Thursday 24 November 2011

Sugar and spice? What compliments reveal about women’s and men’s cultural values

Great playing today, Tom!

Men and women may be more equal today, but recent research on compliments suggests that their cultural values are as different today as they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Wow! Your hair looks great!
Research carried out in the late 1970s and early 1980s by researchers like Janet Holmes in New Zealand found that women friends gave more compliments to each other (and to men) than men, and that most of their compliments were about appearance, especially hair style and clothes. Janie Rees-Miller’s recent research found that women friends still gave and received many more compliments than men, and that these were still mainly about appearance. In fact what women valued most seemed to be the effort expended on their everyday appearance: they were more likely to tell a friend I like the way you’ve styled your hair than I like your lovely thick hair. The men in Rees-Miller’s study, on the other hand, gave fewer compliments than women, and the topic was mainly performance, especially performance at sports (for example, you were great in the game last night). Again, there is little change here from the results of the earlier studies.

However Rees-Miller’s research reveals a further aspect of women’s and men’s complimenting behaviour. The compliments that she analysed were collected by university students in the US Midwest, in two different types of setting. The results just mentioned concern compliments overheard in ‘unstructured’ settings, like the student snack bar or the lobby of the student dormitory, where people are free to choose what they talk about.  A second set of compliments was overheard in more goal-oriented settings, such as a sports practice or sports training. Here not only were roughly the same number of compliments heard from women and men, but both women and men gave more compliments about their friend’s performance than about anything else. 

Rees-Miller concludes that in goal-oriented activities men and women are indeed equal in that good performance in reaching the goal is valued no matter who makes it. In unstructured settings, though, compliments function as small talk, expressing approval and friendliness and often providing an opening for further conversation. They also reinforce shared values. The fact that men’s compliments in unstructured settings are still about sporting performance indicates, she argues, that sport embodies heterosexual bonding and strength for men. Women who are good at sports, on the other hand, face a tension between participating in sporting activities and taking part in more stereotypically feminine concerns. This explains why there are no examples of women complimenting other women on sporting performance in unstructured settings.

The difference in the number of compliments given by men and women in the two types of setting is equally revealing. Since it is only in unstructured settings that women give more compliments than men, men must have different ways of expressing friendship and opening conversations through small talk. One suggestion is that friendly insults may serve the same purpose for men as compliments do for women. A challenge for future researchers is to see whether there is any evidence to support this idea.

For English Language teaching resources and for a suggested English A level language investigation related to this topic click here.
Rees-Miller, Janie (2011). Compliments revisited: Contemporary compliments and gender. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 2673-2688.

doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2011.04.014

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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