top of page

Compliment Giving in the United States.

Whether, how, and how often we give compliments is not just a matter of personality. Like so many of our behaviors, compliment giving is cultural and strongly influenced by our surroundings. In this blog, I will share my insights on the practice of complimenting in the United States.

Person writing "great job" on a glass board.

Why it Matters

 

Whether you’re an entrepreneur doing business in the US or a professional working with Americans, it’s important to be aware of the expectations of your new surroundings. But awareness alone is not enough. Awareness needs to be followed by actions – even if it means pushing the walls of your comfort zone.

 

Team members, colleagues, or students who expect praise will perceive the absence of compliments as a deficit. As a result, the mood of relationships can quickly turn negative.


For example, people from the DACH region, who tend to give compliments more sparingly, could be seen as cold and unappreciative. German speakers, on the other hand, may find American compliments superficial and not take them as genuine.


Such opinions can harm relationships and make cooperation difficult, even impossible over time. Understanding expectations and making the right adjustments to your communication is therefore essential for your effectiveness in your role.


Showing Appreciation: From "Thank You" to "Good Work"


A few months ago, I published a blog post on saying “thank you” – and about the fact that Americans show gratitude quite frequently. Another way of showing appreciation is by giving compliments.

 

A compliment is a verbal expression of admiration, praise, and/or respect. Here too, Americans are often more expressive than people from many other countries. In Austria, where I’m from, it is certainly not customary to compliment a stranger in the supermarket, at the bank, or at the doctor’s office on their jacket or shoes. Here in the US, that’s pretty common.

 

From my experience of living and working in the US through various stages of my (and my children’s) life and career, compliments are, however, not limited to the more superficial encounters mentioned above. In school, at university, and in the workplace, praise is more frequent and emotionally expressive as well.

 

Before I go into more detail, I want to broadly categorize compliments in two groups.

  1. The first category are comments on appearance and possessions.

  2. The second category is feedback on abilities, effort, and performance.


1. Compliments on Appearance and Possessions


wooden sign saying "compliment", with the letter "o" being a heart

In the US, compliments on appearance and possessions are frequent: Nice jacket! I love your shoes! When you first come here, hearing such words from strangers may surprise you and leave you feeling awkward. Why would a complete stranger compliment you, just like that? And how are you supposed to react?


Compliments on appearance and possessions are also exchanged frequently among friends and colleagues: I love your new hairstyle! That jacket suits you well! 

 

While they can certainly lift someone’s mood and make people feel good about themselves, compliments on appearance and possessions should be handled carefully in the workplace. In certain situations, or when given across ranks or gender, they could be misinterpreted or perceived as inappropriate.

 

In addition, in the workplace, compliments are opportunities to go deeper. I will talk about that more in the section 2. Compliments on Abilities, Effort, and Performance.


Why All These Compliments?


As someone from a more restrained society, you may wonder why Americans give compliments so freely. You may even find some of the praise shallow or insincere. Here are a few explanations that can help you better understand the behavior (and refrain from passing judgement).

 

  • First, the US is simply a more emotionally expressive culture than many other countries. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post on smiling. There is research that links the greater emotional expressiveness to the fact that the US is a diverse country with a population that stems from all over the world. People in historically diverse countries show their feelings more openly.


  • Second, it’s cultural and ingrained behavior. If you grow up in a culture where complimenting is a normal thing to do, you internalize the behavior and make it your own. If you get a lot of praise through your formative years in school, you are likely to turn into an adult that gives – and expects – praise. Culture is learned and passed on from generation to generation.


  • Third, especially with strangers, compliments are a way to initiate a light conversation and make small talk – another common cultural practice in the US. Small talk is usually focused on positive topics, which makes a compliment the perfect way to get started.


2. Compliments on Abilities, Effort, and Performance

 

Compliments that focus on people’s skills, their effort, and their performance play a crucial role in the workplace.

 

A compliment is a social reward that recognizes someone’s work. It fulfills the need to be accepted and recognized. In the HBR article “A Simple Compliment Can Make a Big Difference”, the authors say that neuroscientists have shown “that the brain processes verbal affirmations similarly to financial rewards.” Compliments make people feel valued.


woman holding post-it with the words "good work" written on them.

Genuine compliments also have the power to make the receiver feel good about themselves. We even incorporate compliments into how we see ourselves. In addition, getting praise can motivate us and improve our performance.


A sincere and thoughtful compliment can also help build and nurture relationships.

 

Overall, compliments contribute to a positive organizational culture. In another HBR article, “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work”, the authors refer to Gallup analytics, which “consistently prove that managers get the best performance from their team members when they identify what their people do best, praise them for it, and guide them into tasks and partnerships that maximize their natural talents.” Compliments are a way to avoid employee burnout and help with employee retention. People who are recognized are less likely to leave.

 

In addition, compliments don’t just lift the receiver’s spirits. They can also make the giver happier.


Add Substance


Compliments become more valuable if you make them specific. Excellent work! is a nice compliment. It is more thoughtful, though, if you add why you appreciate the work: Excellent work on that report! The information you've collected is really useful. It will be of great help to us as we move forward with the project.


Sincere compliments are not just empty phrases. They take some effort and nuanced communication skills on the giver's part.


Giving Compliments in Culturally Diverse Workplaces

 

The US is a diverse country and when you do business or work here, there’s a good chance that you will also interact with people from other countries. Maybe one of your partners has recently moved to the US from Mexico. Maybe one of your students (if you’re in academia) is from Japan. Don't let that stop you from giving praise. You may, however, have to change some of the variables to be culturally appropriate and communicate it effectively.


Feeling Awkward? 


tree stump with the words "you rock" laid out in small rocks

It's important to understand your new surroundings and adjust your communication style and behavior. The adjustments required to be effective can feel unnatural. You're struggling to come up with the right words in the moment.


It's normal to feel awkward or insecure when you first start giving compliments more freely. Even Americans are sometimes unsure about how to compliment skillfully.


Learn the language required to make you a better compliment giver, slowly expand your comfort zone, and simply give it a try. Once you've experienced the positive effects of your words of praise and appreciation, it will become easier and easier to say them.


Contact me if you or your team need help developing this or other communication skills and business practices. As a communication and cross-cultural coach, I can help you identify weaknesses and provide highly customized solutions for fast results – so you and your team can start to communicate more freely and effectively in professional situations.




Do you know anyone who would find this blog helpful? Share it with them! Thank you.


All rights reserved. Copyright © 2024 Transatlantic Coaching & Training, LLC.

Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page