Complimentary Theory by Erin Berman


The research topic concerns the uses and effects of compliments in sender/receiver relationships, focusing the ability of a complement to increase or decrease sender/receiver valence.  For the purpose of this study, a compliment is described as: an expression of praise, admiration or congratulation.  The data was gathered by voluntary participants as well as through the observation of subjects.  The results show that the reception of a compliment is contextual, and depends on the power distance and relationship between communicators.  Data analysis demonstrates that compliments are a key variable in forming new relationships, and that they are more effective in increasing sender valance if the setting is informal.  Possible implications of data analysis are the small sample size and limitation of first hand observation in a variety of contexts.


Many people enjoy giving and receiving compliments. Our society encourages people saying something positive and kind instead of negative.  Americans often smile at complete strangers.  The idea behind compliments is that every person likes to be praised and appreciated.  Complimenting can build self-confidence in children and raise self-awareness when other individuals give you attention.  The idea that complimenting acts as positive feedback, and is useful in motivation, is commonly seen in education, athletic, parenting and business settings.

Although compliments can be useful, they are not always sent with good intentions, or received with thanks.  Some people are skeptical about the motivation of compliments, seeing them as insincere, patronizing or only used as means to obtain something.  Not all persons like giving or receiving compliments, as one source says:

“Sometimes I feel the compliment is insincere, which makes me insecure, because then I feel like the people around me are being fake.  Other times it’s too much praise and it makes me feel awkward.  Often I get a compliment and I don’t know how to response, sometimes I feel like they compliment me just to get a positive response and return the favor, which is insincere on my part.  And I don’t like giving compliments for the same reason.  Also, complimenting can also give people a big head and a big ego, or give people a false sense of security.”

— Danielle, 19, University of San Diego

Why are compliments so controversial?  And who has the right perspective on them—advocates or skeptics?  Both advocates and skeptics of sending compliments can be correct; the effectiveness of a compliment depends on the relationship between the communicators and the context in which they are communicating.  The ultimate goal when giving a compliment is to achieve the positive effects and prevent the negative connotations of complements from being seen as the sender’s intentions.

Complimentary theory looks at the nature of compliments to demonstrate normative behavior through reciprocity, increase sender/receiver valence, and the effect that power distance has in deciphering the intentions behind a compliment.  The compliment theory discloses contexts in which compliments are more appropriate, as well as how to frame compliments so that they are effective and well received.

Power Distance Index (PDI) that is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders. Power and inequality, of course, are extremely fundamental facts of any society and anybody with some international experience will be aware that ‘all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others’. (Hofstede, 1967).

The Power Distance Theory  is also relevant in any situation where someone has more authority or power than another.  This could include a teacher-student, parent-child, police-citizen as well as the boss-employee scenario.  The power distance index can be used to understand power and inequality between two individuals exchanging compliments.  The relationship of the two people has a direct influence to how the compliment is received.

The Cognitive Valence Theory (Guerrero, 2007) was created in order to examine intimacy relationships among colleagues, close friends and intimate friends, married couples and family members.  Intimacy or immediacy behavior is that behavior that provides closeness or distance within a relationship.  Closeness projects a positive feeling in a relationship, while distance projects a negative feeling within a relationship. Therefore, intimacy or immediacy behavior can be negatively valenced (creates a negative feeling in relationship) or positively valenced (creates a positive feeling in the relationship).

There are two options when looking at a dyad relationship with skewed power.  The first option is that the subordinate compliments the person in power; the other option is that the person in power compliments the subordinate.  In most human interactions, someone is has more knowledge, power, authority, popularity, money, understanding, or legality in a given situation.  This person is in higher position during communication, which can be seen by physical (on a podium, stage, behind a desk etc.) and cognitive (mental calculation) cues.

Keeping in mind the Power Distance Theory, as well as the Cognitive Valence Theory, compliments will be examined in different scenarios.  These theories are used in assumption that the communicators want to increase their valency, and that they are not in positions of equal power.

In the first scenario, the person complimenting the person in power has hopes to increase the way the other views them.  For this example, we will use a girl in middle school that is labeled as a social outcast.  She compliments a pretty, popular girl’s new haircut.  Her intentions are unknown by the receiver, however there are a few ways she can receive the compliment:

  1. FULL ACCEPTANCE: The pretty girl accepts the compliment and increases her perception of the outcast.
  2. PATRONIZED: The pretty girl accepts the compliment but feels patronizes.  She cut her hair two weeks ago, and doesn’t want to bother with the outcast, decreasing her perception of the girl.
  3. INSINCERE: The pretty girl does not accept the compliment; she knows the outcast is trying to become friends with her to gain popularity and she does not like brown-nosers.
  4. RECIPROCAL DISHONESTY: The pretty girl feels obligated to reciprocate the compliment, which is a norm of communication, and forces a compliment in response.  She feels uncomfortable and dishonest, therefore disliking the outcast even more.

Thus only scenario A increases valency of the sender, which is only a 20% chance of success rate.  Therefore, the outcast would be better not complimenting the popular girl, as she will most likely decrease her receiver valence.  Although she does not have poor intentions, her communication is eliciting a negative response and making her less-likable 80% of the time.

The reverse situation occurs when a person who has power and authority compliments someone who has a lower status.  An example of this is when a boss tells an employee they are proud of their hard work and their sale record of four cars in one week.  The employee feels excited, acknowledge, proud and secure.  The employee hopes that his hard work will be rewarded and he will receive a bonus or a promotion soon.  The employee will not feel the need to reciprocate the compliment or praise, and instead thanks the boss for noticing his hard work.  Thus the boss is has a 100% success rate.

Knowing who you should compliment depending on power and authority is only part of the equation to successful complimenting.  It is also important to know what aspects of people are safe to compliment without getting a negative response.  Alfie Kohn (1993) provides practical suggestions that limit possible damaging effects of praise:

1.  Don’t praise people—praise their actions

2.  Make praise as specific as possible

3.  Avoid phony praise

4.  Avoid praise that sets up competition

Looking at the previous examples and incorporating Kohn’s suggestions, it is easier to see why the outcast’s compliment was not well received.  The outcast used a generic phrase, “cute haircut,” and praised the pretty girl’s physical appearance, making the compliment seem shallow and fake.  On the other hand, the boss was communicating a genuine and specific compliment directed at the employee’s actions.  He generated a positive response and increased his sender valency.

In conclusion, complimenting does not have to connote negative communication.  If the person takes their relationship with the other person, as well as the context into consideration, they can use compliments as a positive and effective tool for communication.  There is no reason why people’s praise should be taken negatively, and if done correctly, it won’t be.  If in doubt, remember the Kohn’s suggestions, and use the ABC of compliments:

A-    Accurate: The compliment has to accurately refer to what has happened and what the person has done.

B-    Believable: The compliment should not be an exaggeration but realistic.

C-    Constructive: The compliment should refer to what the person wants to achieve and be useful for making progress. (Mastenbroek)

Remember that interpersonal communication is a dynamic and continuous process.  Think twice next time you give someone a compliment—make sure it is accurate, believable and constructive!  Be especially careful if the person is in a higher position of power, or avoid giving a compliment at all!  You will build better relationships if people value your opinion in giving honest, positive feedback.  When giving compliments, remember to smile and sound cheerful; having nonverbal cues that back your verbal communication is always effective.  Compliment honestly, sparingly, and smile often!


Burgoon, J. (2009). Expectancy Violations Theory. In A first look at communication theory, 7th ed (pp. 84-96). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dweck, C. 2006. Mindset, the new psychology of success. Random House. Print.

Geert, Hoofstede. (1967). Cultural Dimensions.

Guerrero, L. K., Anderson, P. A., & Afifi, W. A. (2007). Close encounters, communication in relationships. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Jackson, P.& McKergow, M. (2002). The Solutions Focus, the SIMPLE way to positive     change. Nicolas Brealy Publishing.

Kohn, A. 1993. Punished by Rewards: the Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s. Praise and Other Bribe. s. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Mastenbroek Dr. Willem. Learning to compliment effectively.

2 Responses to “Complimentary Theory by Erin Berman”
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