband “lived with”). I continue to learn a lot. But I can’t – and don’t want to – become a complete chameleon. Your comment helps me remember that.

      On Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 2:51 AM, The Other I wrote:



      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 2, 2014 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: