Doctoral Dissertations


Lang Yanxia

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Patricia Davis-Wiley

Committee Members

Bethany Dumas, Jeff Wilkinson


Previous studies of American English compliments and responses have suggested that the major communicative function of compliments in American English culture is to create and reinforce solidarity between interlocutors in conversations. The purpose of this study was to gather The University of Tennessee, Knoxville Mainland Chinese students' perceptions of and responses to American English compliments, in order to determine to what degree they understand the communicative functions of American English compliments given in various contexts. This study explored further the interactive effects of contextual factors such as status, gender, and particular compliment topics, on Chinese students' perceptions of American English compliments.

This study specified perceptions of the American English compliments as perceptions of politeness functions in discourse context. Data were obtained fi-om a questionnaire originally designed by the researcher. The questionnaire asked the Chinese students to indicate their perceptions of the various politeness and discourse functions of the compliments given in eight hypothetical situations, and to give written replies to them. Fifty Mainland Chinese students responded to the questionnaire.

The study found that the Chinese students in this study perceived American English compliments as formal politeness acts that were not to be taken for their truth values. They, therefore, chose either American formal politeness strategies (e.g. saying "Thank you") or Chinese formal politeness strategies (e.g. giving modest replies) in their responses. This study further found that status, gender, and particular compliment types were important contextual factors interacting to affect Chinese students' perceptions of the discourse functions of American English compliments, such as formality, seriousness, evaluativeness, and judgmentalness. For example, the respondents perceived the compliments given by high-status speakers on the topic of performance to be more formal, serious, evaluative, and judgmental than those given by equal-status speakers.

A major implication of this study is that Mainland Chinese students are sociolinguistically sensitive to American English compliments, and may be more so than Americans. It is important and necessary, therefore, that ESL teachers be aware of the cultural differences underlying particular speech acts such as complimenting, when they teach students from other cultural backgrounds to use English compliments.

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