Compliment Topics and Gender

By Parisi, Christopher; Wogan, Peter | Women and Language, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Compliment Topics and Gender

Parisi, Christopher, Wogan, Peter, Women and Language

Abstract: This article is based on a corpus of 270 compliments collected on a university campus in the United States. Like previous studies, this one found that compliment topics varied by gender: males gave females a higher proportion of compliments on appearance than skill and females did the opposite, giving males a higher proportion of compliments on skill than appearance. Two overlapping explanations for this statistical discrepancy were found: 1) females .feel a relatively greater need to be cautious when giving appearance compliments to males, for fear of seeming too forward or attracting unwanted attention; 2) social norms place greater emphasis on appearance for females and skills for males. While the latter explanation has been noted previously, the former, the role of flirtation, has received scant attention, despite its crucial role in compliment behaviors.


A number of ground-breaking studies have called to our attention various interrelationships between gender, status, and compliment behaviors (Herbert, 1986, 1989, 1990; Herbert and Straight, 1989; Holmes, 1986, 1988, 1996; Manes, 1983; Manes and Wolfson, 1981; Pomerantz, 1978; Wolfson, 1981a, 1981b, 1983, 1984; Wolfson and Manes, 1980). Other studies have sought to build on and extend this research, often by focusing on specific cultural groups and cross-cultural comparisons (Chen, 1993; Farghal and Al-Khatib, 2001; Henderson, 1996; Jaworkski, 1995; Johnson and Roen, 1992; Kerbrat-Orecchioni, 1987; Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk, 1989; Lorenzo-Dus, 2001; Marandin, 1987; Maruyama, 1997; Nelson, Al-Batal, Echols, 1996; Nelson, Bakary, and Al-Batal, 1993; Sims, 1989; Yanez, 1990).

Inspired by this research, students at Willamette University's College of Liberal Arts--namely, 14 students in Peter Wogan's "Language and Culture" course--collected compliments given in November, 2002 on or near the college's campus in Salem, Oregon. A striking statistical pattern emerged within the 270 compliments recorded. As Table 1 indicates, females received a significantly higher proportion of compliments on appearance from males than males received from females: 60.53% of all compliments given by males to females concerned personal appearance, whereas only 29.27% of the compliments from females to males concerned appearance. In other words, the pattern was inverted, with males giving females almost twice as many compliments on appearance as females gave males, proportionally. The other major topic category, skill, also varied according to gender: 56.09% of female-to-male compliments were about skill, compared with only 31.58% for male-to-female compliments. These topic-distribution patterns are more or less consistent with those discussed by previous authors, such as Manes (1988), who found that personal appearance compliments "typically involve women as speakers or addressees, or both" (p. 98; see also Wolfson, 1983, p. 90). Similarly, Holmes found that nearly twice as many male-to-female compliments were about appearance as skill (Holmes, 1988, p. 458).

Why are females on this college campus (and elsewhere) receiving relatively more compliments on appearance than males and fewer on skill? While addressing this question about distribution of compliment topics, this article should shed light, more broadly, on gender relations, language use, and qualitative approaches in sociolinguistics.


In this study, we--the students and the professor--focused only on patterns that could be quantified statistically, and we used qualitative and quantitative evidence to support our interpretations of those patterns.

Audio Recordings

To enrich contextual understanding, compliment data were captured on audio tape. For a designated two-week period in November 2002, 14 students recorded compliments as they occurred during spontaneous, everyday interactions on our university campus. The students carried hand-held, cassette recorders and recorded all their conversations, except classroom discourse involving professors (which would have complicated the data with age and status differences) and very private moments that students felt uncomfortable recording (though some such moments were not recorded, nobody reported missing any compliments during them). …

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