Compliments and responses during Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore

Cher Leng Lee

This paper examines the act of complimenting and responding to compliments among Singapore Chinese. To this end, I explored naturally occurring compliment exchanges during the Chinese New Year (CNY) period. These exchanges are not only gender-sensitive, but age- and generation-sensitive as well. The CNY celebrations are governed by certain conventions, exchanging compliments being one of them. The conventional setting helps us understand the functions of compliments and the nature of their responses better, thus avoiding overgeneralizations. Compliments and their responses in the CNY context appear to play an important mainly phatic role. This study suggests that (a) married females pay and receive most compliments and (b) the most common compliment topic centers on their children’s academic achievement and potential career success rather than appearance (Holmes 1988) or possessions (Herbert 1991). In addition, most responses are of the non-acceptance type with downgrading, which is in line with findings from other researchers (see, e.g., Gu 1990; Chen 1993). A survey carried out on these non-acceptance responses shows that informants understand them as being largely conventional and formalistic rather than literal in nature, probably due to the conventional setting. This speech event of compliments and their responses is a mirror of cultural values (Manes 1983), revealing that the Chinese-speaking community of Singapore places high importance on children’s socio-economic success and practices conventional humility.

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