’Giving compliments is a matter of practice’

March 1st is World Compliment Day. In general, compliments are a lovely thing, but they can be a little tricky. Even though something may be well-intentioned, it may not come over well. In her doctoral dissertation, the linguist Giuliana Santoro deals with the complexity of linguistic actions that are strongly influenced by context.

Ms. Santoro, what role do compliments have in interpersonal communication?

Giuliana Santoro: Anyone who gives a compliment is focusing on the positive aspects of their counterpart. We show that we are well-disposed toward someone, which helps us in coming across as likable. This creates closeness and strengthens the relationship - even if we don’t know a person very well. Sometimes people give compliments as a precaution, for example to ensure that they do not come across as jealous. It’s important to note, however, that if a compliment comes across as exaggerated or inappropriate, it makes the person seem fake and we feel as though they are making fun of us.

How can we tell whether a compliment is sincere or whether it is just flattery?

If the compliment fits the situation, it is probably sincere. The relationship you have with a person is the most important factor here. Imagine that a sales assistant in a clothing store tells you how good you look in a dress - then another customer comes into the store and they also compliment you. The second compliment comes across as much more sincere because it is of no benefit to the customer whether I buy the dress - in contrast to the sales assistant. In linguistics, we denote these types of spontaneous compliments as prototypical and they are normally the most well-received. In comparison, there are compliments that you receive on request: "What do you think of my dress?" - "It looks good on you." However, the difference between a sincere compliment and flattery is often fluid.

Something that is meant as a compliment may not necessary be received as such by your counterpart...

That’s true! Giving the right compliment at the right time differs widely depending on the culture. For example, in my home country of Italy it is a positive thing to say that someone looks youthful.

In China, on the other hand, this is not a compliment, as age represents wisdom - so you do not want to appear too young. As a rule, compliments on a person’s appearance are riskier than those on what they have achieved. What’s more, when you give a compliment, you reveal a lot about yourself and your own values.

What role do compliments play in Italy?

Compliments are very important in Italy! Without them, you feel as though something is missing - you don’t feel valued. This applies both when it comes to family and in general in society.

You’ve lived in German-speaking Switzerland for a few years now and you previously lived in Germany. What role do compliments play here?

They are not as common as in my home country, but for that reason it is safe to assume that a compliment is sincerely meant when it is given. It therefore has greater value. When my sister used to visit me back when I lived in Germany, she was confused and disappointed that she wasn’t receiving the compliments she was used to.

You come from a different culture in terms of compliments. Has this led to any funny situations?

A person’s cultural background plays a key role in determining how something is received. For example, in Italy you call a woman "signorina" not "signora" if in doubt. You can’t go wrong with a younger woman and an older woman will feel flattered. If you address a woman as "Fräulein" in Switzerland, this would not be taken as a compliment nowadays, but rather as a patronizing term of address. This example shows that you cannot simply translate compliments from one language to another.

Do Swiss people find it difficult to give compliments?

Compared to Italians, yes, a bit, as they need a little more time before they start to give compliments. They need to feel really secure in a relationship before they have the courage. On the other hand, people are also less used to receiving compliments.

Accepting a compliment is sometimes hard. What’s your advice?

Receiving a compliment can be overwhelming and you might even reject it by being modest. For example, you say, "Oh, my text isn’t all that good." However, anyone who gives a compliment wants the person they give it to to accept it. If someone reacts modestly, you reaffirm a compliment by reinforcing it: "The text is really very well worded."

Should you reciprocate with a compliment in return?

It is understandable for people to feel the need to return a compliment. It may be that someone first finds the courage to give a compliment after they have received one themselves. However, a reciprocated compliment is not prototypical and therefore has less of a significant effect, even if it is genuinely meant. I recommend that you delay returning a compliment rather than doing so immediately in the same situation, as it will be a surprise for your counterpart and will come across as authentic.

You teach Italian. Can you teach German speakers to give compliments "all’italiana"

It’s a matter of practice. To begin with my pupils find it embarrassing giving compliments, but once they get started, they really get into the swing of things. You can express yourself completely differently in a language other than your own, and you say things in a language course which you might never say in real life. I had a couple in our senior course a few years ago. He said "Ti amo" to her and she broke down in tears. She said, "He has never said he loves me in German." If you learn Italian, you should spend time in the "country of compliments" and practice receiving them.

Are you particularly generous with praise for your pupils?

Perhaps I sometimes even give them a little too much praise. On the one hand, I want to create a good learning environment, but, on the other hand, I do it very consciously so that my pupils learn vocabulary, for example synonyms for "bravo". This is simply a part of learning Italian. It’s a part of the culture. In linguistics we call this pragmatics and this can be one of the things it takes longest to master. You can’t learn it like vocabulary or grammar - and the learning process never ends.

Pragmatics is a sub-discipline of linguistics and deals with how language is used. In contrast to semantics, which examines the meaning of words independent of the context, pragmatics considers the communication situation in which a linguistic utterance occurs. The context therefore impacts the non-verbal dimension of the message. For example, if you ask, "Can you open the window?", semantically that means "Are you physically able to open the window?" However, pragmatically it means, "Please open the window."

Giuliana Santoro comes from the Molise region in southern Italy. She moved to Germany in 2007 to properly learn German, which she describes as her soul language. She has lived in Central Switzerland since 2013 and teaches Italian as a foreign language in senior grades in the canton of Uri (12 to 14-year-olds) and at the Language Center at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. In her dissertation she is investigating how linguistic actions in Italian textbooks are conveyed to German-speakers (Didattica degli atti linguistici nei manuali d’italiano LS indirizzati agli apprendenti germanofoni di livello A1-C2). The doctoral project is based in the Faculty of Italian Studies (Prof. Angela Ferrari) at the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Basel. She is therefore also a member of the Hermann Paul School of Linguistics (HPSL), the PhD program at the University of Basel and the Uni Freiburg im Breisgau.